The Following is an Essay by Member William:
It is very possible that Donald Trump will be nominated by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate. The most recent poll shows him with 36% support, compared to 16% for his nearest rival. He has far from a majority of support; but since the Republicans have many more winner-take-all primaries than do the Denocrats, 36% may well get him the nomination. As some of the lesser candidates in polling drop out, I would imagine that he will get at least a bit of their support, thus moving closer to 50%. If he ever gets to 50%, he will win the nomination, as strange and unsettling as this would be.
Trump’s big advantage in this race is that the “conventional” Republican candidates, the ones who hold office, are so absolutely insipid and unexciting, even to the party supporters. He stepped into a vacuum that no one realized was so large. And even though his candidacy always seemed like a joke, or a publicity stunt, I have seen enough strange candidates come out of my usually responsible state of California, and actually win, that it isn’t all that surprising. I remember my parents being stunned that George Murphy, whom they described as a mediocre actor and song and dance man, got elected Senator here. And of course Ronald Reagan parlayed his success in “B” movies, and spokesman for General Electric in radio commercials, to Governor and then two-term President. Arnold Schwarzenegger moved from bodybuilding and action movies to Governor; apparently he is back doing action movies; and I just saw him doing an ad for an action video game. So this is unfortunately not as unusual as some might think.
The appeal of Donald Trump is both obvious and extremely disconcerting. He is, at least through his campaign statements, a would-be dictator and fascist. He seems to believe that he can run the country like he can a business which he owns. He has a poor teenage student’s grasp of actual governance, history, or social realities. But of course for many people, therein lies his appeal.
Trump is actually the latest in a long line of American demagogues who rose to potential presidential power. Huey Long is one that immediately comes to mind when one considers Trump. There were also the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul. This country seems to manufacture a number of them. What is the weird, fascinating and repellent appeal of such people? I would suggest a few themes which run through the philosophical fabric of this country, which can at least help to illuminate the appeal of Trump to certain segments of the voting public.
“He’s Just Like Us.”
Trump has this skill of seeming just like the guy down the block, albeit a billionaire one. How much of this is an act, how much of this is real, is anyone’s guess. He’s got that New York accent; he blusters, and complains, and jokes around. He does not use “political speak,” those measured cadences which most people are tired of hearing. He talks like a regular Joe. He can talk about football, or watching TV, or getting stuck in traffic. One must admit that even among those of us who think he is very dangerous and very ignorant, he is sort of fun to listen to–for at least a few minutes.
And most of these demagogues, excluding McCarthy, were fun to listen to. Huey Long had a folksy charm. Ross Perot was a strange person, a sort of ultra-rich crackpot; but he was entertaining, when he did those infomercials. Trump gives the viewer some bang for his watching buck, and that is all that many would-be voters actually want.
“I Am Oz, The Great and Powerful”
That was what the man behind the curtain said, through a flaming ball of fire which he had concocted out of a science class trick. And of course it was very effective, creating the illusion of greatt power, and cowing the masses. Even more importantly, the inhabitants of Oz looked to the Wizard to solve all their problems, and to give them the things which they most desperately wanted, and could not otherwise obtain.
The myth of one person, wizard or king, who can literally or figuratively wave his hands, and solve all the complex problems, exerts a strong draw upon almost everyone, even if you realize that it is simply an illusion, or a pretense. When we are young, we look to our parents to solve everything. When we are older, we wistfully wish for someone to cut through all the complexities of life, and make the problems go away. Thus the appeal of cults to many people who ironically had become disillusioned by conventional religion, and had a great cynicism about the words of political leaders. Many of them fell into various sects run by a self-styled sage or charismatic charlatan. Many still do so, as we know.
So here is Trump, who has the ignorant but brazen person’s certainty that he can easily fix things that far more intelligent people struggle with. Again, how much of this is what he actually thinks, and how much is just a performance, is hard to discern. But for every national or international issue, he has a quick and belligerent solution. Immigration a complex and sensitive matter? He’ll build a large wall across the border. Terrorism frightening and disconcerting the populace? He’ll just wipe them out in some fashion, and that will be that. Worries about the economy and jobs? He’ll create many millions of jobs, though he has no specifics. He’ll go right past the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, to get things done And people who get frustrated with all the gridlock in Washington, and all the things which don’t get done, think that Trump the CEO can cruise right through it all.
“Step Right Up, Ladies and Gentlemen”
Who doesn’t love a carnival, at least before one becomes attuned to the con game involved? Even so, being knowingly conned for a few bucks can still be fun; why else do people go to Vegas? The appeal of the effective carnival barker is that he makes his potential patrons feel that something exciting and wonderful is beyond the entrance gate. Things never before seen! Amazing tricks! Wondrous surprises!
There is a kind of ennui which sets in when a populace gets jaded with the popular forms of entertainment. There are so many shows, so many movies, so many musical peformers using autotune, and singing versions of the same song. People want novelty, they want hype. They want the new great thing, in what they watch, and the products they buy. I admit to very occasionally turning on one of the shopping network channels; I never buy anything, but the sales pitches are interesting. One would not believe how many different beauty treatments they try to sell, always with some super-new ingredient derived from the cactus plant or a melon. They are always hawked as “something new and amazing, to rejuvenate your skin; a mixture of a dozen rare ingredients.” Really, not much different from those bottles of colored water that were sold to the gullible at any public event.
So what we have are voters looking for something new and exciting. I well remember Susan Sarandon, well known disliker of Hillary Clinton, saying of her favorite, Obama, that “I don’t know what he will do as president, but it will be exciting.” And I am sure that others thought that, too; he was an unknown quantity; most of his campaign was “hope and change.” And so now comes Trump; and many people want to believe his hype, and his vague promises of having solutions which will make all the difficult problems go away, if only they will buy what he is selling. It is both very sad and very frightening, that there are many voters who will vote for Trump simply because he will provide a new form of entertainment for them.
The Myth of the CEO President
Americans have always had a fascination with business tycoons, the so-called “captains of industry.” From John D. Rockefeller, to Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and on, people here have generally had a high admiration for what they see as the risk-taking, will to power, and even ruthlessness of those who rose to immense wealth in the business world. Calvin Coolidge once famously said, “The business of America is Business,” and that seemed to be so true–until it all collapsed in the stock market crash, and a third of the populace was ultimately out of work, and reduced to selling pencils or apples on the streets.
In some sense, the business giants are our royalty; not inheriting it, but rising to the top through what is often seen as the American values of daring and resourcefulness. And so we have long flirted with the idea of a businessman being president; the concept being that someone who can make a fortune in the corporate world, could effectively run the country. However, running one’s own company is far different than running a country. Further, a business leader might be able to get away with a tyrannical running of a company he owns, where he has absolute power. But in politics and governance, one has to compromise, and seek a lawful middle ground, as much as that chafes at some people’s sensibilities. We are a democracy, at least in intention, with many checks and balances put into the Constitution by the country’s founders. A business leader’s background is actually inimical to what is needed to govern the country.
But the appeal to many still remains. From Lee Iacocca to Ross Perot, now recently to Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump, there are many Americans who pine for a businessperson to “get things done.” It’s a mytn, of course, but a pervasive one. And actually Donald Trump, or at least the companies he owned, declared bankruptcy four times. A government doesn’t get a corporatist’s cushy landing out of taking advantage of the bankruptcy laws. The economic fabric of the country is destroyed, and tens of millions of people lose their jobs and savings.
Politics is Entertainment
The line between politics and entertainment is increasingly disappearing. Actually, the line between anything and entertainment is vanishing as well. One could easily write a book about all of this; the way that everything is sold as spectacle; the way that the TV networks will do virtually anything to get people to watch a dumbed-down and hyped-up version of reality.
We know that political campaigns are now turned into sporting events by the networks. It is not about issues, or nuanced stands; it is about excitement, tension, outlandish claims and stories. The people who own the media do not care how far they distort the truth, or ramp up phony stories; they want you to be compelled to watch the shows. After every political campaign, the pundits sententiously agree that yes, the coverage focused too much on meaningless personality stories or outright falsehoods–and then like perpetual addicts, they do it again in the next cycle. They want a close race; they want bombastic coverage; they want larger than life personalities. And of course they want the Republicans to win, since they are very wealthy entities whose owners all adhere to the religion of corporate wealth and laissez-faire economics.
What this has to do with Trump, is that he “sells tickets,” “brings eyeballs to the screen.” He guarantees a large audience for any show he is on. Of course, he had his own TV show; he knows how to sell it. When did the media ever want to cover issues? They want to cover Trump. And so, for all these various reasons, they will not even bother or dare to question Trump’s outlandish claims, completely erroneous facts, utter lack of understanding of how the government works, or how any of his so-called policies would actually fare if implemented. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” was a title of a famous book about marketing and business. Trump is all sizzle, no steak, no nourishment. But the media willfully ignores all of this, because Trump is a media sensation. And if the country has to ultimately learn the absolute horror which lies beneath Trump’s agenda and biases; well, it will not bother the media moguls too much; they are incredibly wealthy, and can survive economic and societal catastrophe. And besides, they cancel shows all the time. Maybe their next one will be a real-life version of “Mad Max.”
So while Donald Trump is at times laughable, and at times entertaining in a blowhard kind of way, the danger of his candidacy cannot at all be discounted. He appeals to something latent in the American psyche–the wish for an appealing kind of certainty; the man of action and high commerce sweeping through the tangled thicket with a machete; defeating the enemies, and solving all the problems which threaten to overwhelm us. Besides, “it would be exciting,” wouldn’t it? No. Real life, and real governance is not a television show or a movie. Those are escapism. Life does not become cheap entertainment, nor should old-time huckerstism and phony shillery become the way in which this country is governed. This is not some kind of video game which you can turn off if you are losing. And when the flim-flam show is over, the carnival barkers are left to count up their profits, pack up their tents, and move to another place, in their endless search for new suckers to fleece.
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