Why do you watch sports on television? It's the only thing that happens on television. It actually occurs; that's why you can't stop watching it. Trump occurs. That's why we can't take our eyes off him.In 1939, Robert Hutchins, boy wonder president of the University of Chicago, abolished its football program. I once asked another president of a major American university if he believed a semi-pro athletic program was a good fit inside "the academy," and how it could be justified. He replied, "I've always just considered it an anomaly."
-- Ron Suskind, on Chris Lydon's "Radio Open Source," September 8, 2016
Is that how we should think about a Donald Trump inside the American political system? As an anomaly?
Of course, part of the answer lies with his squirrels. But it's so much more.
For starters, there are solid, conventional explanations for what we have been doing to our politics ever since the Democratic Party joined the Republicans in ignoring the plight of the poor, working poor, beating back the unions that once enabled the working class to create a middle class, and then relying on the 1% to pay the party's bills. Both parties failed to listen, and thus did not hear, the mounting public despair, disgust, and distrust that the parties created, and had by this year risen well above flood stage to rage. The Democratic Party's leadership refused to budge, even as primary and poll results revealed the state of the union was a demand for change, for representation, and a rejection of the establishment.
The Democrats offered a disaffected public their party's most quintessential establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, with her 1950's-style campaign, and the second highest negatives of any presidential candidate ever. They had to have seen her struggle trying to best two of the nation's most unlikely presidential candidates -- Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders showed the Democrats what they had to do to win, how to generate not just numbers of voters but enthusiastic voters, how to attract new members from independents and first-time voters, and how to crowd-fund a presidential campaign with $27 contributions rather than billionaires. Not only did they not support him, or learn from him, or even thank him, they affirmatively fought him at every turn.
Then, of course, there's Hillary's familiar 30 years of baggage.
Who is this guy? What is he doing? Why is he doing it? How come so many Americans are supporting him? Are there any explanations?
In fact, there are an increasing number of theories as to how Donald Trump seems to have single-handedly bent what was once the American democratic process to his own ends.
One of my earlier theories emerged during conservative Hugh Hewitt's interview with Trump:
Hugh Hewitt (HH): You said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.See, e.g., "Trump Might Not Be Blundering in Race," September 9, 2016; and "Understanding Trump," OpEdNews, August 29, 2016.
Donald Trump (DT): No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS.
. . .
HH: I think I would say . . . they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn't create ISIS. That's what I would say. . . . I'd just use different language to communicate it.
DT: But they wouldn't talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?
HH: Well, good point.
In other words, Trump's serious, presidential campaign strategy -- or perhaps just his personal, narcissistic goal -- may simply be to ensure he remains a visible ingredient in the media's ever-bubbling pot. There are very few ways for even America's most highly paid, skilled publicists to accomplish that. Trump has found, and seems to be comfortable with one of them: an outpouring of shocking assertions in colorful language, even if it often requires that he roam well outside the ample tent of truth.
Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind provided a thoughtful expansion on my mere modest hunch, in an interview with one of America's brightest and most thoughtful talk show hosts: Chris Lydon, on WBUR's "Open Source." “Election 2016: Unreality T.V.,” September 8, 2016.
As Suskind explained,
"He [Trump] understands that the reality-based community is now being replaced by reality show values. And he knows how those work.And a part of what you're watching are his almost constantly changing facial expressions -- a practiced skill of those who spend much time before a camera.
Here are some of the principles. Try to make sure it happens on the screen. Try to evolve, or devolve; just keep moving. Make sure their eyes are always on you. Make sure, even if what you say is nonsensical, and you flip back later and say 'I lied,' or 'I was wrong,' that they can't take their eyes off of you. . . .
Why do you watch sports on television? It's the only thing that happens on television. It actually occurs; that's why you can't stop watching it. Trump occurs. That's why we can't take our eyes off him.
And he understands that that's power. He flip flops four times in a day. Did he say it? Did he not say it? Is he taking it back? There's four different news stories between the morning and the night.
Hillary Clinton, what did she do that day? Was she even working?
He's got another day when you're only thinking about what Trump thinks, feels, or is going to say next. And because he occurs, actually happens in front of your eyes, you can't stop watching."
It's also possible, of course, that Trump was introduced at Wharton, and has long been, a student of Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th Century guidebook for tyrants, The Prince (1513) (Wikipedia: "Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics."), or other literature by and about more recent dictators.
Suskind's point could be made, or expanded, to include the concept of "narrative," or "story;" or perhaps the distinction between appeals to emotion and appeals to intellect, which President Reagan so well understood. But Trump doesn't just "tell stories" -- Trump is the story, an ongoing story, like a soap opera, or episodic television series.
We love stories -- from Greek and Norse mythology, to Bible stories, to modern day comic book, film and television heroes. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Donald Trump may be playing, and Americans may be seeing him as, the World War II patriotic super-soldier and national savior, Captain America.
The childhood lessons from Aesop's Fables to The Little Engine That Could stick with us, and may be played out by us even as unaware adults. (The National Education Association once named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children.")
Yes, give Americans a choice between a feature film or TV show of their liking and a serious and significant lecture (or political speech) and most will prefer the movie or TV show. Even on the rare occasions when serious subjects make it into the newspapers or onto our TV screens, many journalists (and politicians) will lead with the personal details of a single individual's experiences, their story.
Hillary's political speeches, and serious policy proposals, are now trying to compete with Trump's entertainment, and story.
It's not easy to get the kind of crowd for a political speech that is attracted to a rock concert, or whomever happens to be the most popular stand-up comic of the year. Frank Mankiewicz, campaign director for Senator George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, frustrated with the lack of media coverage, once made the point by saying he wanted to hire a campaign arsonist. The arsonist's job would be to set a fire in the early afternoon, wait for the TV trucks to arrive, cue McGovern to begin his speech, and hope that at least 30 seconds of it might make the evening news programs along with pictures of the fire.
As Suskind points out, Trump is doing the equivalent of setting four fires a day without ever striking a match.
Mark Hannah headlines that Trump is, in fact, a novelist, and that the presidential election is less about political choices than choices between fantasy and reality. He says of Trump's resistance to "inconvenient facts":
"We saw this resistance . . . when Trump denied that his campaign manager manhandled a reporter when video footage indicated otherwise. . . . [W]hen he claimed that the 'Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq,' that Ted Cruz's father 'was with Lee Harvey Oswald' before President Kennedy was assassinated and that 'crime is rising' in America. It's gotten to the point where those checking the facts are simply throwing their hands up in exasperation . . .. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton isn't so much a contest of conservatism versus liberalism, isolationism versus internationalism, outsider versus insider, or incivility versus tact. it's a contest of the fantasy of one man versus the reality of the rest of us."Mark Hannah, "Donald Trump, Our Great American Novelist," TIME, June 30, 2016.
Of course, while Trump's offensive and degrading remarks about women, African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Gold Star mothers, prisoners of war, and people with disabilities, among others, can make news, they can also make enemies. If a candidate is serious about getting elected, how can that be handled? Charles Krauthammer has a theory that fits with Suskind's. As Krauthammer notes about the extraordinarily competent Kellyanne Conway:
"[Trump campaign manager] Kellyanne Conway has worked . . . on the theory that if [Trump] can just cross the threshold of acceptability, he wins. . . . Can you really repackage the boasting, bullying, bombastic, insulting, insensitive Trump into a mellow and caring version? . . . Turns out, yes. How? Deflect and deny -- and pretend it never happened. Where are they now -- the birtherism, the deportation force, the scorn for teleprompters, the mocking of candidates who take outside money? Down the memory hole. . . . In this surreal election season, there is no past. . . . [Trump] merely creates new Trumps."Charles Krauthammer, "Clinton Sharpens, Trump Softens. He's Rising, She's Falling," The Washington Post, September 15, 2016.
Garrison Keillor, in what amounts to an open letter to Donald Trump, has a different take on what he's about. Keillor says to Trump: "The New York Times treats you like the village idiot. This is painful for a Queens boy trying to win respect . . .. Running for president is your last bid for the respect of Manhattan. . . . [Y]ou wish you could level with [your fans] for once and say one true thing: I love you to death and when this is over I will have nothing that I want." Garrison Keillor, "When This is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want," The Washington Post, August 9, 2016.
Trump probably doesn't see the possibility of a loss from his efforts. As he tells his African-American audiences, "What have you got to lose?" As he has bragged, “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” After all, 20 percent of his campaign expenditures are going to his own companies.
Donald Trump's name, his brand, which others pay handsomely to use, is perhaps his largest asset. This suggests another theory. What has he got to lose from a presidential race? Either he wins the presidency and puts his name on the White House, or he wins the lottery as he watches the value of his brand increase by millions if not billions of dollars.
Oh, look, there's one now.