So, now that we’ve all sobered up and realized that, yes, somehow, the country really did elect Donald Trump president, it’s time to figure out what the hell happened and what it means. Post-mortems and circular firing squads are still being organized. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin are no doubt hard at work on their next campaign tome, tentatively titled “Game Change 2016: WTF, America?”.
I should probably get a political disclosure out of the way early. I didn’t vote for Trump and am scared witless of what his presidency will mean for the country. I will count his administration a raving success if the planet isn’t reduced to a smoldering, radioactive ember, blown out of its orbit around the Sun, and sent sailing aimlessly through the Milky Way. If I could figure out how to set the bar lower, I would.
All that, however, is above my pay grade, and my purpose today is to muse about what his campaign tells us about – and means for – the world of public and political communication. Ordinarily, these are subjects that would be the focus of numerous books and boring academic articles. However, since the world probably won’t last long enough to get those done, I’m going to try to cram a few hopefully useful observations into a series of blog posts.
Observation 1: We should have seen this coming. It’s not like we weren’t warned.
I usually start my Sunday mornings with The New York Times’s front page and opinion section, but on the morning of October 17, 2004, the cover of the Times Sunday Magazine caught my eye and I wound up reading the cover story, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” by Ron Suskind, over about three cups of coffee.
At one point in the story, Suskind recalled being called on the carpet by an unnamed senior White House aide (since widely identified as Karl Rove) over an earlier story of his, and wrote this:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I thought at the time that was an audacious statement and wondered where such a belief might take us.
Now we know.
Armed with a Twitter account, Donald Trump throughout the campaign created new realities several times each day, many if not most demonstrably false. The much-maligned mainstream media was duty-bound to report his utterances (Twutterences? Tweeterences?) and woefully incapable of vetting them in anything like real time.
The old lament that “a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” was proven wrong. In the 21st century Twittersphere, a lie can now orbit the planet multiple times before the truth even finds its socks. Bewildered newspaper editors and broadcast producers have finally taken to reporting that Trump claimed this or that “falsely” or “without foundation,” a genteel effort to avoid calling the incoming Leader of the Free World a bald-faced liar.
Observation 2: Trump understands storytelling.
I haven’t been able to find the exact quote, but I remember President Bill Clinton years ago saying something along these lines: “I prefer to argue not about who’s good or bad, but who’s right or wrong.” It was his way of trying to frame political debate around issues rather than personalities.
Trump’s response to that has been, basically, “Pfffft.” Trump understands the power of story-telling and that all stories have good guys and bad guys. In his stories, he’s always the good guy. Therefore, he’s always right.
Throughout the arc of his very public life, Trump has stuck to that basic plot structure. All you need to do to understand Trump’s messaging architecture is take a look at one of the zillions of copies of his fake professional wrestling takedown of WWE magnate Vince McMahon on live TV. At the end of the “match,” Trump and a wrestler held McMahon in a chair in the middle of the ring and shaved his head with electric razors. Even I have to admit it was pretty great.
Fast forward less than a decade and you’ll find Trump using the same professional wrestling motif to drive his campaign. Trump’s enduring strategy has been to target the bad guy du jour and pursue him (or her) mercilessly.
He pre-launched his presidential campaign by establishing himself as the nation’s Birther-in-Chief and pretty much locking up the nation’s fever swamp vote before anybody knew what was happening. (And when President Obama finally said, fine, here’s my long-form birth certificate, Trump’s response was classic. He took credit for forcing an answer to the question. He created a new reality, and he was still the hero – at least in the fever swamp.)
From there, he moved on to identify, attack and decimate a long line of evil-doers and villains: Mexican rapists, Low Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted, Muslims, Mexican judges, Little Marco, more Muslims, Crooked Hillary, Carrier and United Technologies, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Most of those are now obviously in his rear-view mirror, but he’s continuing this strategy into the transition and his presidency.
Without a doubt, the biggest bogeyman he’s teed up since the election is China. It’ll be interesting to see if Xi Jinping understands he’s supposed to sit still and have his head shaved in the final scene.