By Neal Gabler
Hovering above all the brouhaha about Donald Trump’s bizarre presidential candidacy floats one critical question: Are Americans an electorate or are they an audience?
Trump has bet on the latter, while his competitors, even one like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has positions close to Trump on many issues, bet on the former. Trump has received a lot of opprobrium for his antics, but it isn’t clear that he is wrong. Even if much of the establishment and leading political analysts have already rendered their verdicts.
Trump certainly isn’t the first candidate to conflate entertainment and politics. When Ronald Reagan was asked if it was hard adjusting to being president after being an actor, he replied that he couldn’t imagine anyone being president without being an actor. Reagan was right. Performance skills, including the skill of drawing attention to oneself, are now intrinsic to political skills if one hopes to become president.
But Reagan was talking about communication, which is why he always invoked President Franklin D Roosevelt, another great communicator, as a model. He wasn’t talking about replacing substantive policy with performance.
Something has happened over the past 15 years or so that has radically altered the relationship between performance and politics. It is partly due to the US political arena, in which a candidate must constantly try to grab attention. More subtly, however, it is also due to America’s ever-shifting popular culture, in which new kinds of narratives regularly push aside older ones.
Today it is comic-book superhero narratives that matter. We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar. And this has affected our political discourse.
Many pundits attribute Trump’s publicity domination to his celebrity and his ability to grab the spotlight, honed by decades of playing the media. To many of them, he is the political Kardashian. There is some truth in this. The public’s appetite for Trump seems limitless. And he understands that, in today’s culture, the shortest road to success might not actually mean being successful but portraying yourself as being successful. Which then results in success. In effect, he is a Mobius strip seamlessly moving from perception to reality.
But as much as Trump boasts about his wealth (and denigrates everyone else), that is not what has catapulted the New York real estate magnate to the top of the Republican polls. He has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In this superhero era, Trump recognises that a sizable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over opponents.
What Trump offers them is his detestation of the very mechanics of politics – and of democracy itself. He has no time for the compromises, negotiations, consensus building, civility and seriousness required in a democracy. The aptly named Trump is telling them that he will trump the entire political system. He’ll replace the mess of politics with a clean sweep of super heroics.
Reagan, the one professional entertainer who did assume the presidency, never purported to be a superhero. Quite the opposite. As studio boss Jack Warner quipped when he heard Reagan was running for governor of California: “No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend.” That was exactly right. Reagan was genial – the happy face of conservatism.
Trump, on the other hand, is no one’s best friend. He intentionally irritates.
Sure, his disruption is entertainment. The Huffington Post has already decided to consign Trump’s campaign to its entertainment pages. But it is a particular kind of entertainment, not just nutty bloviation.
When Trump promises to build his wall across the entire Mexican-US border (and make Mexico pay for it!); when he promises to tell off China; when he promises to blow Islamic State off the face of the earth, he isn’t propounding policy. He is creating scenes from a movie. A movie we have all seen now dozens of times. He is playing to an audience that has foresworn being an electorate. It is what all demagogues do, but most of them have not had popular culture at their back the way Trump does.
This may also be why Trump keeps doubling-down on his inanities – accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists or insisting Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a hero. Iron Man doesn’t apologise. He destroys. So does Trump. The more the political establishment rebukes him, the better.
But if Trump has bet on the electorate as audience, and on his ability to turn the presidential campaign into a Marvel movie, he may not have fully gamed it out. He may not have considered that entertainment, which is fundamentally anti-political, inevitably loses out when it comes up against politics, which is fundamentally anti-entertainment.
In the past, at some point, the demagogues who make themselves out to be populist superheroes have hit a critical mass where their posturing can trigger the public to say the show is over and the jig is up. As pollster Stuart Rothenberg recently explained, Trump’s popularity is a product of his voicing the angry sentiments many Republicans feel. It is not a product of their really wanting him to be president.
Usually sooner rather than later, the lights come up in the theatre, and the audience walks out into the bracing real world from which they had been escaping.
At least that is the way it has always been. Trump is in a movie. His competitors are in a primary. If he somehow manages to sustain his candidacy, if the power of popular culture has so embedded itself in Americans’ consciousness as to make the public re-envision the world, it will say less about Trump than about a sea change in US political culture – from one that is about governance to one that is about putting on an exhilarating show.
Trump can’t be president any other way.
Neal Gabler is the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” and “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.