Monday, October 21, 2019

Donald Trump, the tail [media master] who wags the dog [body politic] of democracy?

John Emerson has recently posed the question: “With all the things wrong with Trump, why is his dumbness the final zinger for so many people? He's brutal and malignant and his goals are all wrong, but what we talk about is his toupee and his IQ” (see this post, where I quote John extensively). I think it’s a very good question, but I don’t know quite what to do with it. That is, it points somewhere, but where?

I note as well, the Dan Drezner has been running a Twitter thread in which he quotes Trump associates talking about him as a young child. It recently reached 1000 tweets. Here’s a recent pair of tweets, but by no means the most recent:

The valence is different from that of anti-Trump people, these staffers, after all, have to work with the man and, presumably, they are more or less aligned with him politically. Stupid is one thing, childish another, but they share a core meaning: not a full adult like we are.

And in both cases “we” people who have succeeded by, in Emerson’s words, “testing well, filing applications, and credentialization” and “in the schooled, credentialed world, dumbness is the disqualifying sin.” It’s just that some of us want him out of there, while others are doing all they can to keep in him there and functioning. Trump lives and functions best outside the world of coherent procedures, of rules, regulations, and bureaucracy. In Emerson’s formulation, he’s at home in a world that includes
the managers of the huge slush funds of various kinds: intelligence and propaganda services of various nations, organized crime groups, offshore banking and money launderers. And the world of these slush funds is the lawless, untaxed deregulated world of globalization. Trump knows how to work in this world the way we do not.
It’s a world of pirates and improvisers shooting from the hip, trusting in their gut, and making it up as they go along. It’s a pre-modern social world with modern tools and implements.

That’s one thing. And in Emerson’s view that world is the result of short-sighted decisions by the Doyens of Credentialdom:
America's most wrongheaded moves during my lifetime were made by very smart people from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the U of Chicago -- deregulation, privatization, the militarization of policing, the exemption of big money from taxation, the looting of Russia, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and so on.
And, in particular, they’re the ones who created the media world which Trump has been able to master and, in turn, parlay that mastery to the Presidency – even if, perhaps, he didn’t expect to succeed.

Emerson makes light of Trump’s bankruptcies, observing that “they’re normal in his biz.” Perhaps so. I wonder though, if in the end, his real estate business was just a vehicle to build and propagate his personal brand. As long as he hand enough wealth to put on a good front, little else mattered. And once he discovered that he could work the TV screen, everything became secondary to that. Then he discovered he could work the Twitterverse, 140 and then 280 characters at a time.

And that put him in position to use the media to leverage the company’s political system in favor of his personal brand. He’s thus made a wag the dog scenario – remember the movie? – into the current political reality.

What I’m fishing for is the proper way to conceptualize the relationship between his personality and the media-drenched political sphere. Is it that he was the first one to see the possibility? I can think of three movies off the top of my head that deal with this: All the King’s Men, A Face in the Crowd, and Network. The first was based on a book loosely based on a real politician, Huey Long of Louisiana. The demagogic abuse of the media is hardly a new possibility, or fear. It’s been with us since when, the invention of the printing press or not too long after?

Perhaps Trump is simply the first one to pull off this media reversal/takeover at the national level. Well, sure. But why him, why The Donald? That’s what I’m trying to conceptualize. The timing was right? OK. But he saw/smelled a possibility and went after it. It’s one thing to spot a way down field (I’m launching into a football metaphor) when you’re up in the stands with a pair of high-powered binoculars. But how do you spot the opening when you’re on the field as a quarterback or running back? That’s what Trump did, he spotted the opening from the field. Those movies, and by implication other more distant expressions and conceptions, they’re observing the field from the stands. They may see accurately, but you can run with the ball from up there.

OK, that’s enough. Perhaps more later. Check out my post from September 2018, Trumposaurus Rex @ 3QD – Toward a cybernetic interpretation.

Addendum, later in the day: I just took a look at that post. In there make the point that Trump’s post-election combination of daily tweeting and fairly frequent rallies (combined with keeping tabs on his TV profile) is something new and those two activities in tandem put him much closer in touch with this political base. Perhaps THAT’s what different and what gives him the power to wag the dog.

Addendum, 10.23.19: The NYTimes recently published an Op-Ed by an anonymous official within the Trump administration, I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration. This official is in favor of much of what Trump has done, but thinks this about the man himself:
The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.

Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright. [...]

From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.

Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.

“There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” a top official complained to me recently, exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier.

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