Donald Trump has clearly taken Political Theater to a new level and the mainstream media not to mention social media can’t resist the temptation to give him their almost undivided attention and thereby encourage and enable him to take it even further.
I have previously written about the dangers of allowing inadvertently or otherwise political theater to drive public policy. This year we are witnessing political theater being substituted for policy development with no regrets or apologies.
Donald Trump is of course leading the way with his off the cuff rhetoric and “tweets” tailored to the events and/or headlines of the day and the desire to “hit back hard” at whomever annoyed him or his followers the previous day or even that morning. That can be one of the other candidates or even a media person such as Megyn Kelly who is an anchor with that well known liberal outlet – “Fox News”.
In fact Trump has on more than one occasion described what he has been doing as “having fun” and “waging war” with one or more of the other candidates. He is clearly enjoying himself at the expense of even a modicum of civility and substance in our political discourse. Examples about. In the case of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Trump said he thought he was a “nice man” and he gave him money, then he criticized me, “so now I can attack him”. In the case of Jeb Bush, his basic criticism is that Bush is “low energy” and therefore he “can’t and won’t get anything done”.
As far as I can tell Trump has at least three policy positions. He would round up and deport all eleven million “illegals” immigrants at an unknown but no doubt prohibitive cost in dollars, time and personnel. “They gotta go.” He would build a “wall” between Mexico and the U.S. also at an unknown cost. “Just trust me” I am a builder and I know how to build things.” And he would “police the hell out of the Iran deal”. In addition Trump would unilaterally defund “Planned Parenthood” for which he apparently developed strong negative feelings in the last year despite support for them previously.
In short, “The Donald” has as his overarching narrative and political philosophy – “The Art of the Deal” which is the name of his most recent book. His position in a nutshell is – “I’m really rich” and “really smart” and all the other candidates, Republican and Democrat, as well as the current President of the United States, his previous Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the current Secretary of State, John Kerry are “dumb” and make really “bad deals”. But don’t worry I, Donald Trump, am a great businessman who has taken over many bad deals and made them work because I am a great manager of people and money. Therefore I can do it again. So elect me President of the United States and in four years, as he told Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd, you’ll interview me and tell me “You’ve done a great job as President Mr. Trump.”
For doing what he is doing and saying what he has been saying, Donald Trump has been heavily criticized and has been called “irresponsible”, “insulting”, “dishonest”, a “flip flopper”, even heaven forbid “not a true conservative” as well as disrespectful of women, Hispanics and others. But let’s be honest – In one way he has been more candid with the public than all of the other candidates as well as his critics in the media.
Donald Trump has dramatically injected the culture and ethics of the private world that most of us live and work in as well as the world of Big Business where he has labored during his adult life into the world of politics with its unspoken but widely recognized large quantum of hypocrisy and its manifestation in the form of political correctness. The world of politics and the political class (elite) including all of the other candidates who inhabit it are obviously having difficulty coping with this unexpected intrusion and disruption of their world. The polls reflect their inability to overcome it or cast it aside. Furthermore Trump has been totally honest about what he is doing and why.
What he is doing is appealing directly to the desire of what at first appeared to be 10% to 15% of the voters of both political parties, but now looks like as much as 30% to 40% of those voters of both parties to support a candidate who will not only speak to their values, but act on them in a way that convinces them that the candidate can and will do what he promises.
The basis of that appeal is that “Donald Trump is not one of us.” And he is not pretending to be. He presents himself as smarter and richer than we are and more importantly as “much smarter” and “much richer” than all of the candidates of the “political class” that he is running against.
So unlike the other candidates, his overarching position on all the issues can be summed up as “I’ll manage the hell” out of the government, the people in the government and because our economy and our government will be “managed efficiently” for a “change”, we’ll make better trade deals, have more jobs and better health care. This will result in all of our people (you and me) except the bad guys (the rapists, murderers, and gang members) that I deport and don’t let back in our country leading much healthier and happier lives than ever before. In other words, I’ll “make our country great again”.
How will Trump “manage the hell” out of the economy and the government can’t be predicted or spelled out in advance as other conventional candidates try to do because as Trump forthrightly and correctly points out events on the national stage and the international stage can never be predicted. However “The Donald” tells us, “Don’t worry about it – Look what I’ve done – built huge impressive buildings, made great deals, and enriched myself in the process by outsmarting other people including world and business leaders far smarter than my political opponents or their donors. Furthermore, “I can’t be bought” so I can “make America great again.” “They” can’t stop me and “You” can believe me. That’s all I care about.
The visual and audio of this world presented by Donald Trump is seductive and his support reflected in the polls documents its attraction. Machiavelli recognized that political judgment to be effective must follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life when he wrote in “The Prince” “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong and to make use of it or not according to necessity”. Prince Donald presents his character and his history convincingly as evidence that he alone, among the candidates in both parties understands that and will act upon it.
In doing so, he illustrates his point by applying the different standards of private life and even the business world from which he comes to the political and personal judgments of him by the media and his political opponents. In private life you take attacks personally like you and I would, whereas the conventional wisdom in politics is that if you take attacks or judgments about you personally, you display vulnerability because you “don’t understand” that “all politics is theater.”
Well, Donald Trump defies the conventional wisdom. He at least pretends to take attacks, judgments or even questions by his political opponents and the media (C.F. Megyn Kelly) personally and he fires back enthusiastically going to “war with vitriolic words” much as we would and because of that other worldly response, a portion of us love it or at least enjoy watching and hearing the reality show which follows.
How much longer this will play out remains to be seen. A more important question would be how would this private and very different world would transition into governance if it doesn’t go away, which is at least a possibility no longer to be completely discounted. Trump’s world is perhaps even less real than the world of the other politicians he so far has successfully scoffed at rhetorically and otherwise. As Michael Ignatieff has pointed out, “politicians who wish to actually govern cannot cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings”. “They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.” Experience including the different experience exhibited so pointedly by Donald Trump can confine rather than broaden a leader’s ability to address events and issues.
NBC Political Director and Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd presciently tried to address this by asking Candidate Trump who would be his advisors on foreign policy, ISIS, etc. if he were President of the United States. Donald Trump’s answer was not a confidence-builder. He basically responded that he hadn’t really thought about it, but for the time being he got his information from watching the Talk Shows. So do I. But I’m not running for President of the United States.