TrumpPosted: March 1, 2016
I don’t follow politics as closely as many and I don’t intend to write about politics on this blog, but I care plenty about culture, media, and anything that smacks of zeitgeist, so of course I am paying attention to the current election cycle and will now say a few words about Donald Trump.
The most fascinating aspect of Trump’s present success is the way it demands that its spectators form a theory about why it’s happening and about the overall structure of the electoral process. One politician interviewed on MSNBC the other night said, “We can’t pick a president the way we vote for American Idol,” which surprised me because the establishment actually wants us to think that we do pick a president that way—by a basically popular vote—even though we of course don’t. Trump’s success so far represents the apparent breakdown of the “real” process by which parties nominate establishment candidates to run in the general election.
This week, John Oliver’s monologue about Trump exploded into my Facebook feed so I went ahead and watched. It’s an interesting addition to the Trump conversation, mostly because of how it exposes the limitations of the political metadialogue that The Daily Show pioneered and for which Oliver now carries the torch. The bit has that familiar structure—a witty buildup and preposterous conclusion (the Donald Drumpf call to action) with a serious take sandwiched in between, all of which gets labeled “important” by so many who share it on social media.
At one point the exasperated Oliver says “a candidate for president needs a coherent set of policies” and that with Rubio and Cruz, the lesser two of three evils, at least we all know where they stand on the issues. Of course Oliver’s right, but he’s also so deeply wrong, revealing in his statement that many smart people haven’t learned the necessary lessons from the Trump campaign. Far more perceptive is Matt Taibbi, who makes a better point: “It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.” Complaining about Trump not having policies, or digging through the archives for two contradictory public statements he’s made, are actions that not only fail to “eviscerate” Trump, as so many said Oliver did, but feed the beast that Taibbi describes so perfectly. John Robb calls Trump’s campaign an insurgency, in which the lack of policies is an intentional strategy to unify his base and amplify his appeal.
Yes, unity: One thing everyone agrees about, whether they love him or hate him, is that Donald Trump is a brand. That quality is the true engine of his campaign’s success, and it doesn’t depend upon policies, platforms, or rational persuasion of any kind. Kevin Simler has argued that most effective advertising does not work via “emotional inception”—by establishing subconscious associations with desirable outcomes that the advertised product will supposedly bring about. Instead, brands operate through what Simler calls cultural imprinting, “the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings—which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.” In elections, candidates are the products being marketed and Trump, instead of taking positions on issues—the political version of emotional inception—focuses on creating a new cultural imprint that resonates with a huge mass of people at a seemingly primal level.
Viewed through the lens of cultural imprinting, Trump’s success makes more sense. He has created a political persona on the foundation of raw personality and crude, loud signals: a political EDM festival. Emphasizing policies would only dilute this brand and weaken its power. Trump has reoriented the landscape of the current election by putting up a tent that a lot of people want to be under and by carving out a domain in which nobody wants to associate themselves with Rubio or Cruz, issues be damned. Trump certainly does not thrive by convincing anyone of anything or by making rational appeals of any kind. Amazingly, what he’s doing is how the electoral process has worked for some time but nobody has embraced that dynamic or hacked the entire process so effectively. Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether Trump should be president, but the John Olivers of the world don’t yet understand how little that matters at the moment.