Posted Saturday afternoon, November 5, 2016.
Donald Trump isn’t running for President.
“Donald Trump” is.
It’s astounding but true, at least according to recent polls. More people think Donald Trump is honest than think Hillary Clinton is. Not a lot more. Actually a small percentage. But that adds up to a lot of people. And while it may be shocking that anybody but the most deluded partisan could think that pathological liar and lifelong cheat, thief, conman, and fraud is honest, the polls don’t show that most people think he’s honest. They know he isn’t. They know he’s dishonest. The polls simply show that lots of people think she’s more dishonest.
Please don’t refer me to Politifact. Most voters don’t even know what Politifact is let alone how they’ve rated her the most honest candidate to have run this campaign season by large---YUGE!---margins. What matters isn’t the truthfulness of what she’s said versus what he’s said. What matters is that when voters judge a politician’s honesty, they include in their judgments their sense of whether or not that candidate is the person he or she purports to be.
The question isn’t simply “Are they telling the truth?” It’s also “Are they living out the truth about who they are?”
It should be obvious that Trump isn’t. But the problem is what I said at the start.
Donald Trump isn’t running for president. “Donald Trump” is.
It has to be kept in mind that Trump entered the race as a celebrity. He was a TV star. It’s easy to dismiss him as a mere game show host. But that’s not what he was in the eyes of the show’s fans. He was playing a character named “Donald Trump” created for the show and in their eyes the character was a real person. A real person they grew to like and admire and to want to be like---that’s the basis of every celebrity’s appeal, isn’t it? They provide alternative selves for their fans to live vicariously through. At least for the moment we’re watching them do whatever it is we admire them for---and in some cases like the Kardashians that’s simply being worshipped for being themselves---we live more interesting, exciting, and rewarding lives. We imagine what it would be like to stand in their shoes---or run in their sneakers and cleats--and for that moment we get to be more interesting and exciting and likable to ourselves.
Trump played the type of rich guy and boss many people would like to be. Believe that they would be if only… Someone who made his money the hard way, through hard work and by being smart. Not rocket scientist smart. Not lawyer smart. Certainly not college professor smart. Working guy and girl smart. Smart as in having common sense and knowing how to get things done. Which means he came by his money honestly. No shady deals. No payoffs and kickbacks. No promising one thing and delivering another. No screwing his partners, investors, employees, customers, and friends. (Basically, doing none of the things the real Trump did and does as a matter of routine.) And he was an honest boss. Tough when toughness was needed, fair when fairness was required. No nonsense. No bullshit. No saying one thing while meaning another. No sparing of the feelings of people whose feelings don’t deserve to be spared. No withholding of praise or reward from those who’ve earned both. (If people didn’t imagine themselves as Trump, they imagined they would like working for him and wished their own real bosses were more like him.) President Obama once got off some good jokes about Trump’s firing Gary Busey. Well, fans of the show knew Trump was right to fire Gary Busey. It was the tough, fair, and no-nonsense thing to do. It was the honest thing to do.
That “Donald Trump” was just a part Trump played. I never watched the show but I’ll bet he played it pretty well. Probably hammed it up too much but still. I’ve heard he thinks he deserved an Emmy for it but then he thinks he deserves every reward and honor just for being him. Like the Presidency. He should just be given that. The point is he’s still playing that character, playing it to the hilt, on the campaign trail---well, actually, on TV. There’s a subject of a hundred books when this is over: how Trump ran the first truly virtual presidential campaign. His rallies, his speeches, his victory dances after the Republican debates were all staged for the TV cameras and played for the audiences at home. Of course every 21st century politician has to do all that and does do it, but that’s not all they do. It’s all he’s done except Tweet which besides being virtual campaigning by definition is also intended to grab the attention of the cameras. And it's worked. His tweets are reported as news.
News in the sense that they've been shown on the news. Not news in the sense they've been examined seriously. But then for most of the election season nothing Trump did or said was examined seriously. They were just covered. He was just covered, like the celebrity he is. It didn’t matter what he said or did. It just mattered that Donald Trump said it or did it.
Or, really, that “Donald Trump” said it or did it.
For far too long the media made no attempt to separate “Donald Trump” from Donald Trump. In fact, they accepted that “Donald Trump” was Donald Trump.
On the whole, political press is depraved. Reporters and pundits don’t care that lives are at stake in an election. They don’t care that who gets to be president literally does decide that some people live and some people die and who and how many those people are. To them, politics is a game show, when it’s not a sporting event, and who wins and who loses is all they care about. Winners make better stories and make for better ratings and more clicks. At the end of every Republican debate and for days after, Trump was covered like the winning coach of a football team or the manager of a champion boxer. What he’d said at the debates didn’t matter to the coverage. Only that it worked to help him win. He wasn’t called on his lies. He was simply allowed to boast about having won and how smart and tough and strong he was.
Or to bring this back to The Apprentice, he was covered as that “Donald Trump” and as if what he’d just done was fire another Republican who deserved to be fired.
But weren’t the lies obvious? Weren’t they egregious? Weren’t they disqualifying in and of themselves? Did it really need the media to show him up as a pathological liar?
Well, yes, but, on the other hand, it’s not certain that they could have done it. They would have been working against the image of “Donald Trump” as an honest guy.
Honest in the sense of someone who’s always who he is, someone who doesn’t hold back, who says what he thinks and too bad if you don’t like it. That’s part of what people mean when they praise him for not being “politically correct.” They mean he doesn’t care what others think of him.
They also mean they like that he’s a racist, but let’s leave that aside for now.
That he’s saying exactly what he thinks is a jarring idea, considering that it doesn’t appear that much thought goes into what he says. But that’s another sign of his basic honesty. He doesn’t filter. The words come out and it doesn’t matter that they don’t make much sense if you try to parse his sentences. It doesn’t matter that the little he says that does parse doesn’t match up with any verifiable facts. The facts are beside the point. The words are beside the point. The feelings behind the words and the feelings the words elicit are the point, and those feelings are honest.
What’s more he expresses those feelings in an honest, straight-forward, regular guy way.
How? By lying outrageously?
No. By exaggerating.
A little here and there. You know, for emphasis. And for fun. The way people do. It’s bullshit but we all know it’s bullshit. But it’s more fun and it’s funnier if you say it that way. You just got to know what he really means.
So he’s really not going to build a wall across the border?
“Don’t be ridiculous. But we need some kind of ‘wall’, don’t we? We can’t just keep letting them pour in.”
And all Mexicans aren’t rapists?
“Of course not. But some are, and how are we going to throw the ones who are out?”
And he won’t claw all those jobs back from China?
“I wish. But at least he knows what’s going on and that something’s got to be done and he’s going to do it. He just has to figure out how.”
What about locking her up? What about having her hauled off in cuffs?
“Won’t happen, will it? The Clintons always skate. But she deserves it. And in a just and fair and more honest world she would be.”
And the country isn’t worse off that it’s ever been? America isn’t pretty great as it is? It doesn’t really need to be made great again?
“Maybe the country’s not worse off, but my life sure stinks, and America may not need to be made great, but I sure could use some help and he’s the only one who seems to know it.”
Not all this stems from his celebrity, of course. But it goes a long way toward helping him get away with the con he’s running on his own voters. Like I said, it’s very difficult for people to see him for what he is because they’re so used to seeing him as “Donald Trump”.
Hillary’s a celebrity in her own right. She’s also a TV star in that most people only know her as someone who appears on their TVs. To a degree it’s worked for her in the way it’s worked for Trump. Her fans see the image they identify with and wave away things that don’t fit with that image. But also like Trump she’s playing a fictional character. Just unlike Trump it’s not a character of her own creation and it’s certainly not one she wants to play.
The part was written for her nearly twenty-five years ago by David Maraniss in his psychological biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, which was basically a 500 page long exercise in mind-reading, and Joe Klein, whose novel Primary Colors was taken as to heart by Washington insiders as a roman à clef. Klein published Primary Colors under the clever pseudonym Anonymous and a lot of time and energy was devoted by readers and critics and folks in-in-the-know in figuring out how Anonymous really was. But it was more or less taken for granted that the book itself was wearing a disguise too, that it was a work of journalism disguised as a novel, and it helped establish the idea that the Clintons were the main characters in a real life soap opera, prototypes, if people back then only knew, of Frank and Claire Underwood. Maureen Dowd took over as showrunner and has been relentless in her portrayal of Hillary as a duplicitous, scheming, self-entitled, hyper-ambitious bitch. Most of the political press corps has taken that character as the real Hillary and that’s the “Hillary” they’ve been covering all along. That’s the “Hillary” who’s the villain of the email stories. She must be lying because of course “she” is. She must have done something wrong because of course “she” would.
Clinton didn’t help herself by constantly trying to come up with explanations and excuses that would have satisfy the press. She couldn’t come up with one because there wasn’t one the press wanted to hear. They wanted to hear her admit she is what they believe she is. They wanted her to say, “I gave away classified information to our enemies and then I ordered my staff to cover it up because of the pay for play way my no good husband’s foundation operates and because I want to be president no matter the cost to the people who work for me, my friends, or the country!”
Every answer she tried sounded like an evasion, because it was---she was evading saying "Fuck off. I can't explain it. I wasn't paying that much attention to the details back then because it didn't occur to me I'd have to explain why I was doing what my predecessors did as a matter of course to a howling pack of shallow-minded, self-important, clueless hacks!"----but also because it wasn’t accepted or reported as an answer. It was just another excuse for another story about how there were still “questions.”
In short, all along she’s been portrayed as not just another politician indulging in routine politician lies but as nearly a traitor lying about revealing state secrets and then lying about it for the sake of her vaulting ambitions. It’s a wonder that anyone thinks she’s honest at all.
Bernie Sanders and his surrogates didn’t help. On the whole I’m glad Bernie got into the race. I think his campaign was good for the Democratic Party and for her. But it did a good deal of harm, as well, by relentlessly pushing the ideas that she was “corrupt” and a “tool of Wall Street.” Bernie himself dismissed with contempt the email “scandal”, but many of his supporters online and, I’m sure, out in the field, embraced it and pinned their hopes to it. Even as late as June, Bernie Bitter-enders were gleefully predicting she’d be indicted. When in July the FBI said, nope, ain’t going to happen because there’s no grounds for it, they cried out in outrage. Only her elitist white privilege had saved her, they insisted. Still insist, some of them. They’re still out there. They may not be voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson---or Trump---but they sure aren’t voting for her. They’re voting against him. But without much enthusiasm. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether they’ll more relieved if she wins than they’ll be disappointed at not being able to say “I told you so” or more appalled if Trump wins than they’ll be satisfied to have been proven right.
Doesn’t matter. The effect of the pettiness of it all is that they've taught a generation of young progressives that Hillary Clinton is a liar and a criminal who is only barely more fit to be president than Donald Trump, the lesser of two evils, certainly, but still evil. So of course they’re ready accept right away that the “new revelations” about the email are revelations and that they’re damning.
Then there is the problem that politics is a performance art and she isn’t a natural performer. She just isn’t. She does best in campaign situations where she doesn’t have to perform, where she simply has to be herself---as opposed to having to play herself---small events where she can meet and greet people face to face and one on one. Before large crowds, that is, when she’s onstage and on TV, she stiffens up. Her voice tightens. Her face becomes a bit of a mask and her expressions are, well, less expressive. She seems scripted and over-rehearsed because she is and she hasn’t mastered the art of hiding it. But it’s also the case that she doesn’t want to be up there doing what she’s doing. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t want to be campaigning. She wants to campaign. She loves campaigning. It’s just that to her campaigning isn’t performing, it’s talking honestly and intelligently and thoughtfully about issues to voters directly and not through the media. It’s to be dull but sincerely dull.
The effect, unfortunately, is that she doesn’t come across as honest, at least not as if she’s honestly being herself. People get the sense she’s holding back. They feel it’s not so much that she has a public position that differs from a private position but that she has a public self who differs from her private self so much that her public self is a less than brilliant disguise. An attempt at disguise. A clumsy attempt. In another word, she’s a phony.
Trump is a natural at playing “Donald Trump”. He enjoys it. He revels in it. Besides the fact people take it for the real him, they get a kick out of him getting a kick out of it. He’s fun to watch. But it’s more important that people buy that it’s “him.”
Finally, though, what decides it for them is what decides the question for most people, whether or not the politician in question is saying what they already think is the truth, which, surprise, is usually what they want the truth to be.
A politician sounds honest when he or she tells us what we already think and that we’re right to think what we think.
Hillary is not particularly good at that, because she’s not interested in doing it. She wants to tell people what she knows. I’m not saying she’s a know-it-all and likes to show off. I’m saying that what matters to her is what is in fact the facts as she’s come to learn them through study, practice, and experience. She doesn’t want to use words to express feelings. She uses them for their precise meaning.
A lot of people don’t want to hear a politician talking like that because it makes them feel dumb and foolish. To their ears it sounds like someone talking like that in order to make them feel dumb and foolish.
But on top of all that, Hillary’s an optimist. She doesn’t just see the glass as half full, she sees it filling up. These days, a lot of people aren’t feeling optimistic. Their glasses aren’t even a third full and it seems every time they look away, someone grabs it and steals a swig.
And that’s the truth Donald Trump’s telling them, that they’re right to be pessimistic, that someone is draining their glasses on them.
The system is rigged against them. The country is falling apart. Their lives stink and it’s all THOSE PEOPLE’S fault. Those OTHERS! Those NOT US. Those NOT ME’s.
Donald Trump---or “Donald Trump”---is assuring people that they come by their anger and hatred and fears and resentments honestly.
And that’s the truth. The God’s honest truth. "Donald Trump" wouldn't lie to them.
Photo up top courtesy of NBC via A.V. Club, and, yep, that is Trump Twitter Nemesis George Takei over there on the right. I'm sure he's sorry he did the show and contributed even to that small degree to creating the image of Trump as an honest man. But that episode ran in February 2012 and back then who'd a thunk it? Well, me, for one, sort of. From February 2012, actually: The Donald Contextualizes the Mitten.
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