Posted Thursday evening, January 19, 2017.
Donald Trump is a terrible actor and a ham, but he sure knows how to play “himself” on TV.
“Quick, Jared! How do you spell unpresidetented again?”
Yep. That’s exactly the expression Abraham Lincoln wore when he was writing his Second Inaugural Address.
Except Lincoln was probably looking at the paper he was writing on.
And he was actually writing. But, still, doesn’t that frown say “This is a President!”?
I know politicians have to be actors. Lincoln acted all the time. He staged his own portraits. That stove-pipe hat was ridiculous even for the time but it was a prop not a bad fashion choice. It made him look even taller than he was, and more homely. Lincoln played up his homeliness. It distinguished him from the theatrically handsome leading politicians of the day. The best Presidents have been great actors who knew how to play the parts they wrote for themselves, and Lincoln wrote himself the part of the simple country lawyer. He was nothing of the kind. He was one of the most prominent and sought after attorneys in Illinois and one of the savviest and most ambitious politicians.
But Trump is a terrible actor. And he’s a ham. Look at that frown. That’s meant to make him appear tough, hard and ferocious, taking no guff and brooking no nonsense and the fact that it can be described accurately with cliches is the give away. It is a cliche. But his fans love it. They believe it. It’s real to them. Whatever you can say about Trump as a performer, he knows his audience and he knows how to play his part.
Whatever platitudes, empty slogans, bombast, and plain nonsense Mr President strings together tomorrow, you can bet millions of people will love and cheer his inaugural address as if they’re hearing JFK promising the United States will pay any price, bear any burden et cetera for the first time. And the media will cover it that way too. That is, they’ll cover it as being a smash hit with his base as if that’s all that matters when a President speaks. There might be some drama critics who give it less than enthusiastic reviews. But for the most part they’ll give it at least three stars. For the same reason hack movie critics never give a Michael Bay movie a bad review. They’re afraid of offending the powers that be and they’re more afraid of offending the fans.
The networks know tomorrow’s their day. We’re not going to be watching. They’re going to sell their coverage of the inauguration the way other hucksters will be selling commemorative dinnerware. Trump voters are their target demographic anyway. Older, whiter, Midwestern-y and Southern-ish---and for the next four years they’ll tailor their coverage of Washington accordingly because who else is going to be watching? Unless he turns out to be the disaster he’s already on his way to being.
But to get back to my earlier point. As an actor, Trump is on par with the community theater regular who’s always cast as the stern dad or the tough boss or the state governor. He’s popular with the local audiences because he does a good job of reminding them of good character actors they’ve seen playing those parts in the movies. But so far this has worked out for him since it’s the perfect approach to playing “Donald Trump”. I’ve said it before but I don’t think it can be stressed enough. People didn’t vote for Donald Trump as much as they voted for “Donald Trump”, and the media helped him out by covering him as “Donald Trump”. They fell for the act and they helped sell it because it brought them ratings and readers and made them money.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump is a genius at using the media. What he is is aware of what works with his voters. He knows what they want to see on TV and knows how to give them that. He operates according to the first rule of cheap salesmanship: Always give the suckers what they want. It happens that the suckers included many of the journalists who covered him or covered “him”.
In short, Trump was very good at playing “himself” on TV.
And this brings me to something I think a lot of Democrats don’t want to hear or if they do they don’t really know what it means. We’re not concerned enough with nominating candidates who play themselves well on TV. We've just lucked out a few times. Obama would not have been President if he didn’t have a great speaking voice and telegenic good looks. Same with Bill Clinton. A sonorous voice or one dripping with honey is as important as being tall and having lots of hair. (Being tall is a relative and almost metaphorical condition---women can be “tall” and so can short men.) But think back to Nixon. The winner of every election since 1968 has been the candidate with the best speaking voice. Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore had high-pitched, unmelodious voices. Carter’s southern drawl beat Ford’s Midwest flatness but lost to Reagan’s easygoing baritone. John Kerry’s voice is an acquired taste. So was W’s but he was the incumbent president so he had the more familiar voice. I like Hillary’s voice. When she’s just talking. When she’s speechifying, it’s a different voice.
As far as being good at playing herself, well, she wasn’t given much of a chance. The drama critics in the press corps were determined to interpret her every performance as Hillary Clinton playing the same old “Hillary Clinton” again, a part she did not write for herself.
Obviously she did play herself well on TV. Her having been seen to have won all three debates attests to that. She looked like a President. And she sounded like one and that wasn’t just due to her having a mastery of the facts and being better able to articulate her ideas---which were ideas. Trump has no ideas to articulate. Just slogans and sales mottos he repeats in various combinations.---she got to use her own real voice. That helped.
She made for better television.
As I’ve said, I’ve been coming around to thinking that Bernie might very well have won. That’s not to say I think he definitely would have won. There’s no knowing that now. Ok. Again. You don’t know that. You believe it. Which is fine. Just stop expecting everyone else to believe along with you or believe it as fervently. But he might very well have. But one of the reasons I don’t believe it is that I’m not sure he’d have played himself all that well on TV. I’m not the person to judge. I didn’t see him that often on TV. That wasn’t because the media conspired to make him invisible. It’s because I don’t watch TV news. Whenever I did see him, he looked shouty and red-faced and angry in an off-putting way, like a typical angry old man shouting at the kids. He was shouting to the kids who were shouting back happily and enthusiastically, but that’s not how it came across to me.
Meanwhile Trump---whom, by the way, I also didn’t see much of, for the same reason I didn’t see much of Bernie or of Hillary, for that matter, and that was part of my problem in following the campaign and grasping what was going on. I’ll get to that---came across as angry in a way that didn’t make him seem like an old man. It made him seem like he was angry just like everybody else in the crowd was and at the same things. He also managed to look like he was having fun even when he was angry. Maybe most often when he was being angry.
He also seemed to be sharing the fun and sharing in the fun.
But that’s only my cursory impression. Like I said, I didn’t watch the campaign. I read about it. That was a mistake. I should have known better. National political campaigns take place on TV. They are TV shows. Winning candidates are the ones who make the best TV stars. Trump isn’t a great actor, but he is a star. At least to his voting fans.
The inauguration is another episode in the reality TV series starring Donald Trump as “Donald Trump” and the media will play along. His inaugural address will judged by how well it helps advance the story arc and not by what it says. It won’t say anything except to remind us that “Donald Trump” is President.
Whatever words he uses to remind us of that will be gibberish but it won’t matter. Words don’t matter on TV. Not in their having actual meaning. They don’t matter to Republicans in their having actual meaning. Words are simply sounds for expressing feelings. Their meaning is in the feelings they convey. This is how Republican politicians are able to “lie” so easily. Truth is a sound not an articulated fact. Up and down mean the same thing if they’re used to express the same feeling.
This is how most people use words, as it happens. It’s part of how Trump, despite being a son of privilege, is taken as a Man of the People. By the way, it’s plain silly for members of the party that reveres FDR and Bobby Kennedy to scoff at the idea a billionaire can be a Man of the People. Trump is one with his voters by virtue of being an uncouth outsider all us elitists look down upon. But he also is one with them in being like so many of them, an angry guy who has to shout to get anybody to listen to him and who may not have the right words at any given moment but at least knows what he means and says it honestly---with honest emotion, at any rate.
For most people “That’s what I think” means the same as “That’s how I feel”.
The ideal use of words is to match meaning with feeling. That’s called poetry. Few politicians are poets. President Obama is one of the few. So was FDR. Reagan had more than a touch of the poet in him. Lincoln, of course, was Lincoln.
I’m not saying Trump is a poet or even has a touch of the poet. To tell you the truth, I don’t know, for the reason I said. I haven’t seen much of his act. But to the degree, he is a poet, it’s because demotic English is inherently poetic. Whatever he says will sound like poetry to his fans. If it be the verse, it will be nonsense verse, but nonsense verse is verse.
It’ll be corny and hokey and empty of thought but Trump will play his part well and his fans will cheer for all they’re worth and the media will play right along.
So what am I saying? Not much, I guess. Except that whatever Democrat runs next time better have more than a touch of the poet about them and be very good at playing themselves on TV.
Photo up top, a publicity still from the reality show Donald Trump, the Presidency, courtesy of Mr. President-elect himself, who tweeted it, naturally, with the caption, “Writing my inaugural address at the Winter White House, Mar-a-Lago, three weeks ago. Looking forward to Friday.”