Years ago, I heard a great discussion among a group of veteran, political journalists; and they were talking about the cliché in which candidates say, “I don’t want to get into a character debate. Let’s talk about the issues.” Although that particular sentiment was a byproduct of the “family values” rhetoric of the GOP, one of the journalists made a very sound argument that, in fact, character, in the true meaning of the word, is probably a more valid indicator as to how a candidate is likely to govern than anything he or she says about a particular issue during the campaign. Candidates, he suggested, will campaign on agendas they want to achieve; but given the realities of governance, which is filled with obstacles and unpredictable events, the character of the individual is a pretty reliable indicator as to the kinds of moment-of-truth decisions a leader will have to make while in office.
How that insight is helpful is another matter, since Americans will be as divided on assessments of character as they are on any policy issue, which is one reason I think it’s a shame that we’ve demoted veteran political reporters—those people who traditionally live with candidates on the campaign trail—to the pejorative status of elitist in favor of the more populist platforms of social media. And so, it strikes me as just a little too perfect that the GOP front-runner happens to be a guy vying to be Asshole-in-Chief of the United States. By “too perfect” I mean that Donald Trump’s present shooting-star status (soon to burn out, I imagine) is a predictable manifestation of what political discourse has become despite living in—or perhaps because we live in—the Information Age. It’s no surprise Trump appeals to a lot of voters. After all, he sounds just like so many citizens on social media sites and comment threads, who like to make smug, uninformed, and even offensive statements. Trump is basically a troll.
Okay. Nate Silver beat me to this particular accusation with his article aptly titled Donald Trump is the World’s Biggest Troll. I had a similar thought a while back, but Silver did actual work, like research and stuff; and so, his article compares and contrasts some of the mechanics that seem to be driving the—presumably temporary—dominance of candidate Trump with populists of the recent past, who have rapidly risen and fallen during primary season. Silver makes a number of interesting points, but I was particularly drawn to the questions posed in this paragraph:
“Social media allows candidates to make news without the filter of the press. It may also encourage groupthink among and between reporters and readers, however. And access to real-time traffic statistics can mean that everyone is writing the same “takes” and chasing the same eyeballs at once. Is the tyranny of the Twitter mob better or worse than the “Boys on the Bus” model of a group of (mostly white, male, upper-middle-class, left-of-center) reporters deigning to determine what’s news and what isn’t? I don’t know, but it’s certainly different. And it seems to be producing a higher velocity of movement in the polls and in the tenor of media coverage.”
No doubt American politics today is different, though there is an argument to be made that the contemporary tone reflects a regression to the volatility of the late 19th century rather than progress made since the more moderated late 20th. So, although Silver is reluctant to say whether or not the “tyranny of Twitter” is better or worse than the traditional filter of the press, I’m less inclined to be so neutral on the matter. If things are not worse, I have to ask why it is that literally every subject—I mean every subject—has become aggressively politicized to the extent that both liberals and conservatives seem willing to ignore any number of technically apolitical realities in order to stand firm in their often futile convictions? Isn’t that the opposite result of what a “better informed electorate” was supposed to produce? Every day on Facebook, I see declarations of both left and right-wing outrage based solely on a misleading headline from some dubious source that is predicated on a complete distortion of facts that should never have been political in the first place.
But every topic feeds the circus now, and I guess that’s good for the people who own the proverbial tents, rings, cotton candy concessions, and sideshows; but it should be no surprise, then, when the most outrageous clown in the act winds up becoming the main attraction. Because, of course, Trump is troll-like inasmuch as his obnoxious comments lead serious people to wonder whether he means what he says, or if he’s purposely using divisiveness as a tactic. But this is hardly a distinction worth making because there is arguably no presidential material behind the troll, even if it isn’t an act. (I mean, you could almost hear the collective spit-take by the Joint Chiefs the day he casually suggested “bombing Iraq’s oil fields.”) But I think Trump is serious about his candidacy, which means he’s technically not a troll. To the contrary, he is a known quantity — a character who’s been part of our culture, for better or worse, for nearly 40 years. I’ve often thought of him as my generation’s Malcolm Forbes, but without being, y’know, interesting.
And this is perhaps the real reason Trump’s polling status is such a natural byproduct of our times: because he is a pre-digital-age master of what we might today call YouTube entrepreneurism. Trump has been “cultivating his personal brand” since long before the people were born, who now evangelize that idea on the stages of TEDx. His ego has been front and center since his earliest days developing real estate in New York City, and he has nurtured his personal brand into an icon of the American Boss—a cult of personality bizarrely based on the kind of guy you’d think nobody would ever want to work for in real life. Trump’s brand is being one of America’s biggest assholes, a role he has thoroughly embraced and even monetized. He trademarked the declaration “You’re fired”™ for crying out loud. Trump is to American politics as Kim Kardashian’s ass is to American culture, and maybe it’s working for now because we’ve migrated from the shallow waters of the sound-bite to the dry lake beds of click-bait.