Monday, January 25, 2016

Winning the News Cycle: The Hypnotism of Donald Trump

Trump is always selling, and his fans are always buying.

I remember a small movie from the sixties that had a big impact on me, George C. Scott's portrayal of "The Flim-Flam Man." It drove two themes: One, "You can't cheat an honest man," and, two, "I never conned anyone who didn't want something for nothing." Both are hard truths we could use about now in the frightening, nightmare version of Magical Mystery Tour that is the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process.

Howard Fineman writes an interesting piece in this morning's Huffington Post about how presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin views Donald Trump's success (so far) with his campaign. Her thesis is that the media is failing at properly vetting Donald Trump, mostly because of the current short-attention-span focus on who's winning and losing the news cycle, who's up and who's down. She blames this on how social media and the Internet have usurped the prior role of the long-form press who, in conjunction with "party leaders," heretofore worked together to reveal the deeper natures of candidates and help -- for better or worse -- society from succumbing to hucksters, if you will.

We aren't doing that now, Goodwin maintains, and the result is the ascendancy, against all reason, of Donald Trump to the point that, holy hell, he just might win the GOP nomination. She's not wrong, and her thesis is convincing.

I taught marketing (along with economics) in high school for years, and each year I played a video by a no-name Canadian salesman about how "to sell." He ran through all the sales techniques he'd learned over the years and how to employ them to best advantage. His presentation was very revealing, and I had to admire his dedication to "always be closing."

That's Trump in a nutshell. He's a salesman, not a politician. (Let's forget for a moment that all politicians are salesmen and are always closing.) He's also a reality TV star, which is about "living" on TV, but always with a production team and a script. To a great extent, there's nothing real about reality TV. Trump knows this and applies it in the campaign. It's another aspect of his edge.

The result is that Trump is always selling, and his fans are always buying. And buying means pulling the lever for Trump. Of course the trouble with polls -- which Trump uses when he's in selling mode -- is that there can be fatal flaws in them. Supporters will cheer, go crazy at rallies, but with they walk into a booth on election day and pull that lever?

It's not a given with Trump fans, who may not be the classic voter. At least that's what the failed party leaders and thought leaders in the press hope, a week out from the Iowa Caucuses. It's more than a little troubling that we as a society find ourselves in this position.

Jeb Bush: shocked and awed.
What's more troubling is that Trump is winning (so far) for more reasons than that he's gamed the press, hypnotized his crowds, and gobbled up the new cycles one after the other. He's winning because his opposition (the other "brands") are so incredibly unappealing.

Cruz? Rubio? Bush? Christie? Kasich? Fiorina? Huckabee? Paul? Santorum? Carson? Walker? Perry? Jindal? Graham? Pataki? What are they selling, and who's buying?

No wonder Trump is stealing the news cycles. Can he steal the nomination? It's undeniably possible. If he wins, it's because people bought his pitch. If he loses, it's not because the people change their minds and buy some other candidate's pitch (I can't believe anyone is buying any other candidates' line) but because the party leaders and the thought leaders coalesce behind a message that finally convinces: Trump is too freaky, folks. You can't seriously want him in front of your party!

Who the nomination then goes to is secondary. Anyone but Trump! That the anyone-but-Trump might be pretty freaky, too, is somehow beside the point.

The trouble is, how do you win the news cycle (or a series of them) with that? Trump will just shout, "YOU WANT THESE PARTY LEADERS?" and "YOU DON'T BELIEVE THE LYIN' MEDIA, DO YOU?" followed by a dismissive "I didn't think so. They're so weak."

And he wins. So far.

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