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Donald Trump is a superhero – but not in a good way

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Hovering above all the brouhaha about Donald Trump's bizarre presidential candidacy floats one critical question: Are we an electorate or are we an audience?

Trump has bet on the latter, while his competitors, even one like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has positions close to Trump on many issues, bet on the former. Trump has received a lot of opprobrium for his antics, but it isn't clear that he is wrong. Even if much of the establishment and leading political analysts have already rendered their verdicts.

Trump certainly isn't the first candidate to conflate entertainment and politics. When Ronald Reagan was asked if it was hard adjusting to being president after being an actor, he replied that he couldn't imagine anyone being president without being an actor. Reagan was right. Performance skills, including the skill of drawing attention to oneself, are now intrinsic to political skills if one hopes to become president.

But Reagan was talking about communication, which is why he always invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another great communicator, as a model. He wasn't talking about replacing substantive policy with performance.

Something has happened over the past 15 years or so that has radically altered the relationship between performance and politics. It is partly due to the U.S. political arena, in which a candidate must constantly try to grab attention. More subtly, however, it is also due to America's ever-shifting popular culture, in which new kinds of narratives regularly push aside older ones.

Today it is comic-book superhero narratives that matter. We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar. And this has affected our political discourse.

Many pundits attribute Trump's publicity domination to his celebrity and his ability to grab the spotlight, honed by decades of playing the media. To many of them, he is the political Kardashian. There is some truth in this. The public's appetite for Trump seems limitless. And he understands that, in today's culture, the shortest road to success might not actually mean being successful but portraying yourself as being successful. Which then results in success. In effect, he is a Mobius strip seamlessly moving from perception to reality.

But as much as Trump boasts about his wealth (and denigrates everyone else), that is not what has catapulted the New York real estate magnate to the top of the Republican polls. He has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In this superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over opponents.

What Trump offers them is his detestation of the very mechanics of politics - and of democracy itself. He has no time for the compromises, negotiations, consensus building, civility and seriousness required in a democracy. The aptly named Trump is telling them that he will trump the entire political system. He'll replace the mess of politics with a clean sweep of super heroics.

Reagan, the one professional entertainer who did assume the presidency, never purported to be a superhero. Quite the opposite. As studio boss Jack Warner quipped when he heard Reagan was running for governor of California: "No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend." That was exactly right. Reagan was genial - the happy face of conservatism.

Trump, on the other hand, is no one's best friend. He intentionally irritates.

Sure, his disruption is entertainment. The Huffington Post has already decided to consign Trump's campaign to its entertainment pages. But it is a particular kind of entertainment, not just nutty bloviation.

When Trump promises to build his wall across the entire Mexican-U.S. border (and make Mexico pay for it!); when he promises to tell off China; when he promises to blow Islamic State off the face of the earth, he isn't propounding policy. He is creating scenes from a movie. A movie we have all seen now dozens of times. He is playing to an audience that has foresworn being an electorate. It is what all demagogues do, but most of them have not had popular culture at their back the way Trump does.

This may also be why Trump keeps doubling-down on his inanities - accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists or insisting Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a hero. Iron Man doesn't apologize. He destroys. So does Trump. The more the political establishment rebukes him, the better.

But if Trump has bet on the electorate as audience, and on his ability to turn the presidential campaign into a Marvel movie, he may not have fully gamed it out. He may not have considered that entertainment, which is fundamentally anti-political, inevitably loses out when it comes up against politics, which is fundamentally anti-entertainment.

In the past, at some point, the demagogues who make themselves out to be populist superheroes have hit a critical mass where their posturing can trigger the public to say the show is over and the jig is up. As pollster Stuart Rothenberg recently explained, Trump's popularity is a product of his voicing the angry sentiments many Republicans feel. It is not a product of their really wanting him to be president.

Usually sooner rather than later, the lights come up in the theater, and the audience walks out into the bracing real world from which they had been escaping.

At least that is the way it has always been. Trump is in a movie. His competitors are in a primary. If he somehow manages to sustain his candidacy, if the power of popular culture has so embedded itself in Americans' consciousness as to make the public re-envision the world, it will say less about Trump than about a sea change in U.S. political culture - from one that is about governance to one that is about putting on an exhilarating show.

Trump can't be president any other way.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2015.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.


21 Comments
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"What Trump offers them is his detestation of the very mechanics of politics - and of democracy itself. He has no time for the compromises, negotiations, consensus building, civility and seriousness required in a democracy. . . He is creating scenes from a movie. A movie we have all seen now dozens of times. He is playing to an audience that has foresworn being an electorate. It is what all demagogues do," - Neal Gabler

Trumps appeal, and assumed fan base approval, is a product of infatuation with fantasy dictators who can do no wrong, care nothing if they do and dismiss all opinions except their own. (See: AWOL Bush/Cheney 2000-2008 for illustration)

This through the looking glass perversion of representative democracy fails at, and fails completely at, is the assumption of consent of the governed to crown a clown dictator and then imagine the buffoon can somehow ignore the electorate, ignore their failures and ignore the warnings of disaster that surround the real world execution of buffoonery as policy. (See: AWOL Bush/Cheney 2000-2008 for illustration)

The GOP-Tea poll numbers don't illustrate Trump's credibility but the fantasy world that has consumed the GOP-Tea politically, morally and intellectually. Some can easily propose that since this selling of fantasy worked so well in creating the three Trillion dollar disaster of AWOL Bushwars why not let another intellectual midget front the same bombast without any reflection on the destruction this delusion has already created only seven years ago.

Again, what the polls show is the core belief of GOP-Tea zombies is a complete lack of interest in the consequence of this type of arrogance; an arrogance that works so well in the alternate reality of comic book heroes and creates so much real destruction in the lives, societies and fiscal fallout from hubris and ignorance.

Those who believe Trump would be a perfectly good dictator are correct. Too bad the dictatorship they crave is as much a failure of intellect as the hair piece Trump now wears as his crown of thorns. Jesus Trump thinks his roadshow of ascending to the office of President will entertain a few morons but that is the formula his TV shows have followed for the past decade and sadly fewer and fewer can tell the difference. Even Trump, who is his biggest fan.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

History is full of leaders, democratically elected as well as those who came to power by other means, who had disastrous policies and were often weird, but nevertheless gained a huge following and led their countries/empires/whatever into disaster. Charisma especially counts for a lot in a democracy - famously pandering to the lowest common denominator never drove anyone to the poorhouse nor hurt anyone in plenty of democracies.

The Donald may well be a jerk but our modern celebrity obsessed society and media love jerks.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Interesting opinion piece, though I would argue that he's wrong about most conservatives ultimately not wanting Trump to be president and seeing him as only a temporary manifestation of their grievances. I would say for many Trump is exactly what they are looking for

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Interesting opinion piece, though I would argue that he's wrong about most conservatives ultimately not wanting Trump to be president and seeing him as only a temporary manifestation of their grievances. I would say for many Trump is exactly what they are looking for

Polling data indicates that the author's assertion is correct. Look up what Stuart Rothenberg said. With that in mind, what do you base your assertion, when the actual data seems to suggest the opposite?

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Trump is only popular because a LITTLE of what he says is absolutely true.

And that LITTLE bit is this:

People in Washington, and the Media are idiots who care not about the common man and should not be trusted.

This opinion writer is just mad (as is everyone else) because Trump is calling a spade a spade.

It irks the self proclaimed enlightened ones (media, politicians, et al) to no end that this blowhard is popular.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Encapsulating the zeitgeist entrancing a certain portion of the US's population is the Donald's description of how he would replace Obamacare (as per a CNN interview):

Repeal and replace (Obamacare) with something terrific. The terrific will be plans that could be done by private companies.

Google it if you want more drivel; it does not get any better. Aside from the fact that Planet Donald is completely divorced from reality (Excuse me?! With no public option, only private companies are participating in Obamacare!), he utterances are similarly devoid of detail. Now, you may disagree with the basic premise of Obamacare - that insurance should be available to all at affordable prices, requiring sacrifices by some portions of society - but to pretend that the former can be achieved without the latter is infantile.

This is what a significant portion of the GOP-leaning electorate desire: all cake and no vegetables. Choose any important subject - immigration, Iran, global warming - heck, even funding something as basic as highways - and you'll be met by mouth-frothing, Gadsden-flag-bearing zealots who equate compromise with mortal sin. Their behavior has clearly affected those who represent them, and hence the current sorry state of the GOP.

The Donald is merely a symptom; the cause is that segment of the American electorate. How it will end, nobody knows, but what is sure is that September, when Congress reconvenes to deal with the nations highways, pass a new budget, raise the debt ceiling and debate the Iran deal, will be a rather thrilling month with only a tad over a year to the next presidential election. My guess is that nobody in the GOP will survive the coming carnage looking anything presidential.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Each candidate has their campaign song. I suggest that The Donald use Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball". His antics so far indicate that is what he is turning out to be. As Laguna says in the post just before this one, "nobody in the GOP will survive the carnage." This will benefit Hillary. As I have been saying, you'd better get used to it guys, "Madame President" !

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"I am what I am! From my rump to the stump!", said the great Trump with a mighty humpf!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Trumps appeal is he isn't one if the cretins in the political class. They have proven to greedy incompetent parasites and almost anyone with money to fight against the political class and a bit of a show can do well.

The author is incorrect on history. The current Democratic party traces itself back to Andrew Jackson. His presidency was also entirely populist and the altered Democratic party invented the idea of running on popularity.Jackson was an uneducated outsider, failed and succeeded, was just as inflammatory and attacked opponents like trump. In fact attacking opponents with outrageous comments goes back to the beginning. Nothing new here.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Trumps appeal, and assumed fan base approval, is a product of infatuation with fantasy dictators who can do no wrong, care nothing if they do and dismiss all opinions except their own. (See: AWOL Bush/Cheney 2000-2008 for illustration)

No, Trump's popularity stems from the outgrowth and dissatisfaction with Washington, the politicians and of course, Obama and the last disastrous 7 years.

to crown a clown dictator and then imagine the buffoon can somehow ignore the electorate, ignore their failures and ignore the warnings of disaster that surround the real world execution of buffoonery as policy.

You have just single-handedly described and summed up Obama to a tee!

The GOP-Tea poll numbers don't illustrate Trump's credibility but the fantasy world that has consumed the GOP-Tea politically, morally and intellectually.

You do know that Hillary is polling at 57% disapproval rating now and all because of her.....credibility.

Some can easily propose that since this selling of fantasy worked so well in creating the three Trillion dollar disaster of AWOL Bushwars why not let another intellectual midget front the same bombast without any reflection on the destruction this delusion has already created only seven years ago.

But what about the $19 Trillion that Obama accumulated and added on to the debt and deficit. Why NO mention of that?

Again, what the polls show is the core belief of GOP-Tea zombies is a complete lack of interest in the consequence of this type of arrogance; an arrogance that works so well in the alternate reality of comic book heroes and creates so much real destruction in the lives, societies and fiscal fallout from hubris and ignorance.

That arrogance falls along bipartisan lines, both parties are EQUALLY guilty of this.

Those who believe Trump would be a perfectly good dictator are correct. Too bad the dictatorship they crave is as much a failure of intellect as the hair piece Trump now wears as his crown of thorns.

We already have a clown, a tyrant and a president with supposedly so much education and absolutely NOTHING to show for it. But thankfully, his reign will soon end.

Jesus Trump thinks his roadshow of ascending to the office of President will entertain a few morons but that is the formula his TV shows have followed for the past decade and sadly fewer and fewer can tell the difference. Even Trump, who is his biggest fan.

Now that's something Trump and Obama have in common, they both looooove the camera and the limelight. Because in the end, the ONLY thing for these two that is the most important thing is stuffing their self-centered egos.

Now, you may disagree with the basic premise of Obamacare - that insurance should be available to all at affordable prices, requiring sacrifices by some portions of society - but to pretend that the former can be achieved without the latter is infantile.

Wait until the Cadillac tax kicks in, then you'll see real serious problems start to pop up and it won't be pretty.

This is what a significant portion of the GOP-leaning electorate desire: all cake and no vegetables. Choose any important subject

Yes, let's!

immigration, Iran, global warming - heck, even funding something as basic as highways

In 2008 when the Dems controlled all 3 branches of government, the Dems could've passed a bill to fund the reconstruction of the highways and the rest of our crumbling (mostly in the East Coast) infrastructure, but they didn't and now you libs one to put that of the GOP, unbelievable!

and you'll be met by mouth-frothing, Gadsden-flag-bearing zealots who equate compromise with mortal sin. Their behavior has clearly affected those who represent them, and hence the current sorry state of the GOP.

Hmmm, killing a lion produces outrage and condemnation and the man who did it is being harassed and excoriated and they want to throw him in prison for 10 years and yet, what Planned Parenthood is doing gets a pass, especially knowing what we now now about that place.

The Donald is merely a symptom; the cause is that segment of the American electorate. How it will end, nobody knows,

Once the politicians start to listen to the people.

but what is sure is that September, when Congress reconvenes to deal with the nations highways, pass a new budget, raise the debt ceiling and debate the Iran deal,

So once again, Obama doesn't want to cut on spending, but wants to raise the debt ceiling....again??? And so the debt grows.....

will be a rather thrilling month with only a tad over a year to the next presidential election. My guess is that nobody in the GOP will survive the coming carnage looking anything presidential.

I'm more worried about the bludgeoning that Hillary is getting from the media, if this trend continues she might not even get the nomination...I hope.

"nobody in the GOP will survive the carnage." This will benefit Hillary. As I have been saying, you'd better get used to it guys, "Madame President" !

I think Hillary should use the song for herself or better, the Eurythmics song "Would I lie to you?"

More bad news for Clinton!!!

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/hillary-clinton-poll-trump-2015-7

And if John Kasich starts to climb the polls, then she'll really have serious problem.

-11 ( +2 / -13 )

Trump will always be more popular than the author of this article no matter what either one says. Trump said things many average citizens have been saying for years. This author wouldn't print anything an average person would say, you have to be a superhero to get his attention.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

LagunaJUL. 31, 2015 - 03:12PM JST Encapsulating the zeitgeist entrancing a certain portion of the US's population is the Donald's description of how he would replace Obamacare (as per a CNN interview):

Repeal and replace (Obamacare) with something terrific. The terrific will be plans that could be done by private companies.

Your post is spot on. Well done.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Trump makes me laugh. He will get my vote.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Robert WaltersAUG. 01, 2015 - 02:00AM JST Trump will always be more popular than the author of this article no matter what either one says. Trump said things many average citizens have been saying for years.

I challenge you to provide a link to a single thoughtful and informed thing Trump has said about any issue that concern the American electorate in general. A billionaire like Trump is no more in tune with the "average" citizen than was John D. Rockefeller.

In the mean time . . .

Here's one from a wingnut website criticizing him for backpedalling on immigration.

http://www.breitbart.com/immigration/2015/07/30/trump-goes-mushy-incoherent-on-immigration/

Here's one about his dissing McCain as a war hero. While he actually got this one right (McCain was shot down because he disobeyed orders), too many on the right still think Grandpa is a special kind of guy.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/07/18/trump-slams-mccain-for-being-captured-in-vietnam/

Here's one from right wing business rag Forbes on Trump's energy policy.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2011/04/23/dumbest-guy-in-the-room-donald-trumps-energy-policy/

Here's an article in the Murdoch owned NY Post teeing of on The Donald's idiotic utterances on Mexicans.

http://nypost.com/2015/07/10/trumps-facts-on-mexicans-and-crime-are-just-wrong/

On taxes.

http://www.taxjusticeblog.org/archive/2015/06/donald_trumps_regressive_and_r.php

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"Stuart Rothenberg recently explained, Trump’s popularity is a product of his voicing the angry sentiments many Republicans feel. It is not a product of their really wanting him to be president." - article

The simpleton cries for another GOP-Tea dummy to destroy the world. (See: AWOL Bush/Cheney 2000-2008 for illustration)

Jesus Trump answers the call for another decade of destruction. The GOP-Tea has their Messiah, and Trump epitomizes the worst of the ignorant and the best of the arrogant racists who dominate he GOP-Tea.

Rock-On Jesus Trump, your idiot followers can't wait for another BushWar on America.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

His hair looks like shaved ice, but he gets my vote for sure.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The simpleton cries for another GOP-Tea dummy to destroy the world.

I think Obama already scorched the US enough. Trump couldn't possibly do worse.

Jesus Trump answers the call for another decade of destruction. The GOP-Tea has their Messiah, and Trump epitomizes the worst of the ignorant and the best of the arrogant racists who dominate he GOP-Tea.

Racists, how so?? For the last 6 years NO one has uttered the words Race or RACISM more than the Democrats and liberals, NONE and especially this president with his racist friend Al Sharpton. This administration by far has played...overplayed...played out the race card issue.

Rock-On Jesus Trump, your idiot followers can't wait for another BushWar on America.

As much as I dislike Trump, I would seriously doubt he would allow Iran to obtain a bomb and I believe he would do whatever is necessary to take ISIS out and judging by the polls, seems like the people are behind him.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

Interesting piece about Donald Trump. I like the Donald, and so long as he keeps doing what he is doing, he has my vote and support.

I'm learning much about politics and political discussion as I head into my latter forties: most people are pretty much deadset on the right, left, and in the center, and there is very little to say to change anyone's mind. There is very little debate and honest discourse on political matters, as anyone who disagrees with the majority and/or popular is shouted down and made to shut up (the whole "Gay 'Marriage'" thing comes glaringly and blatantly to mind).

The days of honest disagreement are over, and this (hit?)piece does naught to enable such....

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Bush junior did two terms, then why Trump cannot not make himself a president? He seems give or take what Republicans are to me.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Blah blah blah, the people who write crap like this story would be writing equally bad things about the top polling Republican no matter who it is. They always say the same things... Its not original.... To call ANYONE a bad racist after this administration has whipped up race wars over the last 6 years is laughable...

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

"whipped up race wars"

Are those anything like real wars, or are they more like Jade Helm conspiracy panic attacks?

Thank goodness the previous president never stooped to starting any real wars...cough...right?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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