Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Trump Doesn't Care About Lies, He's Crafting An Image

E.J. Dionne's latest column bemoans once again that Trump's habitual violations of truth are his way of life. E.J.'s introduction to his column on Twitter:

For #Trump, a lie is as good as the truth, as long as a majority of his base believes it. He buries old falsehoods under new ones. And when it comes to creating new and unhinged narratives to displace those rooted in fact, Trump has no equal. My column:

Agreeing with him, I answered his tweet with my own 140 characters: “Good. But need to look at real game he's playing. It's show-biz. How do I look? Aggressive? In charge? Determined? Declare 'this is for you' and there's the image. People buy image more than logic. The challenge: Can Dems counter? Need better image, not better facts.”

OK, that's the gist of it. But, because the subject is so pressing, let me lay it out in 1,380 words rather than 140 characters.

First, there is a conflict between what Trump does and what the commentariat wants him to do because there are two different games being played. The commentariat – and people like me – admire politicians who make governing for the good of the country their number one goal. Running for office is their necessary prerequisite for governing. Communicating with the electorate and the commentariat needs to be more or less truthful, because that is part of good governance. We flatter ourselves that good communication and discussion leads to better policies supported by the country.

But it's obvious that Trump's game is much different. I doubt that he has any conception of the common good or the good of the country. His primary goal in life is “to win” and be seen as a winner. Winning an election is great, but making money is the true measure of winning, and scoring with women another indication of a winner. (That's the only mention of sex here; I felt I had to mention it to be complete, but we'll let it lie there.)

Everyone has a mix of motives in trying to be President, but few have Trump's particular balance. Few also have the tools that Trump brings to the task. He has long experience with the slime world of tabloids, he is a clever schoolyard bully, he channels the Borsht Belt as an entertainer, and he knows reality TV really well. With these tools, he can craft an image. That's what Trump really does, that's his major number one concern – what kind of image is he crafting. He wants to be seen as being in charge, of being a hero, of being bold, of fighting against enemies, and destroying what seems artificial and elite.

So that's his game – he wants to create that image. Everything else is secondary (except making money; even if the image fails at some point, if he's made a lot of money that he can keep, he's still a winner.)

(As an aside, this image probably also has psychic resonance to him, since as a pediatrician I think he probably suffered and continues to suffer from the childhood condition of oppositional-defiant disorder [https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/oppositional-defiant-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20375831]. [Others say it's tertiary syphilis, and it could be, given his prior medical care, but I'll pass over that for now.] There are probably many other complexes developed in childhood that continue to manifest themselves in him, that lead to his wanting to destroy, but that's not necessary for this analysis.)

So, if that's your goal, why tell the truth? That is so secondary. Keep the image going the way you would on a TV show, keep it moving, go side to side, keep everyone occupied. If the country as a whole understood the issues, followed the issues well, and judged by logic, he'd be a dead man. But not everyone does. Most people go by images. That's what they vote for, images. Probably includes you and me, as much as we might think otherwise. I think you get the picture.

The next question is, what to do about it if you are a politician opposing him, and if you are part of the media? First the media and commentariat: I'd stop saying “this is not normal.” The best disinfectant is sunlight, so apply sunlight. If I ran MSNBC, for instance, I'd divide my commentary into sections. I would fully and continually expose what Trump is doing – he is creating an image. I'd run 10 minute segments regularly as “Image Time,” as opposed to the slightly longer segment on policy, and the very much longer segment on horserace time. On “Image Time,” I would have real pros as the commentariat. Who's that? Perhaps reality TV producers; perhaps some political consultants who specialize in image. Perhaps some fiction writers. Scriptwriters. Not psychologists, not policy analysts. Limn how he's crafting his image, what he's doing, what he's aiming for – and how others are either aiding him or aping him or reacting to him otherwise. How is he controlling the show. There would be no need to judge whether or not what he's doing is a good thing, just report it straight.

It would also be interesting on Image Time to look how others are doing with their images – Pelosi, Schumer, all the old and the young. Especially the newly-emergent Dems, and especially the new younger women as they emerge. Just show-biz image coverage, not whether or not their plans make sense or whether or not they are telling the truth. Do they convey images that would lead voters to lay their trust in them, or are they turnoffs? Real, professional opinions, maybe backed by surveys and such. Wouldn't that be fascinating?

While all the professionals know that this is element is there, I have a feeling they currently don't know quite how to deal with it. They may think that if they get too far into it, they will be devaluing the serious policy and politics issues it is their job to elucidate. So, I put it to you commentariat – face it head on, establish a separate section where you are looking just at image, and then you can leave your serious discussions of policy and politics unsullied by the show-biz element.

Then for the politicians. You, too, have to look at the image issue squarely, both as it is used by Trump and how you use it. It's very helpful for you, too, to set image as an issue to be discussed. You can say, here's Trump's image, unfettered, strong, decisive, innovative, unafraid, etc. You can imitate the jut of his jaw if you like. Doing this is making a meta-communication, reflecting on the current process. This is what Chris Christy did so effectively in destroying Rubio on stage – he just repeats his memorized bits, said Christy, and as a gift to him that startled him and us, Rubio delivered just such a bit. Over and out for Rubio; it will be replayed for years, I'd guess, at least if opponents are smart. That's the power of a meta-communication.

And then, having dealt with that, you can say, that's what he says and how he poses, but is that really what he does? I personally would then use Mitt Romney's statement about Trump: He's a phony, a fraud. Mitt gets a lot of things wrong, I'd say, but this one he nailed. Having done that, the door is then open for the facts. Facts themselves cannot win the day, but when mixed with a meta-communication, they have a better chance. It should make for great short ads.

And then comes the hard part for the Dems – fixing yourself. Given the fact that image presentation and communication is such an important part of the job, it's amazing how amateurish so many professional pols are. Could they maybe take some acting lessons? I did that years ago and I never learned so much about others and myself. Just learn what an acting “action” is, what effect are you trying to have on the others, and you would go far. Don't think that just because Trump is hateful he doesn't have something to teach, because he does.

OK, that's pretty much it. I could go on – I have loads of paragraphs on the cutting room floor, and that would solidify my image of prolixity – but I won't.

What do you think? Makes sense to me.

Budd Shenkin

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