Selling sincerity

After a brief wobble, it seems like The Donald’s campaign train is back on track after winning his home state of New York. It remains to be seen whether he’ll get enough delegates to avoid a contested convention, but chances are that he’ll be on the red half of the ticket come November.

It seems likely that he’ll be beaten by Hillary though when it comes down to the election proper. It’s a shootout between establishment and insurgent marginal forces within the American political system and, for all of his populist appeal, it seems like that plays into HRC’s favour. Trump divides an already fractured Republican party too much to overcome a largely united Democratic cohort, even after the Bernie Sanders’ rise.

Even if he fails to make it to the White House, it’ll be hard to deny that Trump’s campaign has heralded a significant departure from convention. His eschewal of traditional media sources for his advertising and the absurd level of earned media he’s acquired through his positioning have shown that there is more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to promoting your message and he, along with Sanders, have potentially changed the face of American electoral campaigning as we know it.

There is another way in which he may leave his legacy, though, despite his potential loss in November.

***

David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘Up, Simba!’ follows John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, and it’s a fascinating insight into the ins and outs of what it’s like being on the tour bus of someone trying to run for president, as well as granting us access to the intricacies of crisis management and to the mundane, repetitive nature of the campaign trail.

There are similarities between the Trump and McCain campaigns; both are positioning themselves as anti-establishment candidates who run on platforms divorcing themselves from vested interests, rely on tapping into voters outside their party’s traditional core demographics and deploy rhetoric that tells-it-like-it-is [McCain’s tour bus is called “The Straight Talk Express” – a name that would be equally at home alongside some garish ‘Trump’ branding].

In classic Wallace fashion, the author is able to cut through the surface level interactions and get to the real heart of things. His experiences on the trail leave him caught between optimism and cynicism – he finds McCain to be a magnetic presence and wants his promises to tell it straight without the bullshit and his pledge to want to be president ‘not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something’ to be genuine, but he can’t help but feel that maybe this anti-politics stance is just a particularly savvy piece of political packaging; intelligently marketing and spinning his own rejection of shrewd intelligent marketing and spinning.

As part of a tangential meditation on the nature of leadership, Wallace delineates a difference between salesmen and leaders that seems pertinent to any discussion about Donald Trump:

There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things(buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesman are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest – if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interest (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful…although it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough – like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say – it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

The clash between form and function, between structure and sensibility, and the inherent sense of hollowness that’s created when we find marketing taking the shape of things that should spiritually nourish us [politics, literature, hospitality etc.] is a central theme in all of Wallace’s work.

He goes on to note the connection between the two mediums through their shared terminology [political ‘campaign’ and marketing ‘campaign’] as well as questioning whether it makes a McCain a hypocrite for running an ad stating he tells ‘the truth even when it hurts him politically’ despite the fact that by running that in an ad he’s trying to gain political benefit through his indifference to political benefit.

It’s all a part of the difficulty at the heart of modern politics: the tension between a candidate’s appeal and the way a candidate’s appeal has to be presented if they want to be electable – and part of the reason Wallace has such a hard time trying to pin down McCain. It’s about our need for sincerity.

Which brings us nicely back to Trump. He potentially collapses the leader/salesman dichotomy in on itself. For one, he is literally a salesman. He styles himself as a titan of industry, an entrepreneur and a man of business, and his rhetoric is couched in the sort of language you’d expect from someone in sales – he’s constantly talking about making deals and driving hard bargains and telling Nevada voters: “We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything.”

But he also fits comfortably into Wallace’s political definition of a salesman as someone who is operating primarily out of self-interest. The difference is, Trump does so fairly openly. Salon recently reported some quotes from Stephanie Cegielski, the ‘ex-Trump Super PAC chief and communications expert’ who shined some light on this clear self-interest:

 

Even Trump’s most trusted advisors didn’t expect him to fare this well ” the goal was to get The Donald to poll in double digits and come in second in delegate count. That was it. The Trump camp would have been satisfied to see him polling at 12% and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50%. His candidacy was a protest candidacy.

What was once Trump’s desire to rank second place to send a message to America and to increase his power as a businessman has nightmarishly morphed into a charade that is poised to do irreparable damage to this country if we do not stop this campaign in its tracks ” He doesn’t want the White House. He just wants to be able to say that he could have run the White House. He’s achieved that already and then some. . . . The hard truth is: Trump only cares about Trump.

What was originally devised as a publicity campaign, designed to enhance his personal standing in the business world, has spiraled out of control due to the popularity of his demagoguery. This could prove to be the longest and most extended PR stunt in history.

And while he may have all the pomp and circumstance of his ‘Make America Great Again’ sloganeering, even his supporters seem to acknowledge that he is running because it benefits him personally, rather than out of a desire for public service, and that by riding on his coat tails the nation would benefit.

He does little to mask this reality in his speechmaking, as opposed to Clinton, Cruz and Sanders, who are all potentially as self-serving but campaign under the pretence that they aren’t running in an attempt to accrue power for themselves.

The Trump campaign has been so effective that its real legacy might be that naked self-interested taps into something within the disenfranchised electorate and could lead to a more open, sincere brand of politics in the future. Just not quite in the manner you’d hope.

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