When it comes to political entertainment, it doesn’t get much better than presidential election season in the United States. Foreign observers follow the race to determine who is best equipped to lead the US – and, to some extent, the world – toward a more stable, secure, and prosperous future. But in America, entertainment is king, and Americans tend to focus on excitement above all – who looks better, has a catchier sound bite, seems most “authentic,” and so on, often to the point of absurdity.
This is not a new approach, of course. Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, examined it in 1928, in his book Propaganda. “Politics was the first big business in America,” he declared, and political campaigns are “all side shows, all honors, all bombast, glitter, and speeches.” The key to victory is the manipulation of public opinion, and that is achieved most effectively by appealing to the “mental clichés and emotional habits of the public.”
A president, in other words, is nothing more than a product to be marketed. And, as any marketer knows, the quality of the product is not necessarily what drives its success; if it were, Donald Trump would not be regarded as a serious candidate for the Republican Party nomination, much less a top contender. Instead, a president must serve as a kind of imaginary friend: a beer buddy for men, an earnest empathizer for women, or a charming Twitter user for the millennials.
In the current campaign, the most complex candidate, Hillary Clinton, is suffering mightily as a result of – let’s be honest – personality issues. She has made important policy contributions as US Secretary of State in the first Obama administration, and she has offered what is arguably the most complete economic vision of any presidential candidate. Yet she is facing a serious challenge from Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist senator from Vermont, in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Sanders’s popularity stems partly from the image he projects of a stereotypical “nutty professor,” adorably of another world. His energetic and unselfconscious gesticulations make him seem passionate and genuine. Yet his actual policy suggestions – such as free post-secondary education and universal health care – resemble Trump’s calls to “make America great again,” in the sense that they establish simple yet visionary goals.
According to Bernays, people’s desire for simplicity extends to another area of electoral politics: “party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.” Here, the Republicans have gone badly astray. After beginning the election season with 17 candidates, they have managed to narrow it down by only a few, to 12.
Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and younger brother of George W. Bush, was initially considered a serious contender. But Trump is right, for once, in his observation that Bush is a “low-energy” person. He is the Charlie Brown of the election, whose every swipe at the football is thwarted by his savvier counterparts.
Another Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, is a more energetic establishment alternative. But his campaign, like his appearance, lacks definition and assertiveness – not to mention a good sound bite.
A lack of sound bites is not a problem for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose Tony Soprano vibe and brash one-liners have plenty of entertainment value. Indeed, in a typical US presidential election campaign, Christie might be a contender for the most cartoonish candidate. But this is not a typical campaign, because there’s nothing typical about Trump.
With his exaggerated facial expressions, penchant for trash talking, and love of superlatives, Trump – a showman and a businessman – seems to have the right background for Bernays-style public manipulation. But he has the wrong background for a president. (It is worth asking whether he really even wants to be President. He must know that, like the Wizard of Oz, he can portray himself as great and powerful only until he needs to perform actual miracles.)
Among these one-dimensional figures, one fully formed candidate stands out: the Texan Ted Cruz. Once a national debating champion, Cruz is fully in control of his persona; not even Trump, with his frantic attacks on Cruz’s eligibility (because he was born in Canada), can get under his skin.
In fact, it is Cruz who has made Trump squirm. In last week’s Republican debate, Cruz accused Trump of having “New York values,” calling the city (explicitly excluding New York State) “socially liberal” and focused on “money and media.” Cruz managed not only to get a rise out of Trump, but also to enhance his own appeal to conservative voters in the Midwest and South, who view the city as a kind of modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. (New Yorkers and many others were also offended by Cruz’s statement, not because the city isn’t socially liberal and the home base of America’s media and financial industries, but because the pejorative use of “New York” has historically been an anti-Semitic dog whistle.)
Appropriately plastic-looking, Cruz can, when necessary, act as brainless as Sarah Palin (who has just endorsed Trump). But Cruz, educated at Princeton and Harvard, is no fool. He is, as Bernays taught, treating his campaign as a “drive for votes, just as an Ivory Soap advertising campaign is a drive for sales.”
Trump is a showman who has captured the public’s attention. But Cruz is a propagandist, selling to his constituents an ostensibly credible story of actual leadership. Though he, like Clinton, is not the most broadly likable character, he would be a worthy contender in a presidential election. The question is whether Americans will want to buy what they are selling.
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