The Trump Spectacle

9780700622856By Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, his future course as president is as hard to predict as the man himself. One prediction, however, seems safe to make: Trump’s presidency will be a continual spectacle in the media.

I depict the presidential spectacle in the first chapter of my recently published book with the University Press of Kansas: Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. It is through spectacles mounted in the media that presidents establish a political identity (and critics contest it with their own media efforts). The idea of the presidential spectacle contains three elements:  the presentation of the president as a larger-than-life character, the supporting role of the president’s team, and the ensemble of White House gestures whose principal aim is to dramatize the president’s virtues rather than to promote policy accomplishments. Since the coming of the television age in the administration of John F. Kennedy, every president has had to cope with the imperative of producing a winning spectacle.

During his extraordinary run for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to possess all the ingredients of a historic spectacle. Once in office, however, Obama concentrated heavily on the details of policymaking, slighting, by his own admission, the “symbols and gestures” through which a president communicates with the public. Immersed in rational deliberation, Obama lost much of his campaign luster, and the press began to complain that he was too cerebral, too cool, too aloof—in short, “professorial.” Obama regained some of his spectacle mojo in his second term, especially with African Americans and millennials, but his presidency remained committed at its core to good policy as the core of good government.

Evincing little interest in the substance of public policy, Donald Trump is likely to epitomize the opposite of Obama: the presidency as pure spectacle. Trump’s campaign for the White House was all “symbols and gestures,” with grandiose themes backed by scanty details. The signature spectacle of the Trump campaign was his rallies. These were participatory events for rally attendees, vicarious participation for his millions of followers watching on television.

Trump rallies were unlike any others in presidential campaigning. They were spectacles of fervor and fury. In some respects they resembled rock concerts: the star performer in the spotlight, the audience garbed in fan T-shirts and hats, the crowds chanting their favorite lines. “Build the wall” and “lock her up” allowed the crowds to echo Trump’s own contempt for immigrants and for his opponent, simultaneously signaling menace to the protestors and journalists in the hall who Trump pointed out in anger.

The rally attendees and the fans watching around the nation were predominantly the white working-class base that was the key to Trump’s election as president. His rallies were not the first occasions when he had found this base and made it his own. Recall Donald Trump’s stint with professional wrestling: he will be the first president who has previously been welcomed into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Recall Trump’s role as impresario of the Miss Universe pageant.  Trump staged profitable spectacles of beauties and beasts—of slim young women in bathing suits and huge men in trunks. These were not spectacles that appealed to the educated classes, especially to those that Trump delighted in denouncing as “politically correct.” But through these spectacles the billionaire connected to a working-class base that no other candidate in 2016 could reach. One cannot imagine a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, as the host of wrestling matches or beauty contests.

Since his election, Trump has not let go of spectacle for a minute. His auditions for cabinet positions have been a near-daily TV drama as he holds court in his iconic Manhattan tower. He has even reenacted his campaign rallies in “thank-you” appearances–a golden-oldies tour that keeps the fans aroused. His inauguration is likely to be over-the-top in gold and glitz. But the day after, he will have to govern, and then the Trump spectacle will meet its real test.

At least two major risks for the Trump spectacle can be foreseen. One is that Trump’s non-stop spectacle will grow tiresome, as an increasing share of the public audience feels that they have seen his antics too many times. Franklin D. Roosevelt is an instructive guide here. FDR’s fireside chats were an electronic marvel of simulated intimacy between a president and his people. Yet the fireside chats were broadcast on average only 2.5 times per year. When a supporter urged FDR to take to the air more often to promote his agenda, the president demurred, arguing that over-exposure would take away the freshness—and the effectiveness—of his radio appearances.

An even larger risk to the Trump spectacle is the intrusion of reality. It is far easier to make promises on the campaign trail than to deliver on them in the White House, especially when the promises, like Trump’s, are grandiose and may run contrary to long-established trends. The capacity of stark realities to subvert crowd-pleasing spectacles is illustrated by a notorious event during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” spectacle on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his apparent triumph in Iraq, the press treated it as a new peak in the production of spectacle. However, after the conflict in Iraq resumed with appalling brutality, “Mission Accomplished” became a mockery for Bush. Presidents may score points for an appealing spectacle, but they are judged in the end by how well they perform in enacting successful policies.

Donald Trump has built a remarkably successful career through his talent at spectacle. It has been his one true qualification for the office of president. But will it be enough to carry him through a successful administration? In business, and now in politics, he has lived by spectacle. In the White House, that may be a fatal flaw.

2016 Elections: A Guide for the Perplexed

9780700622764By Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy, Authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century

Trump triumphed. Since he will become President of the United States, his victory matters. If he carries out his platform promises, he will create major changes in tax policy, immigration, foreign policy, Supreme Court appointments and, therefore, in social policies like abortion and gay rights. There will be broad resistance to those Trump policies but by executive orders and the momentum of the first hundred days of his presidency in Congress, he will get his way in changing the country’s direction in the beginning.

In Trump’s victory charisma and anger won over a less charismatic candidate following a careful game plan.

After this election, the Republicans will have a narrower margin in the Senate of probably 52-48 with Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth’s win in Illinois and a Democrat leading in New Hampshire. But to block any measures President Trump proposes, like destroying Obamacare, would require some moderate Republicans to join with the Democrats.

In the House of Representatives Democrats will probably hold 195 seats to Republican’s 240, too few to block Trump proposals. As a result, the Republicans will be firmly in control under Speaker Paul Ryan, but he may not be lock-step with Trump on all issues.

There were other lessons. Every election seems to be more expensive than the last. 2016 was one the most expensive elections in American. At least $1.3 billion was spent by Presidential candidates, $1 billion by candidates for the House of Representative, and $700 million on the U.S. Senate contests. Contested congressional election candidates spent at least from $2 million each and many spent much more. U.S. Senate races often cost $20-$40 million or more depending on outside PAC spending. In states like Illinois, a half-dozen state legislative districts spent more than $2 million on each of the opposing candidates which is a new record in Illinois. In the most expensive race for Illinois State Legislature, the candidates spent from $106 – $133 for each of the 20,000 votes they each received.   We desperately need real public funding of campaigns or “Small D Democracy” as advocates call it.

After 2014 there were 20 women in the U.S. Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. Having Hillary Clinton as a major party Presidential nominee was a breakthrough for women this year, but women still have a hard time gaining parity with men at all levels of government. These 2016 elections only slightly improved situation as women hold only 20% of all elected offices. This needs to change, just as more Latino and Asian-Americans need to be able to run strong campaigns and get elected if our government is to look more like the U.S. population.

There were several reform experiments in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. In many states, voters can register or change their registration online. Early voting has been extended brought to some college campuses. More people voted early than ever before. Absentee voting can now happen without giving any reasons in most states. And voters were still allowed to register in many precinct polling places even on Election Day. However, Automatic Voter Registration has not yet been widely adopted even though it would allow more people to participate and vote without artificial barriers.

Much of this year’s elections happened behind the scenes at both the national and local elections. Our book Winning Elections in the 21st Century decodes how voter analytics, social media, and old-fashioned door-to-door campaign work proceeded out of the spotlight. It also provides a handbook for those who are dissatisfied with candidates who were elected from local school board member to the President to win with popular participation in the elections of 2018 and beyond.

So what is next? Those who support President Trump will work to help him to have a successful first 100 days in office. Those who oppose President Trump and his policies will work to build resistance as many did when they opposed Reagan’s economic policies back in the 1980s. But the opposition must present a clear alternative and sell it to American voters if they are to win future elections.

In the end, this was an election in which the majority of American voted no against the elites and the status quo. There have been more than 4.4 million home foreclosures since the Great Recession began in 2008. There have been no real salary increases for the working and middle class. Unemployment, especially in ghetto areas and among young adults, remains too high. Americans were mad as hell and by their vote they signaled they aren’t going to take it anymore.

Decoding the 2016 Elections

9780700622764Election campaigns this year are playing by new rules. The 2016 presidential nominating conventions clearly demonstrated that many voters are profoundly angry with politics as usual. Republicans primary voters bypassed even Tea Party candidates to nominate Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent, won both delegates and platform concessions from Hillary Clinton. The alienated in both parties show deep dissatisfaction with elected officials, whom they view as ineffective and nonresponsive.

At the same time, campaigns have become increasingly expensive. Candidates spend too much of their time raising money. Often, they seek to please potential donors more than their constituents.

The Citizen United and McCutcheon court cases have drastically affected 21st century campaigns. Not only have limits on spending by interest groups been eliminated, but SuperPAC donors remain secret and flood campaigns with “dark money. Our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century, explains how grassroots campaigns can win despite these obstacles. It also decodes behind the scenes changes in the 2016 elections.

A strong candidate with avid volunteers can still win votes with little money. The first thousand votes are cheap ‑ almost free ‑ because as much as five percent of the vote is obtained just by getting your candidate’s name on the ballot. The next few thousand votes require financing a headquarters, staff, and publicity. Toward the end of a close race, advertising extras like radio or television ads and direct mail must be bought.  In today’s elections, however, there are additional costs in purchasing data analytic and technological expertise in managing social media, as well as purchasing Internet platforms and ads.

Comparing today’s elections from those of the past, the Internet and related technology cannot be overlooked. The technology developed by national campaigns is now used in local campaigns to interact with their potential supporters to get volunteers, donations, and votes. Planning an online campaign begins by building an integrated system with traditional and online campaign components reinforcing each other. The major technological components of a twenty-first century participatory campaign include a campaign webpage, blogs, email lists, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Social media and bloggers have influence, so campaigns develop ways to monitor and respond to them. Knowing this, Donald Trump conducted his successful primary campaign mainly through use of often-hourly tweets. He sent more than 5,000 tweets in the first few months and had millions of views by the time of the early primaries.

Data analytics, information on voters gathered through social media data, is also having a major effect on present-day campaigns. Even local campaigns now use cookie-targeted online advertising to reach voters. Campaigns market their candidate online just like any other product.

Online politics brings both benefits and  problems to voters and candidates. A candidate with no gravitas can use a catchy campaign to gain notoriety, displacing a worthy candidate with less online presence. This accounts for Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

The Internet and social media have become a permanent part of modern political campaigns. Wise use of digital media gives an edge to a candidate, enabling anyone to interact with them.  Smart campaigns use social media to reach voters inexpensively.

As we recount in Winning Elections in the 21st Century, campaigns at even the most local level cost more than even the most expensive campaigns twenty years ago. Yet, raising money other than in Internet appeals is much the same.  The candidate still has to meet and call donors for hours every single day.

Today’s campaigns are digital, with websites, voter analytics, and social media.  Digital technologies make it possible to select which voters to contact and how best to approach them; sending information cheaply to them through the Internet.  But the simple principle behind this is the same since the days of Abraham Lincoln.  Find your favorable voters, get them to the polls, and you win the election.

Some of these new campaign trends boost voter information and participation.  Some negative aspects threaten democracy.  All these techniques, both the good and the bad, are now coming to local campaigns. Digital media is evolving quickly, so it is critical that it be harnessed to improve informed, democratic participation. This is a major challenge, not only for the Clinton and Trump campaigns, but for candidates running for town council, school board, or state legislature.  No matter how crazy this election becomes under the new rules of the game, the end must be to improve, not undermine, our democracy.

-Written by Betty O’Shaughnessy & Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century

Will First Spouse Bill Clinton take the place of a Vice President?

9780700622023Will a Hillary Clinton administration reverse the forty year advance in influence of the vice presidency? A new article in History News Network by Saint Louis University Professor of Law Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden, discusses the book’s case for the importance of the modern vice presidency and whether a former president as First Spouse might challenge its role in a new administration.

Trump Faces Multiple Challenges in Selecting a Running Mate

9780700622023Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden, analyzes the difficulties Trump must deal with in choosing a vice presidential candidate for the 2016 election campaign, in an article in Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Among those challenges is Trump’s lack of established relationships with Republicans from the four feeder groups: senator, high national executive branch official, governor, or member of the House of Representatives.