Part Two: Trump
[Part One ended with the rhetorical question, “What does the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election have to do with 2016? Both nothing and everything.” This next installment attempts to answer that question.]
Donald Trump is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. As I watched the debates of the primary season, I found myself surprisingly wistful for the Guvenator. As I have mentioned, I did not vote for him, and neither was I a fan of his administration. And yet, compared to the recent round of Republican candidates, he suddenly seemed not so bad in retrospect. After all, if the Republic (of California) didn’t thrive under his leadership, it didn’t fall either. Trump seemed much more dangerous, and this was in the summer of 2015, when Megyn Kelly started bleeding. It was long before he made fun of a disabled journalist, before his clash with Khzir and Ghazala Khan, before the infamous “grab her by the pussy” tape . . .
Let me say this again: Donald Trump is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. But there is a common denominator. Trump, like Schwarzenegger, entered the race as an outsider: someone who was not part of the political establishment. He portrayed himself as someone who was not beholden to Washington (or Sacramento) special interests. Like Schwarzenegger, he was someone who would use his own funds to finance his campaign. And, again, he’s someone who is famous and not famous as a politician. Instead, both Trump and Schwarzenegger were famous because they were known quantities to average Americans who watch television and go to the movies. They’re entertainment. And they’re entertaining. And as UCLA professor Douglas Kellner has argued, “the boundary between politics and entertainment has been increasingly blurry since the O.J. Trial and the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal.
Even if voters didn’t sit through a single one of Schwarzenegger’s THIRTY FOUR movies (plus a couple shorts, a couple TV cameos, and a video game, but who’s counting?), they knew who he was and what he was about, or at least what they thought he was about. He was the Terminator, the solution to higher taxes and what appeared to be an economy in crisis, who would ride into Sacramento in his Hummer and bid “Hasta la vista, baby!” to the unpopular Gray Davis and then “rescue California.” Similarly, even those who didn’t watch a single episode of The Apprentice, Celebrity or otherwise, knew “You’re FIRED!” And this signature phrase went on to become the punchline of stump speeches, various campaign t-shirts, bumper stickers, and memes aimed at Obama, Hillary, Congress, the middle class, and countless others . . .
There have been dozens of think-pieces trying to explain how Trump won the Presidency. Some say that it’s because he managed to tap into the hidden currents of racism and sexism and xenohobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia . . . that have long been unacknowledged in these United States. Others say that it’s because he’s anti-establishment. Still more people blame various groups, particularly white women, for voting against their own self interest in service to internalized misogyny. Many of these claims ring true to me.
But there’s another reason that Trump was able to win: the Democrats ran the wrong candidate. No, NOT BERNIE SANDERS. I return to my original point: the Democrats should have run Martin Sheen.
To clarify: I like Hillary Clinton. I voted for Hillary Clinton. Twice. But I have long suspected that she was the wrong candidate to win this particular race, just as I thought that John Kerry was the wrong candidate in 2004 (and voted for him anyway) and Al Gore was the wrong candidate in 2000 (and voted for him anyway). Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate to win the 2016 race. The only way to beat a character is to run a better character. Hillary Clinton is many things, but she is not a character at all, let alone a better one.
When I say that Hillary Clinton is not a “better character,” I am not saying that she is unqualified. To the contrary, I agree with President Obama, who said that “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” Even Bill Weld, the vice-president candidate of one of her opponents seems to have agreed. But neither she nor Bernie (nor any of the other Democrats who vied for the ticket) could ultimately compete with Trump because for a wide swath of the electorate, at best qualifications don’t matter. At worst, qualifications are a disadvantage when running against a character, whether that character is a Schwarzenegger or a Trump.
You might be thinking that Hillary does, in fact, have a public persona, and if you are thinking this, you are correct. But Hillary’s public persona is the wrong kind of public persona for this contest. Hillary is famous for a long career in public service. She’s famous for standing by her husband in the wake of a sex scandal. She’s famous putting her shoulder to the grindstone and for doing the work, whether that work was as a Senator for the state of New York or as the Secretary of State. She is not famous for seeking the limelight or cultivating a celebrity fanbase. For some of us, these traits are admirable. But some of us was not enough this time.
The problem is that none of the things for which Hillary is best known allowed the American public to see what she’s actually like as a human being. Take for example one of the most iconic Hillary Clinton images of the campaign, the one that went viral as the meme “Texts from Hillary.” The image is one of illegibility. Her face is deadpan, almost expressionless; she’s not only looking down at a phone, the screen of which we can’t see, but she’s also wearing sunglasses. This is an image of inaccessibility. I suspect that some Americans would have responded better to Hillary Clinton had she been more demonstrative of affect, if she would just smile more (of course, when she did, she was told that she smiled too much). But this conundrum is not simply about Hillary’s smile (or lack thereof); it’s about the fact that much of the public don’t feel like they can relate to her.
Of course, the fact that Trump has starred in his own reality show for fourteen seasons doesn’t actually give the American public a glimpse of what he’s really like either, but it does us give the semblance of getting to know him. And that matters. It matters a lot, as it turns out. Even if we grant that the majority of the American television-viewing public can distinguish between reality television and actual reality in 2016, the point is this: the distinction isn’t important. The fact that The Real World, American Ninja Warrior, or The Real Housewives of Wherever are scripted, edited, and shaped into particular storylines gamed to appeal to viewers is not news. And it doesn’t matter.
Reality TV might be a guilty pleasure for much of the American public, but guilty or not, it is a pleasure. Many Americans love these shows, and we often feel like we know the people whom we watch week in and week out. We form emotional attachments to them. Maybe not deep emotional attachments, but emotional attachments nevertheless. We get upset when our favorites get voted off the island, out of the Big Brother house, or fail to advance to the next round of Dancing With the Stars. Despite thirty years of public life and service, the American public never had much of a chance to form such an attachment to Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders or John Kerry or Al Gore. . . ). This lack of connection would become a real problem.