As I write this, the U.S. election is 23 days away. Much of the world is horrified at the possibility that Donald Trump could become the next president of the United States. A good portion of that horror seems to result from the amazement that Trump does not horrify everyone. Such a view, however, does not take into consideration the history of American politics, nor for that matter of politics in an age dominated by visual technology. In other words, sad as it is to say it, the fact of Trump, or someone like minded and equally unfit, as President is a logical outcome of politics in the digital age.
A look at U.S. presidents since F.D.R. is instructive. Roosevelt himself, often considered one of the most effective presidents of all time, campaigned in the era of radio. To indicate what a different world he lived in, many voters had no idea that Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. Voters knew F.D.R. through radio and through very selective photographs. Can you imagine F.D.R. or his successor, Harry Truman, even getting nominated in our visual age? As Neil Postman pointed out in his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “if politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty, but to appear as if you are…In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial.” Postman wrote this in 1985 and would have probably been dismayed but not surprised, that after his death in 2003, the metaphor has changed to something even less substantial: the meme.
Following Truman of course, was Dwight Eisenhower. Though not blessed with matinee idol looks, Eisenhower was a war hero and was operating in television’s infancy. By 1960, with television gaining a firmer foothold, Kennedy trumped Nixon and prompted the now almost legendary comment that “if you listened to the presidential debate on radio, you thought Nixon won, but if you watched him sweat and squirm on T.V. next to Kennedy’s ease, you thought Kennedy won. By 1964, a television ad played a prominent role in L.B.J. defeating Barry Goldwater; the controversial mushroom cloud in the commercial called Daisy powerfully played on voters’ fears of nuclear war as a real possibility if the hawkish Goldwater was elected. It’s true that Nixon was elected in both 1968 and 1972, but he defeated Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern respectively, hardly experts at image management. And can you think of a less polished visual politician than Gerald Ford? He singlehandedly put Saturday Night Live on the map with the rich material he provided for parody. In fairness to Ford, after Watergate, it would have taken a miracle for the Republicans to win in 1976. Perhaps that’s why the matinee idol surfaced four years later. Ronald Reagan was an actor and generally dismissed nationally in the 1960s and 1970s as a politician out of touch with the times. But his experience as an actor made him perfect for the modern age of politics. In a poll conducted in 2013, Americans chose him as their favourite president of the last 100 years. It is quite likely that despite his declining health, if American law allowed him to run for a third term, he likely would have been elected again in 1988. It appears that even when reflecting back on Reagan’s legacy, it does not matter if he “made America great again” so much as if he appeared to do so. Trump obviously recognized the continued power of this slogan, even if he refuses to credit its author. But as Postman says, context and history is incompatible with the visual age of communication. So Trump can get away with a legion of astounding lies because he is not challenged in the visual present, but largely in the outmoded medium of print. Unfortunately, truth is largely irrelevant in politics played out in the visual realm.
If we exclude the election of 1988 because Reagan’s popularity was still so sky high and rubbed off on Bush Sr., it can be argued that every election since then has seen the more aesthetically pleasing candidate win. Fortunately, sometimes the pleasing image was also the better choice (Barack Obama); at other times, it was a shockingly inferior choice (George W. Bush). I would argue that Trump’s experience in front of television cameras has sadly meant more to many voters than all his asinine, racist, sexist, and patently untrue remarks. Only in a world where political discourse is visual in nature could a Middle Aged White billionaire with a long history of racist and sexist actions bill himself as an outsider and get away with it.
As if this isn’t depressing enough, even if we are fortunate enough to see him defeated in November, along will come a visually savvy and amusing candidate equally bereft of important ideas, but less prone to offensive statements who will win in a Reaganesque landslide. Will we be too busy watching memes on small screens to notice?