The mar­ket­ing of the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 em­pathiser 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.