The political question of the week, and the first real question of consequence in this political season is: Who won Iowa?
By now, you already know the typical answers: Ted Cruz; nominally Hillary Clinton for eking out a victory (but, oh, if she had lost by a single vote, the press would be dancing on her grave); less nominally, Bernie Sanders for essentially tying her; and, of course, press favorite Marco Rubio, who managed to take a third-place finish and make it sound as if he already was dressing for his inauguration.
But the real winners, incontestably, were the media – not because they acquitted themselves so well (they didn’t), but because they reasserted their dominance over the political process when that dominance had been seriously threatened by a renegade. That victory, should it hold, is likely to have far more impact on the election than the caucus vote itself.
The not-so-secret fundament of American politics is that amidst all the campaign sturm und drang, elections are basically about narratives – about the stories that swirl around the candidates and shape their images in the public mind. Hillary Clinton’s story is of her experience and her record of loyalty to the Democratic constituencies, Sanders’ is of his long battle against entrenched interests and the economic inequality they engender, Cruz’s about his allegedly principled conservative intransigence and his mutiny against the custodians of his own party, Rubio’s a twofer about his youth and his bartender father who lived the American Dream. (Despite his youth, Rubio may be the Ancient Mariner of American politics; he cannot open his mouth without the bartender story pouring out.) And Trump… well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
And, then, there are the counter narratives – the stories designed to negate the heroics: Trump’s birther assault on Cruz, the GOP field’s assault on Rubio for working toward immigration reform before he renounced it, Bush’s assault on Trump for being insufficiently presidential and the others’ assault on Trump for being insufficiently conservative, the GOP’s assaults on Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, for killing our ambassador to Libya and for spreading typhoid, to cite just a few.
Narratives and counter narratives have long been the populist contours of our politics – the yin and yang of our campaigns dating back to the beginning of the Republic. Andrew Jackson cast himself as a fighter; his opponents cast him as a drunken lout. Teddy Roosevelt cast himself as an activist and war hero; his opponents cast him as an intemperate man-child. FDR cast himself as a common-sense savior; his opponents as a dangerous dictator. And so it goes. In fact, you might think of campaigns this way: Each candidate is the star of a movie. The best movie – and the one most impervious to the inevitable critiques – wins.
The media are anything but innocent bystanders in this process. In the 19th century, when the press was wildly partisan and embedded with the candidate preferred by each paper, it was largely responsible for disseminating the narrative and the criticism. In the last century, blatant partisanship withered in the face of a feigned objectivity in which the press not only reported upon the candidates’ narratives and criticisms, and, in many cases, massaged them; it began to produce its own narratives and critiques. (The media also reverted to partisanship, but that is another story for another time.)
Over the past 40 years or so, the media wrested the narrative capability from the politicians until the memes that define candidates are largely the product of media collaboration, if not outright fabrication. In effect, we know our candidates through the repetition of media stories about them, which isn’t to say that the narratives aren’t sometimes true. It’s just to say that the media determine what you know and ultimately what you feel about a candidate. Al Gore was a lying stiff in one meme, George W. Bush moronic Everyman in another. Thus, the media framed the 2000 election as mendacity versus stupidity.
The effect of this media takeover isn’t just to control the movie; it is to pry any residual policy or substance out of it. American elections have never been particularly policy-oriented, unless you have a single-issue election like William Jennings Bryan’s and William McKinley’s about bimetallism; or George McGovern’s and Richard Nixon’s about Vietnam. Our elections are mostly about impressions. How do you feel about a candidate? Do you like him? Would you want to have a beer with him? Does he seem like someone you could trust? Would he cheat on his wife, or, in the sexist case of female candidates, is she ballsy enough to rule but not so ballsy that she is a shrew? Ours is an emotive politics. By and large the media are far more interested in the emotional aura of a campaign than in real policy analysis. If our campaigns are movies, our candidates are personalities rather than policymakers.
Though FDR certainly understood emotive politics, it took Ronald Reagan to exploit the separation of policy from personality. A product of the Hollywood studio system, Reagan appreciated the affinity between movies and politics, between winning an audience and winning an electorate. People wanted stories, not policy pronouncements. They wanted to feel good about the country and themselves, the way they might feel when they left a movie theater.
And for Reagan politics wasn’t just a movie, it was the art of feel-good. Nothing mattered so much as creating the kind of vicarious emotional levitation that movies created – first channeling resentment, anxiety or dissatisfaction, which movies typically do in the set up, then vanquishing it in a wave of catharsis, which movies typically do in the end. Reagan was a master at both – the grim, pursed lips warning of disaster, followed by the smile saying everything will be OK.
Surprisingly, very few candidates subsequently either understood that discovery, or, if they did, were able to apply it… until Donald Trump. Perhaps it was because Trump, like Reagan, wasn’t a career politician. He too was an entertainer. In some ways, you might even say that Trump was the Ronald Reagan of business before he became the Ronald Reagan II of politics, albeit a coarser, less genial version. He figured out, as Reagan had, that the blandishments of salesmanship weren’t a way to promote a product; they were the product.
What Trump sold was his own vibe – Midas Trump. His problem was that he also sold his name, his brand – literally – and in political terms, the vibe and the ego could work at cross-purposes. Political Trump wants people to feel empowered, but as he is the only instrument of that empowerment, when he promises to “Make America Great Again,” he isn’t drawing on Americans’ greatness (a standard of American political discourse), but on his own. He’s selling himself. He is like the whiz-bang con man Harold Hill in The Music Man.
And here is something else Trump got. He got that you couldn’t let the media define you. You couldn’t let them write or re-write your narrative, as they had become accustomed to doing. You had to write your own. (Of course, Trump had a perfectly good reason for feeling this way. He knew the press would crucify him.)
To say that Trump is xenophobic, nativist, sexist, racist, preposterous and bombastic is to state the obvious, but it is also to miss the point. All the GOP candidates, save possibly John Kasich, espouse the same things Trump espouses. Trump just does it with more rascality and bluster and ugliness – “They’re all rapists!” – and in doing so, certainly plays to a penchant among rank-and-file Republicans for a plain-spoken, if mean-spirited irreverence. He prides himself on being incorrigible. But that is modern Republicanism, too, and it also misses the point.
The point is that the media reviled Trump, despised him, took every opportunity to lambaste him in a way they had never reviled, despised or lambasted any other candidate in a major party since Barry Goldwater in 1964; and, not incidentally, in a way they would never treat a more conventional conservative candidate, for fear of rousing the ire of the right and its oft-repeated cliché that the Mainstream Media are liberal. (Cruz, who is every bit as extremist as Trump and with a self-righteous, preening smarminess to boot, is treated like Nelson Mandela compared to the way the press treats Trump.) Trump wasn’t a right-wing darling. He didn’t have the support of Fox News, or the right-wing radio gasbags, or the Bill Kristols of the world. You didn’t have to play nice with him. You didn’t have to pretend. Objectivity be damned.
Trump knew that trying to charm the media would not only be futile, it would be counterproductive. His supporters were the sorts of folk who hated the press as much as the press hated Trump. Of course, attacking the press is always good rabble-rousing on the right. For Trump, at least, it was justified. The problem was how to circumvent the press. Trump already had plenty of advantages that the other candidates didn’t have. He had written best-selling books singing his own praises, starred on a once-popular TV show, appeared on dozens of other shows, and, for all intents and purposes, already defined himself in the public mind so indelibly that the press really couldn’t do that for him. In addition, he used social media, especially Twitter, more adeptly than any candidate ever, essentially creating his own ongoing news stream: All Trump All the Time.
And there was another thing Trump knew about the media. They may have hated him personally, thought his candidacy was a joke and an insult, but he was clearly the star of the campaign – the only one people really wanted to see and hear. Trump knew the media needed him and said so publicly, which was another kind of taunt. He was irresistible to them. And because he was a TV personality first, rather than a politician, and because he was defining himself as the most incorrigible person in the field, he had a license to say things with impunity that the career politicians, like Cruz, Rubio and Bush, could not say, which only made him more irresistible.
Trump used the press against itself. He made them promote his own narrative. Though Bill Clinton was able to get the press to buy into his Comeback Kid story, and though George W. Bush got them to buy into his Decider persona, neither of them had usurped the press; they formed a community of interest with it. No candidate, not even Reagan, had ever gotten the better of the media as Trump did. (He even got them to write about how he used them. Talk about a post-modernist spin!)
At first, when the press predicted his demise once the voters regained their senses, it was an extrapolation from past behavior. Remember Herman Cain? As the campaign wore on, it was a prayer. Yes, they needed him. But they hated that they needed him. They just wanted him gone – not because he was an embarrassment to our polity, but because he was an embarrassment to them. Or put another way, the media’s concern was less for the fate of the Republic than for the threat to their own power.
And then, last Monday, came Iowa. As the returns trickled in, the press was gleeful. Trump, who had fallen behind Cruz in the count and was scarcely in front of Rubio, despite Trump’s big lead in the pre-caucus polls, had apparently met his Waterloo, his Buster Douglas. Trump was the big loser, they chirped. The aura of invincibility, which, in fact, Trump had trumpeted, was gone. The bully was bloodied. Now, they said, he had to win New Hampshire or else.
The truth may be that in the short run Trump had overestimated the power of narrative. What might very well work in a general election where impressions, emotions and vibes prevail, may be less effective in a primary, much less a caucus state like Iowa, where there is a relatively small group of ideologues and activists rather than an audience — the constituency to which Trump had been appealing. Trump does well with audiences. Ideologues and activists, not so much. Moreover, you don’t need a “ground game” when you have got a blockbuster movie with a major star playing in a huge multiplex. But Iowa was no multiplex. It was a one-screen theater, and you could pack it with your friends, which is exactly what Cruz did with his evangelicals. Indeed, the same may be true of New Hampshire, only with crusty moderates instead of the religious right.
In any case, the media are gloating because they seem to have snatched the narrative back from Trump with potentially huge implications for his crack at the nomination. Time will tell whether he will recover. Inevitability is hard to regain. But by Wednesday, he already was spinning his loss as a fraud because some Cruz minions on caucus night reportedly floated the rumor that Ben Carson would be withdrawing, thus putting Carson’s votes in play. The charge was pure Trump – a ridiculous Hail Mary followed by a call to invalidate the results. But it was pure media, too. The lead story on CNN.com and on “NBC Nightly News” Wednesday night? Trump’s accusation. The media may have taken back the narrative on Monday, but, as junkies hooked on Trump, they may not be able to help themselves from giving it right back to him. Until Iowa, it had been Trump’s world and the media were just living in it. Iowa changed that. Unless he can own his narrative again, he is likely to vanish in the media vortex.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.