Friday, February 26, 2016

A Brief Thought on Trump

I was reading my description of the Obama campaign in 2008, where I accused him, especially in the primaries of running as "an inkblot", taking few concrete positions -- or else taking multiple positions in a few cases -- so his followers could see in him whatever they wanted. As I wrote then:
For any other candidate a lack of position, or contradictory positions, would be a cause for alarm, or at least open him to criticism, but it is a strength for Obama. By saying nothing, or by taking every position, Obama allows his followers to read into his generic statements whatever they want to hear. It allows him to literally be all things to all people. 
I still have no idea why Obama has become this sort of living inkblot, a blank slate upon which cult-like followers project their hopes, but at least I think I now understand why he gets away with saying so little. He MUST say little for his trick to work. If he takes a stand he will be tied to a specific belief and some of his followers will have to confront the reality that he is a flesh and blood being with whom they sometimes disagree. So he must say nothing, to allow his followers to make of him what they will.
Looking back, I can see some similarities between his campaign and Donald Trump's. Trump has not adopted the silent policy, nor has he strictly stuck to vague positions as Obama largely did. Trump did for a while, with his "make America great" and generic "throw the rascals out" and "I am not a politician" rhetoric. But, he has since taken over the alternate Obama strategy, saying so much, adopting so many positions, whether they make sense together or not, that his fans can see in him whatever they want.

And so, much as it worries me, it does seem Trump is for the discontented right and populists of the the right, left and center, what Obama was for many would-be activists on the left, a blank slate upon which they project their hopes, hearing those points with which they agree, and simply ignoring, or explaining away, those positions with which they disagree.

It is troubling that the last three presidential races have been dominated by such strategies. Worse, it says a lot about our inability to actually hear what candidates are saying, or to ask them difficult questions*.

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* Then again, I argued in "The Presumption of Dishonesty" (and "Sanders and Mondale: The Presumption of Dishonesty Part 2") we expect politicians to lie, and so, unlike in the past, we never take them at face value, always assuming statements are self serving and deceptive, and trying to "decode" positions to get to his "true beliefs". This is just one more way our supposedly more mature and sophisticated cynicism makes our nation ever less functional, as we choose to see our fellows as dishonest, deceived, foolish, misguided or outright evil. (See "Deadly Cynicism","Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "The Oh So Useful Middle Class", "Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions" and "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause".)

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