Sunday, January 17, 2016


Commentator and columnist H. A. Goodman recently wrote on the Huffington Post: "Americans have never voted for someone they don't like and don't trust, which says something about the Clinton and Trump campaigns. When only one candidate is trusted in a presidential election, and another remembers landing in Bosnia under sniper fire (that never happened), there's only one likely outcome."

"As a general rule, I don't trust many politicians, but I trust Bernie Sanders — the man walks the walk and talks the talk," Shaun King writes in the New York Daily News. "I believe in him, I believe in his team and I believe he can win."

For someone who wrote, back when I first started the experiment of blogging, that I wouldn't do politics, I have been writing a lot on politics lately. But I begin here because an election provides a good, obvious testing ground for what appeals and what doesn't, providing clear metric results rapidly. Politicians must find an image, a simple concept ideally expressed in one word (eg: Hope), that will drive people who don't otherwise pay a lot of attention to the details of government to vote for them.

It can be anything, and you can frequently see campaigns run through efforts to find their theme, and a theme may ring true but not be the one that wins. The successful campaign links that season's Zeitgeist with an image that works.

I think the theme of this season is: Authenticity.

In an age of internet memes (Where's my money from Facebook? What, that's a lie?), "reality" TV, and Photoshopped pictures, it's hard for people to believe anything. For something to be simply true, without hidden agendas or outright deception, seems not just refreshing but unique.

A good example of how it works is the Maroon 5 music video of their song, "Sugar."

It shows the band doing ambush concerts at weddings, surprising happy couples with a special treat. Now, there is some question of just how authentic the video is, but perhaps this makes my point. It has almost a billion views (yes, billion with a B) and has a generally positive response.

When I first saw it, I said it was just the sort of thing the candidates should do right now, while their characters are still being established in the public mind. Once a politician has a fixed storyline (Al Gore is boring, George W Bush is dumb), it's very hard to break them out of their public pigeonhole. No amount of aides saying, "If you only saw him off camera! He's nothing like that!" will fix things.

Maroon 5 comes across as genuine, playful, and appealing, bringing a surprising moment of joy to people who obviously like them. What politician wouldn't do anything for that image? Or, for that matter, what business wouldn't love to have customers feel that way?

And the video brings this across in an almost documentary form, re-enforcing the image by showing it in a form that looks captured on the fly, occasionally peeking behind the curtain (watching them drive to the gigs, setting up the stage, sharing drinks after with the couple) as well as embracing handheld camera work, etc.

In the end, I think people want to know you are what you seem to be, whether you're a politician or a business, and you need to show them that.

Sincerity - If you can fake that, you've got it made.
(At least I think so; I found it on the internet)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

He's Kind of Gray

What's up with the continuing success of Donald Trump in the presidential race? Much of it is a mystery to me, but there's one element that relates, I think, to my last post on the Confederate Battle Flag.

Now I'm hardly the first or only person to be seeking the reason for the unbelievably long run of the Cirque de Trump. When not predicting his imminent disappearance, most all of America's pundits (and the more "important" and "authoritative," the more likely) have been trying to solve the mystery of the Trump supporter.

Take, for example, Peter Wehner in Commentary:
What’s fascinating to me is that for many Trump supporters, the kind of flip-flops and philosophical transgressions that would disqualify any other candidate many times over doesn’t apply to Trump. The question is: Why? What is it about Trump that causes some people on the right to suspend their critical judgments, renounce fidelity to conservative ideology and policies, and extend immunity to Trump in ways they would never to anyone else?
His is a populist moment – and for them, Trump is Mr. Anti-Establishment. They see him as the confrontational outsider, unscripted and not politically correct, a person who can shake up the system. Donald Trump is The Great Disrupter. In addition, he knows how to “school” the “establishment” types and has their “number.”
Andrew Prokop of Vox also riffed on this idea, explaining that Trump's casual dismissal of his support for politicians in the past was a refreshingly honest moment in the first Republican debate. "Trump's analysis of how money influences politics isn't about straight bribery. It's about building a long-term relationship in which each side does favors for the other. He gives to politicians, and then, he says, 'When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them.'" This, Prokop wrote, is part of the appeal. "One of the main themes I've heard from Trump supporters explaining why they support him is their belief that he 'can't be bought.' And weirdly enough, his frankness about how he himself has tried to buy others helps make this point."

Rush Limbaugh, who has been surprisingly uncritical of Trump through the run (perhaps one showman recognizes another?), once pointed out that many Trump supporters have only the vaguest of ideas of what Trump has actually said. He described how, when he quizzed them about what they thought Trump's policies were, he would either get amorphous responses or projections of what the listener wanted to hear ... but Trump had never said.

In October, Bill Clinton offered his own, somewhat admiring evaluation of the support:
"Because he says something that overrides the ideological differences," Clinton explained. "If you look at the first debate, a lot of those guys were competing for who could be the most politically correct on the answers. Trump says, 'OK, I've supported Democrats, I've supported Republicans. Yeah, I used to be friends with Bill Clinton, who cares? I run things, and I build things. And you need somebody who'll go in there and fix it. And if they don't let me fix it, I'll just get them out of the way.'"
I'm wondering if Clinton remains as impressed, now that Trump has moved his snarky Twitter comments to the subject of the ex-President himself ...

More recently, The New York Times took on the question:
The anxiety Mr Trump supporters betray by looking for scapegoats says most, of course, about themselves. Typically members of the white lower middle-class, they are at once jealous of the small privileges that distinguish them from the toilers below, and bitterly resentful of the faraway government that provides their Social Security and Medicare. Remonstrating in hard times, they are the “radical centre”, in academic jargon, who turned out for George Wallace, a populist southern Democrat who ran for president four times in the 1960s and 70s, and for another pair of crowd-pleasers, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, in the 1990s. Asked who was the last politician to excite them like Mr Trump, several in Sarasota cited Mr Perot. Mr Trump’s big achievement is to have entered the race with a message already perfectly crafted for this group.
Now the "radical center" (Amerifying the spelling from academeze) may not be exactly who I meant to describe as using the Confederate Battle Flag as an emblem for lack of anything else, but it'll do for the moment.
Now, as then, a fear that America is getting weaker, economically or militarily, plays to its members’ fear of loss and change. That also plays to a nationalistic desire for a strong hand on the tiller— for someone, as Linda Miller, a retired accountant, said admiringly of Mr Trump, “to kick ass and take names."
So said The Economist in an article on December 5th proclaiming the Trump Campaign "The Greatest Show on Earth," but with the subhed: "Mr. Trump's support will not collapse, but he is still a long shot for the Republican nomination." They don't know why they like him, but Trump's supporters know he's not the guys that make them feel bad about themselves, their work, their lifestyle, where they shop, who they have as friends, what their entertainment is, what they eat, how they eat, etc., etc., etc. And he lashes out the way they wish they could ... only they can't, because then they would be sent to the Human Resources office, which seems to take that term literally.

But what happens now? Surely, as The Economist said, he can't become our president, or even the nominee of a major party, can he? Surely he's just the satisfying temper tantrum the "silent majority" has been repressing, and then we can return to politics as usual?

Ezra Klein, writing for Vox, has a theory or two. First, how has this gone on so long?
Donald Trump is the candidate willing to say things that are truly beyond the pale. He is the candidate who won't be cowed by the media or political elites. Every time he stands tall against a "politically correct" firestorm — wherein "politically correct" means treating people with some bare modicum of decency and respect — his numbers firm up. Backlash is his brand.
But it's gone on and on (Klein quotes Mike Allen in Politico: "It’s 28 days to Iowa, 36 days to New Hampshire, 47 days to South Carolina, 50 days to Nevada and 57 days to the SEC primary. If you think voters will suddenly get serious — and that Trump is a ‘lampshade candidate’ who’ll eventually wear out his welcome — you’re running out of time to be right.") How can it end?
He will lead until he doesn't. His fall will be quick, and it won't obey the apparent rules of his rise. If there is a reason for it, it will fundamentally be, "People get more pragmatic the closer they get to an actual vote." As much as Republicans tell pollsters they think Trump can win the general election, I am skeptical they will truly believe that come Election Day.
 Magical thinking? Maybe. But it is the wise leader who recognizes in Trump, in the Confederate Battle Flag, in the recent prairie rebellions in Oregon and Nevada, in the Tea Party movement, a great, dark, dangerous, rumbling -- but still unfocused -- discontent in the way of things.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

It's Kind Of Gray

One of the things that both frightens and frustrates me as a journalist is when other journalists write as if they understand something when it is clear (especially when I am familiar with the subject) that they know only the barest surface aspects of it. I have seen it happen time and again with areas that I am very conversant with, or cultures I consider myself a part of, and now begin to recognize the problem elsewhere too.

It's a classic situation: I can just hear the reporter on the phone to his boss. "No, I know what I'm doing now. I've got a feel for it!" You can hardly blame him; we are in this business because we're quick learners who empathize easily. We want to listen to your story and better understand you, then artfully play it back for a larger audience. It's just that we're often a little too clever by half.

For example, we've all had our moment of expressing hope for the final dismissal of the unfortunate Confederate Battle Flag and those who provocatively wave it. It seems a no brainer, but I think there's a much subtler story behind a lot of the people who use that symbol for something besides racism.

Brandon Dorsey, Commander of the SCV chapter in Lexington, Virginia, 
marching in a parade through the town marking the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson.

I think the appealingly alliterative motto of "History Not Hate" has actually muddied the debate rather than clarified it. Those who use it, most sincerely, have found it is a simple encapsulation of a non-racist answer to those who criticize the flag. However, as I said in a blog post on this, there are plenty of other Confederate flags that haven't been usurped by hate groups that reenactors and others could use as a tribute to those who bravely served as soldiers.

So why do some cling to the battle flag, angrily refusing to just let it go? Even more curiously, what about the people displaying the battle flag outside of any historical context? I know a lot of these people, and I have talked with many others, and sure, a few have some uncomfortable opinions about race. But I've got to say: in my opinion, most of these people are not racists.

Maybe it is because they have some difficulty articulating it in a way that the Northeastern elite can understand that forces them to use the flag as a symbol. Truly, I think the point is: It really has almost nothing to do with the Civil War at all. What I think the flag has come to symbolize for many of these people is a sense of community and identity.

Take Tracy Hart, a water resource economist at the World Bank who was profiled in NPR's Race Card Project. The piece focuses on her use of the term "white trash" to describe herself and her origins:

For those in the Deep South, she says, the term ["white trash"] has been embraced by a significant part of poor people who feel misunderstood. "They feel misunderstood because of the heavy legacy of slavery and segregation and poverty," she says. "And I think part of their feeling misunderstood is to take on or embrace that term, which is self-denigrating but it also says, 'We've been hurt, too.' "
The battle flag, I think, is a visual equivalent of a similar attitude -- not so much a statement of fellow suffering, but a logo of sorts for a culture that feels ignored at best and misunderstood and attacked at worst. Like everyone else, they try to do the "right thing" and be a "good person" within the rules and mores of their world. Where others get their symbols, and are even encouraged to wave and share them (eg: "We're all Irish on St. Patrick's Day"), the mostly Celtic diaspora into the American South has been generally disparaged as dangerous, criminal, alcoholic, racist, and poor. Even when "Hillbilly" stories were big in the 50s and 60s (at the height of the Folk Rock era) the best they could hope for were the comedically ignorant Beverly Hillbillies. No noble savages to be found among the hicks in the mountains and bigots in the cotton fields of the South, no sir.

So, is it so unlikely that the Battle Flag is a pushback, accompanied by the soundtrack of Southern Rock songs like "Sweet Home Alabama"?

Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard old Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don't need him around anyhow

 -- a reference to Neil Young's hectoring "Southern Man"