And so Donald Trump, after acing the tricky bank shot that got him past a second place finish in Iowa and on to a big win in New Hampshire, may even outmaneuver Ted Cruz in South Carolina next week. That kind of momentum could carry him all the way through Super Tuesday and the South. He could, as he predicts, “run the table” or come close to it, leaving Cruz and Marco Rubio — not to mention Jeb! — spluttering in defeat.
Baton Rouge on Thursday signaled just how well Trump may do in the South — at least among whites. Some 11,000 decidedly pale fans gave him a rock star’s reception in the River Center, filling the place to the rafters, with another few thousand left out on the street.
So much for summer’s mantra that Trump was just in this for the ratings and that his reckless, say-anything-that-grabs-a-headline campaign would crash and burn before Labor Day.
People of a certain age will remember the throb and logic of Gil Scott Heron’s needling 1970 pop anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It was a call to the streets premised on the confident prediction that that’s where history would happen, not in the realm of fatuous television programming and 60-second spots. Get off your asses, Heron howled at armchair revolutionaries sprawled in front of their TV sets, stoned on the plug-in drug.
The hit was groundbreaking. Hindsight suggests its incantatory style was an early forerunner of rap and hip-hop. But its political messaging, once seen as pivoting on an angry truth — that TV is a distracting waste of time — is what needs reconsideration. Because the reality, now apparent in presidential politics, is not that the revolution won’t be televised. It’s that television IS the revolution. Politics has migrated from the streets to the screen and, in the process, been entirely reshaped by it.
We have become so habituated to TV’s rhythms and tone that we now mistake careless lip-flapping for policy pronouncements and a reality TV host for presidential timber. Our brains have been rewired in a way that makes us scarcely capable of sustaining concentration for more than the few minutes that separate ads — which may be why the wild inconsistencies in Trump’s ravings seem to escape the notice of his swooning audiences.
The Baton Rouge crowd, for example, was asked to believe that Trump, having declared our schools abysmal, will bring them up to high-tax, socialist Sweden’s standards while eliminating Common Core, lowering taxes — and yet somehow throwing enough into the military to bomb ISIS into oblivion in “15 days.” (In the next breath Trump preens himself on having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq because it had the effect of “destabilizing” the Mideast.)
The Trump phenomenon is not brand new, but his campaign — however it turns out — looks like the consummation of a trend that’s been gaining force for decades.
The unhappy upshot of Dick Nixon’s decision to spurn make-up for the 1960 campaign debates with Jack Kennedy was an early indication that TV was something new and needed to be taken seriously. Nixon’s calculation was as unsubtle as it was wrong-headed: He feared a pancaked face would open him up to charges of effeminacy and make him a laughingstock. (No matter that cool, youthful Kennedy was going to upstage Nixon with or without help from a cosmetologist.)
Nixon got the message and by 1968 had effectively turned his campaign over to media magicians, including an adman named Harry Treleaven and consultant Roger Ailes, the evil genius behind the eventual success of “fair and balanced” Fox news.
The pompadoured Ronald Reagan was television’s next triumph over traditional politics. Even right-wing blowhards such as Bill O’Reilly now concur in the judgment of Reagan’s younger son, that the aging movie actor-turned TV host was addled and Alzheimer-ish as early as his first term in office, a script-reading marionette moved around on various world stages by a cabal of handlers and ventriloquists, including his wife and her astrologer.
Here in the political backwater that is Louisiana, we have been witness to a more absurd example of television’s power over the political imagination. Recently retired Gov. Bobby Jindal, he of the boyish stammer and floppy forelock, was never ashamed to acknowledge that he modeled his persona on Bobby Brady, a character in “The Brady Bunch” sit-com.
Thus did Piyush Jindal, the nation’s first governor of Hindu heritage, become Bobby Jindal, a born-again, all-American Catholic. It worked for a while. There was that forelock to tug on and the stammer imparted a sense of breathless urgency to Jindal’s spiels from whatever rostrum he could plant himself behind.
Alas, for Jindal: He who plays by television’s rules, also dies by them. Like many a child star, without quite realizing what was going on, Jindal aged out of the role in which he had cast himself. The all-American boyishness became vaguely grotesque as middle-age put lines on his face and the failed governor mounted a spectacularly ill-conceived campaign for the White House. A platform predicated on blind obedience to Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge has left Louisiana basically bankrupt.
There may be hope yet, Piyush.
One of the more remarkable things about the triumph of television style over political substance has been the medium’s generosity toward those who have flopped as candidates for elective office. Sarah Palin saw the light and quickly junked governing Alaska for the bigger bucks Fox talking heads pocket. Mike Huckabee continued running for office, but as a long-shot whose only real benefit from the widened exposure may come when he tries to renegotiate his TV contract.
Trump, like Huckabee, had nothing to lose in announcing for president. No matter how quickly his campaign fell apart, even a clownish few weeks in the public eye would drive up his TV ratings. Now party elders in the GOP have begun to reckon with the scenario they’ve dreaded so deeply they first declared it impossible: a man rich enough not to need their support or suffer their guidance on policy may actually win the nomination, maybe even the White House.
TV execs will also be “losers,” Trump’s ultimate insult.
The reality TV host has blasted into an orbit beyond the gravitational pull of boob-tube celebrity. After savaging Megyn Kelly and then skipping the last Iowa debate altogether, he may have to kiss Fox goodbye, junk NBC’s “The Apprentice” for a while and settle for the presidency. The money’s not nearly as good, but then, as he never stops boasting, Trump really doesn’t need the money.
Pulitzer Prize winner Jed Horne edits opinion columns for The Lens.