Well, he blew it up, didn’t he?
After all the sound and the fury, after all the dancing-on-a-razor-blade rhetoric, and the “true existential threat” to our government, and the sheer, desperate seaminess of the last year and a half, there is one thing—maybe the only thing—that can be said for Donald J. Trump: He kept his promise. He blew up our existing system of political campaigns. And in the end, that might be the only valuable thing to emerge from the whole degrading spectacle that was the 2016 presidential race.
The Trump campaign, ugly as it was—and democracy is often an ugly, messy business—served as a social X-ray for our stultified political system. It revealed just how the swelling confluence of big donors, news media as entertainment, and our rancid consulting class has so appalled and disgusted much of the electorate that they were willing to vote for almost anyone, anyone at all, if he would “blow things up,” as one Trump supporter after another kept telling reporters. And in doing so, it compels us to examine how our system of political campaigns came to be, and how it might be upended yet.
Not one but two candidates ran directly at the establishment this year, with breathtaking results. A more unlikely pair of political challengers could not have been imagined: Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist from a tiny, virtually all-white New England state, who with his followers very nearly succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination, and who refused to give up even when they were beaten. And Donald Trump, a blustering reality TV host, long ago reduced to something of a joke in his home city, a sort of camp icon, no more to be taken seriously than the Naked Cowboy, or the latest revival of Cats.
The contrast could not have been clearer between them and their common opponent. Hillary Clinton was the most carefully scripted, up-pollstered, consultant-ed, robotic, big-money presidential candidate in American history, someone who would not stray a foot outside the constrictive rhetorical box that her professional handlers had outlined for her. She made Al Gore seem like Che Guevara. Almost to the end, her campaign steadfastly refused to arm her with a debate zinger, an overarching vision, or so much as a single, soaring line of inspiration. In fairness, this was due in part to the idiotic double standards that we—or more precisely, white American males, the Cranky Toddlers of the Western World—still have when it comes to female candidates, the fear being that if Hillary was ever allowed to give as good as she got, still more of those fainthearts would be turned off by such an “aggressive woman.”
Yet Clinton continued, as ever, to complicate everything on her own, turning nonscandals such as her emails and Benghazibenghazibenghazi into unrelenting, painful burrs, thanks to her long allegiance to the modern American political establishment, and all that it has come to represent. Hillary and her husband’s never-ending, murky money-grubbing; her meticulous image-molding; her Wall Street ties and secret speeches to Goldman Sachs; her adherence to said establishment’s obsessive preoccupation with free-trade deals over anything else in American life—including climate change, massive economic disruption, and the rupturing of countless middle- and working-class communities—had come to shed a sinister glare over even the most innocuous events in her life. She, and the dynastic political privilege that her family has come to embody, represents everything that Americans hate most about Washington elites.
Bernie Sanders took a run at these vulnerabilities, and succeeded beyond anything that even he expected. He attracted an avid following, and won the vote of many other liberal Democrats (myself included) who frankly doubted his ability to run the federal government but voted for him to try to correct the party’s long rightward drift—and calamitous electoral losses—under the Clintons and President Obama. Bernie, a rather humorless 75, ultimately lacked the organizational chops, speechmaking ability, resources, name recognition, or breadth of vision to upset Hillary. But he came surprisingly close, and the nature of his unscripted challenge—saying whatever radical thing he wanted, drawing around him a deeply loyal phalanx of individuals concerned about fundamental issues of how we are now to make our living, and unwilling to be put off any longer by the glib reassurances of the establishment about our glorious future—should have been a warning.
Yet as unpolished and uncontrolled as Bernie was—as uncontrolled, almost, as his hair—he still ran a relatively recognizable, mostly genteel campaign, one that focused on old-fashioned things like issues. Donald Trump was something else altogether.
What Trump achieved, almost a month before the Republican National Convention, was exactly what he said he would do. He won the GOP nomination, and became a viable presidential candidate, without the aid of campaign professionals—the small armies of pollsters and political consultants and media analysts who have infested and thwarted our political process for at least half a century. Just three weeks before Election Day, in front of a cheering crowd in North Carolina, Trump literally dismantled a malfunctioning teleprompter, the physical manifestation of our overly scripted campaign machinery. “I went through 17 professional politicians—top people—and I went without any teleprompters,” Trump boasted of his go-it-alone campaign. (Actually, it was only 16.)
There has been no truly parallel moment in American presidential history. Sure, it was mostly bluster and buck-passing, like Trump’s repeated declarations that “the shackles have been taken off me.” The man has been unshackled more often than Houdini. But it wasn’t untrue. One by one, Trump really did throw off all of the fetters that have restrained many a worthier campaign over the years.
His speeches, delivered with the jackhammer monotony of the truly boorish, were indisputably his own. (Why would he need speechwriters? There’s only so much art necessary in 140 characters.) Once in a while, someone managed to toss words into the ever-boiling Trump stew. The apocalyptic, conspiratorial catchphrases that began to pepper his “liberated” speeches in October sounded like they were downloaded straight from the alt-right hard drive of campaign CEO Steve Bannon, and other words bore the imprint of the ludicrous, aging Batman villains Trump likes to surround himself with, from Rudy Giuliani to Roger Stone. But, with rare exceptions, it was all Donald, all the time.
Political consultants fared no better than speechwriters. Chris Christie thought he would steal a march on his fellow losers from the Republican primaries by signing on early as Trump’s self-appointed consigliere. He ended up as a lunch-fetching zombie. Of all the professionals Trump went through, late hire Kellyanne Conway probably fared the best, mostly because she confined herself to helping Trump, man of a thousand digressions, keep hitting his marks and pounding out the same, relentless drumbeat of threats, jeremiads, and hazy promises that constituted his “message.” The number and variety of spokespeople trotted out to speak for the candidate became a running joke. By late September, there was a former contestant from one of his pageants, one Madison Gesiotto, Miss Ohio 2014, taking great pains to describe Trump as a “complete gentleman,” whose behavior was both “respectful” and “sincere.” No one ever succeeded in programming him with what might be considered a coherent worldview, or a plan of action, or consistent answers to any given question. Right to the end, the Donald was denying things he had been caught saying on audio or video, something no political consultant in good standing would ever have let happen. And let’s not get started on his trademark baggy suit, offset by the longest tie in Christendom.
Yet in the end, none of it mattered any more than Bernie’s crazy-grandpa hair. The implication was subtle but clear: Trump was nobody’s man but his own. And left unprogrammed on all the little things by the consultants, he was free to hammer away, with remarkable consistency, on the one big thing of his campaign: America is in trouble. The economy is rigged. The elites won’t do anything about the foreigners, or the illegal immigrants, or the terrorists looking to steal your jobs and blow you up. Lying, crooked Hillary Clinton is with the elites, not you. With me, we will win so much you’ll get tired of winning.
Incredibly, even the money didn’t much matter. Trump was likely outspent by every one of his leading rivals, and much of what his campaign did spend was mostly in the form of kickbacks to his own dubious enterprises. He may even have made money on the whole endeavor, as he will no doubt be bragging before long. This enabled him to ignore the whole cast of sleazy money men, all those Shelly Adelsons and Koch brothers and Foster Friesses who have hovered so visibly over Republican presidential contenders in recent years (not to mention the effluvia of Goldman Sachs that stalked Hillary Clinton all campaign long). When Trump finally had to discard his promise that he would finance the entire campaign himself—something that was probably a lie from the start— all he had to do was put out the word to his “Trumpeters,” as Sarah Palin dubbed them. In a matter of weeks, he had raised more than $100 million from small donors—more than any Republican presidential candidate in history.
And why should he listen to anyone, or take their money? Trump was the first purely instinctual presidential candidate we have seen in a long, long time. He was able to organically understand and channel the longings of the Republican base without needing to round up the usual interlocutors. In an America currently obsessed with the inauthenticity of politicians—and pretty much everything else—Trump was the last authentic man, unafraid to say what he believed, even if it sounded harsh or insulting or terrifying. He was able and willing to speak truth from power, or at least truth as he and his conspiratorially minded followers saw it.
“They want someone to blow that system to hell,” said his apologist and fellow TV demagogue Bill O’Reilly, at the height of Trump’s success in the primary campaign. “That’s why Trump is winning. He pinpointed festering disenchantment long before anyone else.”
What Trump accomplished, all by his lonesome, was to strip down the Republican message to its seething core, discarding all the extraneous nonsense that the base had never much liked: its Chicago School economics and love of global free trade; its longing to hand Social Security and Medicare over to Wall Street; its mad projects of empire in the Middle East. All this was somehow discerned by a man who can barely stand to touch other people (except, that is, for you-know-where), much less learn anything from them. Donald Trump, it turned out—sleeplessly padding the floors of his Tower condo high above the teeming crowds, ensconced alone in the early-morning Mar-a-Lago darkness with just his Twitter account for company—knew more about the soul of the Republican Party than the party itself did.
Yet the big question that remains from the 2016 campaign is not how Trump could get it so right. It’s how all the professionals who have taken over our political system— the consultants and pollsters, the opposition researchers and social media savants, the phone-bank organizers and fund-raising planners, the ad buyers and copywriters and media analysts—could get it so wrong.
It was not always this way.
It’s difficult to say who America’s first political consultant was; maybe Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for their infamous “botanical expedition” that created the Democratic Party in the summer of 1791. In the country’s early days, plenty of presidents had informal advisers, usually friends or colleagues, but it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to want the office so openly as to campaign. Even after the rise of the Republicans in 1854, when political parties began mobilizing their local chapters to turn out the vote nationwide, the candidate was expected to sit at home running a “front-porch campaign,” gamely shaking hands and making speeches to whatever local delegation the party deemed it important to impress. Political campaigns, in short, were managed by political machines, which handled all the dirty work of politics and reaped much of the profit.
All that started to change, however, at the turn of the twentieth century. Mass movements like the Populists and the Progressives began to challenge the corruption of the machines, and improved communications and transportation knit the country closer together. “A major reason—if not the only reason—for having campaign consultants,” the veteran political consultant Walter De Vries once explained, “is that political parties basically failed to do their job in a changing technological and social environment.”
Consultants first started to get a claw-hold on our political system in the years just after World War I, during the brief nexus of the Progressive movement and the emerging arts of advertising, public relations, and broadcast media. Much of the population was as disgusted with the existing political establishment as it is today, and in active rebellion against the era’s political machines, demanding reform and candidates free from “bossism.” As Dennis Johnson traces in his intriguing new history of consultancy, Democracy for Hire, the rising experts in public relations were considered honest professionals who could help independent candidates circumvent the corrupt party apparatus, and take their appeals directly to the people.
The early consultants knew what they were doing, and their approaches could be startlingly modern. Long before it was used by Richard Nixon—or revived by Donald Trump this year—the term “silent majority” was coined by a leading New York advertising man, Bruce Barton, pumping then-governor Calvin Coolidge in a 1919 profile for Collier’s magazine: “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority had no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: He lives like them, he works like them, and understands.”
No one seemed to notice that Coolidge was, in fact, the quintessential career politician, running for and winning office more often than any other president in history. Before the 1920s were out, Barton went on to give us such concepts as “battleground states” and the fireside chat. By 1941, another longtime ad guru, Edward Bernays—a nephew of Freud known as “the father of spin”—was stressing message discipline to a client, urging him to use only such “proper verbs,” according to Johnson, as “ask, promise, appeal, urge, hope, advocate, declare, reveal.” Bernays’s work anticipated the language inversions of GOP consultant Frank Luntz, who converted the estate tax into “the death tax,” and Newt Gingrich’s 1990 memo urging Republicans to refer to Democrats and their policies with such words as corrupt, devour, greed, hypocrisy, sick, traitors—and, above all, liberal.
As early as the 1930s, presidential candidates were hiring pollsters and public relations and ad firms to run their entire campaigns—and even to regularly test public opinion between campaigns. Campaign consultancy had started out as a sideline for ad agencies, but by the 1950s, purely political shops proliferated, offering what Johnson calls “full-service campaign management, a one-stop shop for candidates and their campaigns.” Politicians effectively ceded control of the system to a new class of professional managers. “The candidate just had to be,” historian Greg Mitchell observed. “Neither the candidate nor party headquarters had to do.”
Sometimes, as Theodore White chronicled in The Making of the President, 1964, consultants even handpicked the candidate. It was Clifton White, an independent political operative, who convinced Barry Goldwater to run for president, and then got him the nomination. By mastering the caucus system, White imposed a candidate on his party who was likely never its first choice, and who would go on to lose in a landslide that November.
At the same time, consultants found a way to pump ever greater amounts of money into politics—replacing the old corruption of the party machines with their own, even more pernicious brand. The need to raise cash was always a factor in American politics, but the PR boys brought it to a whole new level. At first, they ordered up huge mass mailings of leaflets, pamphlets, postcards, and letters, augmented with blizzards of newspaper ads, cartoons, posters, billboards, film trailers, and even skywriting. But expenditures increased exponentially with the advent of television, buttressed by Supreme Court decisions that equated money with free speech. In 2012, all American elections combined—local, state, and federal—cost $7 billion. The money purchased 1.5 million television ads—but precious little enthusiasm. Despite a hard-fought race and a candidate as charismatic as President Obama, 93 million eligible voters didn’t even bother to go to the polls.
Over the years, as the cash piled up, consultants cut themselves in a second time. They demanded, and received, a percentage of the ad buys—thus giving themselves yet another reason to keep upping the cost of campaigns. “Number one, money is the Lord your Savior,” Democratic consultant Jeffrey Pollock declared in 2006. “You, both candidate and manager, shall have no other Lord.” He wasn’t joking.
The worst thing about the money is that it has locked politicians into a vicious circle. When the main challenge of a campaign became getting on TV, the main task of the candidate became raising money. To raise money, the candidate has to go where the money is: to wealthy elites. Spending so much time with the elites, of course, means removing yourself still further from most voters, and either adopting or seeming to adopt the views of the rich and powerful. The higher you went in politics, the more isolated you became—a big reason why candidates from Ronald Reagan on began telling so many stories about individual citizens they had met along the campaign trail, an attempt to seem folksy and connected that was actually an exercise in denial. In fact, once they had removed themselves so thoroughly from everyday people, candidates had to rely all the more on pollsters to tell them what to think, and even how to act. Inevitably, politicians came to seem ungenuine, all wearing the same approved dark suit and power tie, all mouthing the same scripted party lines like apparatchiks from some totalitarian system. It was no wonder that a Bernie Sanders or a Donald Trump could seem wholly new, even intriguing, just by sporting untamed hair or hideous orange skin. To break from the machine—in message, in personal appearance, in fund-raising methodology—is to seem a free man in a world of artificial and caged creations.
Given their success in taking over the business of politics, it was only natural that the consultants began to see themselves as the real stars. This self-serving attitude was cemented by a whole genre of campaign literature, initiated by Theodore White’s The Making of the President series and carried forward in campaign documentaries like The War Room. In these insider accounts, political operatives were the heroes, the ones who struggled mightily to keep their undisciplined candidates in line—and who were rarely afforded the blame when things went wrong.
The media came to judge candidates more and more in terms of how well they followed advice from the professionals. Campaigns were assessed as being either admirable—that is, smoothly run—or in “disarray.” A candidate’s ability to put together a well-run campaign was even considered a serious indication of how he might fare in the White House—as if making decisions about ad buys on the run in a campaign, or what zinger to unleash at a 90-minute debate, were even vaguely comparable to sifting the calculations involved in, say, going to war, or dealing with climate change, or reducing crime and poverty.
“The modern campaign is the bailiwick of hired guns—political gypsies skilled in the mechanics of polling, fund-raising, media buys, and driving a message,” GOP smear artist Ed Rollins declared in his 1996 memoir, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms. “The process has become so complex that anyone who tried to do it without people like me is a fool.”
No politician better personified the new age of consultancy than Bill Clinton—“probably the most campaign-astute president we have ever had,” as Dennis Johnson observes. Clinton hired James Carville and George Stephanopoulos to run his presidential campaign in 1992, and they parlayed the job into national celebrity and untold riches. Carville’s hiring was considered such a coup, in fact, that it immediately affected the whole tenor of the race: “clinton wins the carville primary,” as The Washington Post trumpeted in a headline. After the election, Carville married his girlfriend, Mary Matalin, a longtime Republican consultant and aide to Lee Atwater, architect of the Willie Horton ad, perhaps the most vicious smear in the grimy annals of presidential campaigning. Carville and Matalin turned out a best-selling book about their relationship, and lived happily ever after as well-compensated talking heads.
In late 1994, when Clinton’s presidency was on the ropes, he turned to the political consultant he had hired to run his very first campaign for governor of Arkansas: Dick Morris, a bizarre and amoral operative from New York known for his work on behalf of some of the worst dreck that the Reagan Revolution dragged in. It was actually Hillary who called up Morris and invited him back into the fold. “Dick,” she told him, “this election doesn’t seem right to me. If I can get Bill to call you, will you help?” According to journalist David Maraniss, Morris “established a special bond with Hillary, who shared his dark, untrusting perspective on politics.”
Working with his high school pal Douglas Schoen and Schoen’s partner, Mark Penn, Morris manipulated Clinton and his policies to an extent undreamed of by any political consultant. Driven by Schoen and Penn’s polling and Morris’s advice to “triangulate” every issue, Bill and Hillary largely seceded from the Democratic Party, abandoning welfare to the states, deep-sixing any hope of universal health care, deregulating Wall Street, and opening a State of the Union address with the deeply false statement that “the era of big government is over.”
Morris did not outlast the campaign itself, having been caught letting a $400-a-night hooker listen in on his phone calls with the commander in chief. But for his systematic subversion of an entire political party and everything it represented, Morris walked away with a salary of $1.5 million, another $1.75 million for his share of the ad buys made over the course of the campaign, a $2.5 million book deal for his “inside account” of the campaign, and a lucrative career as a newspaper columnist and TV commentator with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Penn and Schoen made $700,000 apiece, plus another $4.3 million for their polling work.
It was win-win-win-win all around—save, of course, for the poor, who would be thrown to the dogs in an America that now had its weakest safety net since 1932; or those without health care; or those who would later lose their life savings on the new, wide-open Wall Street; or anyone who had been counting on a Democratic president to at least try to even up opportunity in America. Appeasing the petty pollsters of the present, the Clintons had missed seeing the big picture of what was to come.
In 2008, when Hillary made her first run for president, she went straight back to Mark Penn, one of the most unctuous political operatives ever to emerge from the swamp of Washington. While Barack Obama was using social media to create a new kind of grassroots-driven campaign, Penn arrogantly ignored America’s considerable demographic changes, preferring to spend his time meeting with the Colombian ambassador—another Penn client—to discuss potential free-trade deals they might profit from under another Clinton presidency.
It isn’t simply that Hillary makes bad choices when it comes to political consultants, though her taste in advisers embraces the worst aspects of our corrupt and cynical system. It was that she distanced herself from the electorate simply by becoming such a captive of the pollsters and the image-makers. All the Dick Morrises and the Mark Penns led Clinton into a trap—albeit one she walked into with eyes wide open. How could a candidate who was so poll-driven ever hope to look like a leader? When you let your campaign be managed by hucksters and shills, when you allow your every word and gesture to be scripted and focus-grouped and choreographed, how can you be seen as anything other than a robot, a mechanical puppet programmed by technicians who created you in the image that would bring them—and those who paid for your campaign—the greatest profit?
Then came Donald Trump, a man self-taught in all the elements of the modern political campaign: how to read what the customer wants, and command the camera, and look like a winner.
He is not, perhaps, on closer examination, quite as unscripted or unschooled as he would like to make us think. Pat Buchanan, in his 1992 “pitchfork” insurgency against George H.W. Bush, proposed a “Buchanan fence” that was to run along 200 miles of Mexican border. In 2002, a bunch of former Buchanan acolytes formed the “America First” party, reviving that old slogan long before the Donald. Ross Perot, in his 1992 third-party campaign, refused to pony up what he considered the outrageous dollars for TV ads, saying he could always get another free hour on Larry King, and it was he who formulated the very Trumpian message: “We used to have the world’s greatest economic engine. We let it slip away, and with it went millions of jobs and taxpayers.”
Yet whatever it lacked in originality, Trump’s campaign was able to sweep away, for a time at least, all of the campaign janissaries, the onetime helpmates who ultimately took over the political system for their own enrichment and lionization, and left us stumbling about, unable to distinguish what is real from what is not. What Trump was able to understand without having to rely on a single pollster or handler was what a nerve he struck: how many people agreed with his nonsolutions and his barroom blather, his hateful reductions of the world and all the people in it. With his almost uncanny instincts, he grasped how many people in this country will respond to simple ideas, forcefully said.
The trouble with Trump is that he remains authentically inauthentic. He represents no specific place or culture; has no real belief system, no vision of America beyond the subjugation of those he despises. He speaks to no tradition, can claim no true accomplishment beyond not squandering all of the money that his father left him. He doesn’t read, doesn’t question, doesn’t think beyond his own, reflexive outrage. He is a sad product of rape culture, a mass of inchoate desires who barely exists in the tactile world.
All too many of his followers reflect his intellectual passivity and his knee-jerk alienation. They lent a dangerous, violent, often grotesque edge to his rallies, and they’re obviously not going away anytime soon. But the greater problem is that they’re right about so much. Like Trump himself, they can’t or won’t focus their anger on the right targets, and their racist and sexist tangents are obscene. But the system is rigged. It’s bought and sold through a political merchandising class whose amoral, purely mercenary priorities overran Washington—and whatever principles the Clintons may have once possessed—long ago.
If the current economic recovery broadens and accelerates, it’s likely that the truths that Trump articulated about the hollowness at the core of our political campaigns will eventually fade. But if things don’t improve, if we experience another financial shock, one which may well be in the offing already, we may one day get a candidate even worse than a Trump. The questions we need to ask ourselves begin with why it took someone so monstrous finally to agree with us about how broken and corrupt the system is, and what we—all of us—can do to thwart the now thoroughly corrosive power of money in our politics. We cannot afford to ignore the message because we hate the messenger.