The Very Model of a Charismatic Candidate

{Sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General“}

I am the very model of a charismatic candidate,
I have thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
From starting as a dark horse, I’ve become the odds-on favorite
Saying I will build a wall and then force Mexico to pay for it.
And though Establishment Republicans think I am despicable
Ev’ry charge they level at me has proved totally unstickable.
And even though I’ve said disgusting things about my progeny
And made so many statements that are dripping with misogyny–
By thwarting ev’ry action that the GOP has planned to date,
I’ve proved myself the model of a charismatic candidate.

My “Apprenticeship” in showbiz has undoubtedly done well for me–
I am so telegenic, all the major networks fell for me.
My domineering manner plays so well when I’m debating folks
It doesn’t even matter that I sometimes tell degrading jokes.
Believe me, folks, I’m so very, very big-league entertaining
That I have no need coherent policies to be maintaining.
I’ll be so much like Reagan, it will make your head spin, I insist–
Heads will spin so much it will all be like the film The Exorcist.
Since I’ve thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate.

 
In fact, when I know whether Judges “sign” on “bills” or not
When I’ve decided what to do with all the immigrants we’ve got–
When I’ve some idea what is and isn’t Constitutional–
When I’ve proved my economic plans are not delusional
When I have shown I will not always act impulsively–
When I behave towards women just a little less repulsively–
In short, when I have turned into my very living opposite–
You’ll say a better candidate has never run for office yet!
Though all my civic knowledge is just stuff I learned in real estate,
I am sure a brand-new wall will make our location really great.
And since a country is the only thing I’ve yet to brand to date,
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate!

If Trump is so great at PR…

Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert”, has been getting attention for his numerous blog posts praising Donald Trump’s persuasion skills.

It’s hard to argue against it. Trump has persuaded millions of Republicans to vote for him, despite never holding political office, and despite running a campaign that few political experts even took seriously ten months ago.

Trump has indisputably had more political success than most pundits expected. So, whatever your opinion of him, I think most people can agree he is very persuasive.

But is he really as good as Adams claims? I am skeptical.

Trump is good at commanding media attention. And he is good at leveraging that media attention to get what he wants.

But he also constantly makes a critical mistake: he complains about–and therefore draws additional attention to–bad press about himself.

For example, recently the New York Times published some accounts of Trump’s mistreatment of women. Trump responded by tweeting repeatedly that it was a false “hit piece”. The result was that for a time, if you went to his Twitter page, all you saw was a bunch of denials that he had done bad stuff.

Trump says bad publicity is better than no publicity. Maybe so, but good publicity is better still, and since Trump has full control of his Twitter page, he should seek to fill it with good publicity. When people come to the homepage for your brand, you do not want them to know that negative opinions about it even exist.

But Trump is so thin-skinned that he can’t help it. He has to respond to the NYT, even if it makes no sense to do so.

The irony is that even as Trump attacks the Times for “failing” because it is losing readers, he is unintentionally helping it by drawing attention to the article. How many Trump followers would have never even heard about the NYT article if he hadn’t brought it up?

Note that I am not even discussing the issue of which is more reliable: the New York Times or Trump’s tweets. That’s because in the world of persuasiveness, truth is a secondary concern. Trump has never really claimed to be 100% honest; rather, he has campaigned on his ability to sell stuff. He is now selling himself based on his ability to sell himself. It is the ultimate confidence trick.

But he is not even as good at marketing as he thinks he is. He makes plenty of PR mistakes. The only reason he has gotten as far as he has is that the other politicians are even worse at selling than he is.

The Fall Guy

Years ago, I was working on a screenplay for a dystopian movie. I ultimately shelved it to work on books instead, though I did put some elements of it into The Start of the Majestic World.

There were two plot threads in the movie: one was the personal story of the main character, his girlfriend, and a rival for her affections. The second thread was about change in society generally, and how it goes back and forth from hedonism to brutal tyranny. The idea was that the “societal” themes formed a backdrop to the more personal story. I called the two threads “micro” and “macro”.

The macro plot involved a popular, charismatic and transformative President at the end of his term, campaigning for his chosen successor. And his successor was a member of his administration who had worked well with him, but who had the dull personality of a bureaucrat.

But his successor faced a surprise challenge from a radical candidate, who was dangerous and reckless, but also very charismatic and popular. The challenger wanted to dismantle all of the old administration’s policies.

In the second act, the challenger won in spite of the government’s best efforts to stop him. After which, everything went to hell.

My working title for the screenplay was “The Fall Guy”, because the main character ends up taking the fall for a lot of stuff done by the original administration once the challenger takes over.

I set the screenplay aside about 6 years ago, mostly because the dialogue had gotten too heavy on political philosophy for a movie. But I’ll admit, I’ve recently thought about revisiting it…

Campaign 2016

From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

On Writing Villains: The character of Colonel Preston in “The Start of the Majestic World”

One of the early titles I considered for my novella The Start of the Majestic World was “Caligula in Washington D.C.” This was inspired partly by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously discarded title “Trimalchio in West Egg”, and also partly because that was how I originally envisioned the villain of the story, Colonel Preston.

I was asking the old “can it happen here?” question, and trying to come up with a way that it might. I have read about the way various dictators came to power, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and those were all major influences on Preston’s plot in the book.

But Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all members of political/ideological movements.The extent to which they agreed with the original goals of their political movements varied, but they all at least used political movements to seize power. I wanted Preston to be somebody who was not a member of any political movement. I wanted a crazy but very intelligent person who was capable of largely cloaking his madness except to people who knew him well.

The idea of Preston being in the military was based mainly on Napoleon, and also to a degree on Julius Caesar, because that command structure and loyalty was something they exploited to take over the government. But Preston’s methods and his cruelty are more based on Caligula, Hitler and Stalin.

One idea I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, but vaguely hinted at, was the idea that Preston is getting so out of control that his loyal followers are dwindling, and he is coming to rely more and more heavily on combat automatons to do his bidding.

The other thing I wanted to add was a small humanizing touch. Preston is close to being a complete monster (I actually toned him down a little from early drafts, believe it or not) and that can get tiresome. So I wanted to have a little bit of a hint that he hadn’t always been this way–something happened to him.

Strong villains are tough to write, mostly because it is easy to be lazy and let them be evil with no explanation. At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too much into his motivation, because that removes the mystery and takes away from the intimidation factor. I tried to give the reader just enough clues to imagine his motives for themselves.

Did I succeed?  Read the book and tell me.

Hexennacht I

The day dawned dark and grim
As I arose from the depths of nightmare.
I gazed with fear my window from
And saw the streets outside were bare.
The city was deserted, a gilded grave of glass.
I started out upon the street,
And not a soul I met as I went along;
For none was there to meet.
The sun shone green betwixt the clouds,
A cast of light I never saw;
And the wind blew strong and cold,
The air was harsh and raw.
And then at last, an empty highway on,
I met what might have been my twin–
Save the empty sockets for his eyes,
And his cacodaemoniac grin.
He smirked, as if ‘t were all some joke.
And then he melted to a bloody pulp.
And it was then–I think–that I awoke.

Hexennacht II

April 30, 2016 2 comments

The hour was late, and the guardsman held his lonely vigil.
A moonless night, disturbed only by things which might be;
The imagined things which almost don’t exist, but leave their sigil
Imprinted on the black depths of humanity’s genetic memory.

As the guard gazes into the night, what monsters may be there?
Whence come the phantasmal sounds that make him raise his gun?
Is the darkness populated with fiends, lurking everywhere–
Or are the beasts loosed within his brain, content therein to run?

Is it a comfort to say that tales of these abominations
Are products of our minds; some mentally abhorrent whim?
If the vilest of monsters are the works of our imaginations,
Then what kind of things are we who have imagined them?

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