Saturday, August 27, 2016

Political performance

Interesting analysis in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Charles Homans; he's looking at one dimension of the strains imposed on political journalism by the Trump campaign and specifically Trump's seemingly endless utterances that would have been considered enormous liabilities by previous Presidential candidates. Conclusion --

at this point, to treat Trump’s statements as anything other than intentional is to uphold political-reporting convention at the expense of common sense. Trump has laid bare journalism’s contradictions — reporters’ desire to be critical of politicians without criticizing anything they stand for — to the point where we have no choice but to examine them.

But the definition of the gaffe as an unscheduled blurting out of what the candidate actually thinks mingles two distinct types of controversy over such remarks: when they are said in public versus when they are said in private and then find their way into the public sphere, such as Mitt Romney's 47 percent discussion and episodes involving lack of awareness that a microphone is on.

Why does the public not seem to care about the unintentionally publicized awkward statement? German sociologist Niklas Luhmann discussed this phenomenon in the context of the Brazilian presidential election of 1994, Cardoso against Lula, when the incumbent minister of finance in a government that was supposed to be neutral discussed how the government was managing all the economic statistics to help Cardoso, unaware that the interview studio was already broadcasting. The remarks caused apparent uproar, but had no effect on the ultimate outcome, forcing Lula to wait yet again. Luhmann's conclusion --

The entire affair, then, was being played out at the level of public opinion and, if we include the stock exchange, at the level of second-order observation. It consisted in a reaction on the part of public opinion to itself ... But how do the suspicion of manipulation, which exists anyway, and people's general mistrust of politicians' honesty take effect? It is generally assumed, after all, that there is a discrepancy between public pronouncements and actual intentions voiced only in private. Contrary to all rationalistic assumptions about the truth-bearing impact of publicity, this case shows that truth is held to reside in private, rather than in public, communication.

Thus, Trump's supposed gaffes aren't actually gaffes because since they're entirely public, people don't believe them. Some of his supporters may like them being said, but that's a different story.  That's why political journalists directing their efforts to being explicitly against Trump's policy stances is not going to have any effect. The effort needs to be in determining what Trump actually believes.

UPDATE: Excellent NYT Sunday Review analysis from Mark Thompson positioning Trump as an authenticist; how he says things as much as what he says maters --

More important, he’s used his erratic and self-evidently impromptu speaking style to support the central thrust of his campaign, which is an attack, not just on the substantive track record of the establishment, but on its discredited way of speaking — the instrumentality and the focus-grouping, the suppression of honesty and real emotion in favor of boilerplate, slipperiness and downright lies.

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