The Trump Phenomenon: Part III; Image “Trumps” All (by Jack)

Back in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas conducted seven debates throughout seven of the nine congressional districts in Illinois as they campaigned for the United States Senate. Each debate was scheduled to last three hours. What they said was recorded by stenographers, reprinted and distributed throughout the United States. People discussed and argued the issues that the two candidates raised. No one listened to them on the radio, saw them on television, or live streamed them; instead they read the debates in newspapers. This was democracy at its finest—candidates identified and framed the issues and citizens discussed and debated with each other.

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Contrast that with the image of Donald J. Trump in Mexico City standing side-by-side with Mexican president Peña Nieto calling him a friend and referring to the Mexican people as “amazing people.” A few hours later in Phoenix Trump, standing in front of American flags, talked about creating a “deportation task force” to round up Mexicans (rapists and murderers?) who had illegally entered the country and send them back to stand at the end of the line to re-enter the land of milk and honey. Trump’s visit to Mexico provided him with a great visual—standing at a podium next to a grim-faced Mexican president. Then, hours later, creating another image as he blasted away at illegal Mexican immigrants. Whatever he said in either venue was irrelevant; it was the image that was significant.

In Mexico he created an image of a world leader capable of standing up to leaders of hostile nations (for Trump Mexico is a hostile nation). Back in the friendly confines of Arizona he reverted to the image of a “non-PC” candidate “telling it like it is.” Forget what Trump is saying (he often says things that are not true), image is what the Trump campaign is about.

 

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It has been argued that Trump thrives upon, and even encourages, misinformation; that uneducated angry white men are flocking to him; that he is followed by “deplorable” people (the latest by Hillary). I think that is too simplistic. His appeal is broader. Trump is an extension of a presidential campaign phenomenon that began with the advent of television, was realized by Ronald Reagan, and became an art form with George W. Bush. These presidents (really their advisors) understood that reality had become “contested,” and they attempted to define it for their own political purposes through images, not words. Politics today is not a battle of ideas (ala the Lincoln-Douglas debates) but a battle of images. “Dubya” even went so far as to hire an image team composed of professionals drawn from the major networks to stage “message of the day” backdrops for pseudo-events to convey a simple yet coordinated message.

So Trump is not unique in his use of images. What is somewhat different about Trump is that he lacks virtually any substance at all. While candidates such as George W. Bush were taken to task for not being as informed about issues as presidential candidates should be, Trump’s ignorance about basic political issues and his lack of policy proposals is stunning. Still, it may not matter. Image becomes its own reality.

The difficulty with images is that they disempower the American citizenry. At their best images are effective at raising questions, but they do not provide people with information and perspectives that can provide the basis of democratic dialogue among citizens. How do you argue with an image? Images merely “are.” They can be pleasant, attractive, ugly, and disturbing. But they don’t provide the kind of information citizens need to engage in democratic discussions. Substantive arguments (which the Lincoln-Douglas debates provided) possess the possibility of engaging citizens in dialogue about important issues.

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But images are effective on the campaign trail because they tap into people’s feelings, and those feelings often override rational thought. Unfortunately image creation and manipulation represents our present-day approach to presidential campaigns. As three-time Grammy Award winning guitarist Adam Jones once said:  “It doesn’t matter what [the image] is about, all that matters is how it makes you feel.” Trump is creating an image that taps into people’s emotions and those emotions may very well overwhelm rational discourse.

With A Grain of Salt: “Soliciting” at Lowe’s (by Sasha)

nsi_lowes_logo_no_taglineLast weekend we dropped a large chunk of change at Lowe’s when we purchased a washer and dryer–they had enticed us into this sale by soliciting our patronage with a 10% off coupon.

This weekend we experienced a reversal: we were instructed by Lowe’s to leave the premises because we were “soliciting.”

Our crime? We were standing outside an entrance (not blocking it or harassing anyone) holding up clipboards that read on the back: “Register to Vote Here.”

On the front of our clipboards were Florida Voter Registration Applications. We wore no signs of political affiliation and neither did we hand out any materials. We were there with one civic purpose: to facilitate voter registration for anyone interested.

But even when this was explained, the Lowe’s representative told us, “I just don’t want you here.” We had to immediately move, although wandering the parking lot would be okay (because presumably it was owned not by Lowe’s but by several stores).

We complied. But although Lowe’s, other stores, HOAs, and even individual homeowners are entitled to have and to enforce a policy of “No Solicitation,” we were, in fact, NOT soliciting.

To solicit  implies a commercial or financial interest. It means to peddle, to sell, to offer for sale, or to ask for help. It can also be defined as urging a cause strongly, attempting to entice, or offering to have sexual relations with someone for money.

Just to be clear, we were not soliciting in any of those forms! (Can you imagine: “Hey there baby, want to fill out this form with me…”)

The adoption of non-solicitation policies is understandable; they prevent people from standing outside a store like Lowe’s selling their own products, promoting their own services, or asking customers for cash. Sometimes “canvassing” is included in these prohibitions, but canvassing is different as it involves pressing an idea or asking someone for an opinion or for support. (Members of religious groups who preach their faith door-to-door are sometimes said to be canvassing, not soliciting.)

Voter registration is none of that. In fact, it is considered a neutral civic activity that is usually exempted from non-solicitation policies, rules, and statutes because all it involves is offering people an opportunity to register to vote by filling out a government document.

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But for four of the people who talked to us today, that was a hollow offer. They had been convicted in Florida of a felony, and Florida law therefore prohibits them from becoming a registered voter—not only when serving their time, not only during probation, but even after that. In reality, for most convicted felons, they have lost their right to vote in Florida forever (unless they go through a complicated appeal process that results in the right being restored.) In Florida over 1.5 million people are disenfranchised in this way; i.e., over 10% of the voting age population. This is the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the nation.

For us today, that was the real crime.