Donald Trump: Hot Persona for a Cool Medium

Donald Trump Hot Persona

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, perhaps one of the most respected scholars on political rhetoric in the electronic age, must be scratching her head right now. Back in the 1980s she explained the popularity of Ronald Reagan by saying he had mastered the “cool” medium of television with his winsome persona.

So how does one explain Trump’s popularity—a red-hot personality in a medium that requires cool savvy?

McLuhan Was Also Outrageous

“Cool” was Marshall McLuhan’s term regarding the demands of television. The Canadian-born media guru rose to fame about the same time color overtook black-and-white TV screens in the early 1970s. McLuhan’s own adaptive cool personality suited television. Rarely did academics gain such rock star status, but McLuhan had an uncanny ability to lob mouth-dropping one-liners.

He said things like Blondie was emasculating Dagwood in front of Cookie and Alexander—proof the American male had been reduced to shell. He told Playboy magazine that democracy was finished because polling had superseded elections. He blurted out, “The Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age, but if again, then let’s make it a wake or awake or both.” At one point Henry Gibson of Laugh-In asked his television audience, “Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin’?”

Like Trump, McLuhan was outrageous, but unlike Trump he was well mannered. Television reporters loved McLuhan, even if they did not understand what the heck he was talking about most of the time. Media scholars are still deciphering McLuhanisms, as he knew they would, years after his death. This was a man who earned his PhD from Cambridge, was a devoted follower of G.K. Chesterton, and wrote suburb literary criticism for Allen Tate. However, once television found him McLuhan jettisoned linear logic for a more elliptical style of metaphors and puns.

McLuhan said coolness explained why Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election against John F. Kennedy. During their famous televised debate Kennedy projected the image of “the shy young sheriff” while Nixon came across as “the railway lawyer who signs leases that are not in the best interests of the folks in the little town.” McLuhan said if Nixon would just grow sideburns people might vote for him.

The Effeminate Style

Jamieson picked up on McLuhan’s term of coolness to explain how successful presidents of the twentieth century used the media of their day to build ethos. She said in her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age that modern politicians are best served by using the effeminate style, one that is conversational, nurturing, and reconciliatory.

The masculine style, dominant for millennia under the tongues of male speakers was unsuited for modern media because it was too fiery. Male politicians would have to adjust and those who did would be rewarded. Female politicians had a leg up on the effeminate style, but they still needed to meet substance with substance when in the ring with men.

History seemed to bear Jamieson’s theory out. Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered the demands of radio by calling his talks fireside chats. When Jimmy Carter donned a button-up sweater on television and spoke in front of a flaming hearth he was reaching back to FDR’s most effective mode of discourse.

Reagan was like a great uncle whose charm managed to radiate off the screen. Even if he got his facts wrong, most people forgave him. So soothing were his words when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before our very eyes. “And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff,” he said. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”

No wonder old Republican stalwarts miss him. The effeminate style does not mean the speaker lacks for testosterone, but that the rhetoric is more subdued and brought under what were thought to be the house rules of television. Reagan’s political spots ads were entirely mannish, even if they were soft and lacked for rational substance. More symbolic than analytical, they showed the former B movie actor chopping wood, riding horses, and walking up to a bear.

Jamieson points out, these moving images were devoid of logos—linear logic—and made a quick run to pathos—the emotional appeal—in forming ethos. The trajectory of political discourse steered toward pathos and brevity. By 1980 the half-hour broadcast speech, the norm in 1952, was replaced by the 60-second spot ad. Jamieson notes how the 1992 presidential race between George Bush, Sr., and Bill Clinton marked the demise of the public political speech and its replacement with the video clip and the celebrity interview.

But this has been the nature of television all along, an instrument, Neil Postman insisted, best suited for entertainment. No matter how much we might long for the days of William F. Buckley leaning in his chair with a clipboard asking intelligent questions to Henry Kissinger for an hour on Firing Line, we will not likely to see them again. Instead, we are stuck with Bill O’Reilly interrupting his guests every five seconds with a self-absorbed retort.

Television could only stand Buckley until cable came along. Before his death Buckley appeared on the Today Show for an interview lasting about three minutes. The Today Show host closed the segment by apologizing, “Well, I wish we could take more time . . .” Buckley rolled his tongue and widened his eyes interrupting, “Well, then why don’t you?” There was this off camera laugh, then a pause, followed by a cut to a commercial. Buckley knew the show could not take more time. Television was not designed to take more time.

How Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were able to hold a standing crowd for six hours stretches the imagination. Here was an audience with less education than most of us, yet could follow a complex argument, detect contradiction, and wait patiently for a delayed response. Their brains were “typographic,” as Postman said; their minds were shaped by the habit of deep reading.

The Masculine Style

The masculine style, prevalent from Cicero to William Jennings Bryan, was the rhetoric of battle and fire. Orators “marshaled arguments,” “attacked opponents,” and “defended positions.” Rarely void of rational argument, the old eloquence spoke to the head first and heart second. Even good preaching, as the nineteenth century Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher insisted, was “logic on fire.”

The speaker who used only emotional appeals was guilty of demagoguery. The West never dropped that standard on speech. Even Aristotle, who compromised with Sophists, could not forsake his mentor Plato who believed the discovery of truth to be the highest value of any discursive endeavor.

And so here comes Donald Trump using the most outrageous trash talk in modern political history—and doing it boldly. The bragging, slamming, and lying are unprecedented. His oratory weapons the equivalent of gut punches. In every debate he violates George Washington’s first rule of civility: “Every action done in company ought to be with some respect to those who are present.”

Yes, boys will be boys, but this is not bar talk; it’s political speech, which has always required a degree of decorum and humility on the part of the speaker. Some of us still remember Vice President George Bush saying in 1984 after he debated Geraldine Ferraro that he had “kicked a little ass.” As crass as that might have been, Bush made the comment in private and was not aware that a cameraman was standing nearby. According to Dale Russakoff of The Washington Post, minutes earlier Bush had praised Ferraro to reporters for being gracious. When pressed Bush would not even declare himself the winner of the debate.

Trump is a hot tamale for sure and certainly reflects the masculine style, but no presidential contender has ever spoken this way, not even Teddy Roosevelt, the hottest of them all, who bent his body and banged his fist and bore his white teeth to audiences all over the United States. Nonetheless, Teddy was also a gentleman and a scholar and would have never been caught resorting to boldface lies let alone Schlong talk.

Because Trump is so outrageous—what we might call the “Did he say what I think he said?” effect—media outlets give him disproportionate airtime in comparison to other candidates. What Jeb Bush gets for a million dollars, Trump gets for free. In a snatch and grab world of hyper media consumption outlets must turn their cameras to the most bizarre occurrences taking place on earth at the moment.

Is it possible that television no longer requires coolness? We must remember that when McLuhan made his probes about television forty years ago there were only three major networks.

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About the Contributor

Arthur Hunt

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). 

Comments

  1. Great article! Perhaps Trump’s meteoric rise has less to do with “cool” television and more to do with the internet. The internet is “hot” — which is why things like soundbites and video-clips go viral and personalities trend and spread like wildfire in dry grass.

  2. Howard Wetzel says:

    Several observations: First, rhetoric, good or bad, is no less logos than the narrow sense of reason used in the article; rhetoric and reason are both part of the transforming action of the spoken word. Second, the present media environment is no longer television. TV is there, but the overwhelming environment is interactive digital, which echoes and ripples in ways TV never could. Attentions are shorter, and the ‘hot’ quote travels better in the age of Twitter than supposedly cool discourse. Third, in a politically polarized environment of red and blue, the great many disaffected are drawn to the non-establishment candidates, Sanders and Trump. Trump appeals emotionally more to those who feel ‘left behind’ by cultural changes, so they respond to his political incorrectness, or outright tactlessness. And it unfortunately brings him a lot of free attention.

    • Arthur Hunt says:

      Yes, all this is true (Howard above) but television is still a dominant medium (see Michael Wolff’s Television Is the New Television).

      • Perhaps. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well, it’s a duck. I think it useful to speak of digital as a whole because all the formats actively interact with each other within the audience. ‘Television’ has changed so much in the digital era from the broadcast version we grew up with that it really is a new medium with TV shows as content. Even TV’s infrastructure (from Apple, Amazon, and your cable provider) is digital! Digital has changed televison and its audience as much as printing changed reading and its audience. Digital creates much more choice from cable and satellite, and that makes a much more transient audience. Shows are viewed on demand, and simultaneous use of Twitter and such have increased participation in the moment rather than passive viewing. In short, ‘television’ only really exists in the minds of owners concerned with content that will attract audiences for advertising. The effect on the culture, and what it expects, is entirely digital, regardless of provider.

        • Arthur Hunt says:

          Good points. Are we ready, then, to call television a “hot” medium due to the overall digital milieu? If so, did McLuhan see this coming?

          • Howard Wetzel says:

            No, still not ‘hot’. But TV is not TV anymore either; it’s digital, which is even more ‘cool’. And digital has further amplified the discarnate involvement of electric media, which McLuhan certainly saw coming. The discarnate experience enhances the ability to identify with image over substance, and distant electric crowds.

  3. Howard Wetzel says:

    Image plays to emotion and identity in ways beneath intellect. The frightening thing about Trump’s success is the willingness of evangelicals and fiscal conservatives to abandon their principles to identify with him. Trump has no platform but celebrity and brash talk. His success speaks volumes about a certain segment of the American electorate: stuck or declining economically, afraid of multiculturalism, and angry because they feel helpless in the cultural change. A perfect storm for a demagogue.

  4. Paul Levinson says:

    I actually argue, to the contrary, that Trump is a quintessentially cool candidate, and therein resides his (unfortunate) success. See McLuhan in an Age of Social Media for more, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9EkRpspp4c

    • Points taken; I accept ‘cool’, even ‘cooler’; the old TV cool had more detachment than the present interactive digital environment. Trump is the first to realize that interactive media has reduced presidential politics to just another reality show. Both parties are struggling with their ‘brands’, party loyalty ‘at all costs’ is not electrifying the base on either side. It would be ironic if the Republicans end up pulling together behind Trump, and the Democrats do not reach concord behind Clinton. The key difference: Trump passes as an outsider and rebel, and Clinton does not – the rebel on the Democratic side is Sanders.

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