The Stagecraft of the Trump Presidency

MIKKO POUTANEN

Political stagecraft is about favorable representation of the politician and his message. Given the political ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, to particularities of Trump’s brand of political stagecraft, and its broader implications, deserve some attention.

All politics revolve around a certain degree of stagecraft. Strategically crafted speeches are rather equitable to orations delivered from a stage. The podium, the background, and the rhetoric are quite often carefully arranged to create the optimal form for delivery, for the benefit of the audience. This is nothing new, and nothing overtly cynical. Politicians, even presidents, of all political stripe (including former president Barack Obama) acknowledge the need to represent themselves and their message in a way that is conducive to furthering their cause.

Though the focus of this post is on US politics, variations of political stagecraft are universal. Political stagecraft invites the audience – most notably the press – to witness and become participant in the political message (Schmuhl 2016). In other words, successful political stagecraft typically enlists the media to promote and support a political message.

Problems arise when political causes are camouflaged. The argument presented is not the true goal of the orator. Thus in these cases the stagecraft of politics aims less for persuasion – which all political rhetoric seeks to rather legitimately do – but on manipulation. The prior is a legitimate argumentative strategy, not restricted to the political sphere, whereas the latter could be construed as an abuse of power. In the latter case the speaker exploits the asymmetry of power between his authority as a speaker and the relatively limited power of the audience.

Safeguards exist in liberal democracies to curtail the effectiveness of manipulative stagecraft: checks and balances on power seek to prevent overt accumulation of power through political stagecraft. Furthermore the conceptualization of the media as an institutionalized social power – the fourth estate – offers critical scrutiny to political actors and their stages alike. However, there is a paradox here as the media is captured by political stagecraft in terms of reporting it. The media cannot help but give visibility to political stagecraft, even while they’re also supposed to provide context and editorial control.

This lead-in brings us to the rather exceptional stagecraft involved in both the presidential campaign and the first weeks of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. From the very beginning of the Republican primaries, Trump’s particular brand of political stagecraft, informed by his personal exposure to popular entertainment media, allowed him to punch above his weight in terms of media exposure.

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy released several studies both on the primaries and the general election in terms of media exposure. The primary study found, for example, that Trump received the equivalent of about $55 million in free advertising space from the eight major media outlets, which was far more than the candidate himself spent in political ads. The New York Times estimates the altogether figure of free exposure by March 2016 was up to $2 billion in total.

To explain how this was possible, the author of the media study on the primaries, Thomas Patterson, states that “Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee”.

The same pattern followed in the coverage on the general election between Trump and Clinton, with both candidates receiving extremely negative coverage. Rather than inspire trust in the political system, Trump’s largely unfounded rhetoric specifically emphasized a sense of distrust in the established social institutions.

According to Thomas Patterson, “an incessant stream of criticism has a corrosive effect. It needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy”. However, it seems that although Trump was negatively covered, this didn’t translate into negative reception of his message in the elections.

Trump’s stagecraft was focused on distinguishing him as “not another politician”, or indeed as a businessman. For a businessman stagecraft is essential to secure trust in the market and get ambitious deals done. Stagecraft is, in essence, equitable to branding. This is the modus operandi Trump has brought with him throughout his campaign and presidency. Political stagecraft becomes something akin to political native advertising.

The focus on stagecraft has made Trump rather obsessed with his media coverage. Trump’s stagecraft not only encapsulates himself but his supporters: their support for Trump is vindicated when they are represented as the majority.

This has led to an extremely wrought relationship between Trump and the media precisely due to his stagecraft: the media is eagerly pointing out that the stage props or rhetoric of the Trump administration are disingenuous and self-contradictory.

The argument over the size of the inauguration day audience serves as a case in point: for the media the Trump administration’s claim of the largest crowd in history is patently false and thereby morally disqualifying for a president. For Trump the crowd size is an integral part of his stagecraft of an infinitely successful presidency beset by nit-picking media partisans.

The focus on stagecraft has made Trump rather obsessed with his media coverage. It is vital to understand that Trump’s stagecraft not only encapsulates himself but his supporters: their support for Trump is vindicated when they are represented as the majority. Trump uses his audience as props, as staff members are included in press briefings to provide the preferable audience responses, such as cheers or jeers.

His popularity in particular has been constructed as an integral part of his stagecraft, confounding popularity with being (morally and politically) in the right. To this end the administration was willing to coin the term “alternative facts”. These “alternative facts” – lies – appear needless, but are in fact integral parts of political stagecraft: the Trump presidency has to appear successful to maintain political momentum.

The following relates to Trump’s stagecraft directly: various people (media analysts Salena Zito for The Atlantic; Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; billionaire Trump backer Peter Thiel) have repeatedly stated that the media took Donald Trump literally, but not seriously, while the electorate seemingly did the opposite.

In other words, the media treated Trump’s stagecraft as something that was laughably transparent. The electorate, however, found that while Trump’s discourse might have been a bit off-putting in its details, the overall message – conveyed by stagecraft – was not. They knew Trump was a businessman, and they knew he would embellish the facts a bit to get the deal – to get elected. The point was he was offering something different.

Building on this assessment we find a curious case for assessing political trust. Trump’s political stagecraft relies on implicit political trust; what Trump says explicitly doesn’t erode the trust his stagecraft invokes implicitly. This might have been more understandable during the campaign, but is more disconcerting as a feature of his presidency.

It also relates back to Trump’s own anti-establishment and societal trust-eroding rhetoric, which arguably some Trump supporters took both literally and seriously. In the case Trump’s anti-immigration policies, it turns out both literal and serious interpretations, despite earlier disclaimers, were correct.

As much as Trump is a businessman, he, or his inner circle of political advisors, are stage managers. One of Trump’s political strategies has been his readiness to move the conversation constantly. By saying unorthodox things, he has been able to assure the media cannot afford – by their own operating logics – to look away.

They end up repeating the issues they seek to negate, and even more so when Trump doubles down on what he has said. Repetition is a cognitive strategy acknowledged e.g. by cognitive linguists and framing analysts (Lakoff 2004) to enhance the salience of an issue in the minds of an audience. Trump’s stagecraft is geared toward making that repetition resonate as positively as possible.

While the media assumed that Trump’s rhetoric would disqualify him, they mistook quality having more sway than quantity. While in the eyes of some voters Trump was indeed disqualified, in the eyes of many more potential voters his image solidified to the extent it would secure him a victory in the primaries and in the electoral college of the general election.

There is limited, or rather optional, truth-value to what Trump says when he engages in political stagecraft. He signals intent and the grand vision of his administration, and in this process fibbing the occasional line is not crucial, or even necessarily consequential. Fact-checking Trump’s claims only seems to keep his stagecraft in public view.

The media, as the critic of stagecraft, are dependent on political stagecraft existing; without it there would be nothing to report on.

Trump’s ongoing strife with the establishment media, then, becomes a part of this political stagecraft. His outsider status is vindicated by the media attempting to pin him down. Arguably what is going on is that journalists, like politicians, tend to over-value words, except the focus is on a politician who does not.

In the eyes of many Trump supporters, the ongoing tension may continue to benefit Trump while it eats away at the media’s credibility. The media, as the critic of stagecraft, are dependent on political stagecraft existing; without it there would be nothing to report on. The more audacious the play, the more media interest is potentially sparked. So the media is trapped, or rather embedded, in the cycle of events and dramatis personae of political stagecraft (Schmuhl 2016). As long as the media is thus captured, so is, very likely, the electorate.

References:

Lakoff, George. 2004. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Schmuhl, Robert. 2016. Statecraft and Stagecraft – American political life in the Age of Personality. 2nd Edition. University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press.

 

Mikko Poutanen is a doctoral researcher for political science at the School of Management in Tampere University, specializing in qualitative research methods.

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