Plays for US presidency are increasingly based on dramatic appeal

Monday, 26. October 2015
Mika Aaltola
Programme Director - the Global Security research programme

The "reality" has shifted in several ways. The conflict between spontaneous or manufactured controversies – that make good old and excellent new media – and demonstrations of knowledge over substantive policy questions has found a new balance. Controversy has gained an upper hand.

Donald Trump's controversies appear to be his own tactical choices. Hillary Clinton's scandalousness is framed either as simple mistakes or blamed to her political enemies. Despite the differences, the dramatic effect is largely the same. The fact that the leading candidates' high positive polling results are matched by high negatives is a further sign of changed expectations concerning what and who is considered as "presidential". Being real, authentic, and capable are increasingly functions of drama amidst demonstrations of strong and persistent personality.

Trump has made a series of startling statements and personal insults. Hillary Clinton has weathered decades of scandals. The latest congressional investigation over Benghazi or the controversy over her emails demonstrates her scandal-proness and also ability to withstand such storms. On last Thursday, she tweeted: "I am here, despite all the previous honor those we lost and to do what I can to aid those who serve us still." It is as if she would be saying that because of the drama she is stronger, last of the true Romans.

The conventional wisdom tends to miss the key point of concerning Trump's and Clinton's sustained buoyancy. It is true that candidates similar to Trump have fallen – e.g. Herman Cain in 2011. However, if skillfully managed or manufactured, it might be that the seeming fragility and precariousness of the scandalous campaigns offer keys to their sustainability. People feel nuanced sense of identification. Constant visibility translates into a particular form of presence. Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's Teflon-effect used to refer to the presidential characteristic stemming from avoiding the negative consequences of multiple scandals. Now, a candidate may be able manufacture his or her Teflon. At the same time, the expectations that Trump or even Clinton might fall are essential parts of the drama needed to sustain their campaigns. Sustained drama has become the key form of political power in managing a successful presidential campaign.

In the craft of "drama power" that taps into the positive effects of controversy, polarization, and paralysis, apparent dysfunction can actually be essentially functional. The growing appeal of new media formats – especially reality TV and celebrity culture – and the emergence of fast tempos of social media have changed attitudes concerning what is expected and how negatively or positively the drama, scandals, and controversy are evaluated. Presidential status is increasingly about visibility, fame, and celebrity. Dramatic candidates are seen as worrying yet entertaining. There is a strange fascination and attraction in scandalous yet visibly fragile and contested candidacies. The attraction towards the exceptional candidates like Trump and Clinton is bound to be a complex sentiment.

The ongoing reality shift in politics remains much maligned. Trump-like candidates can be regarded as crass. The voyeuristic fascination towards them is often seen as cheap and politically incorrect. On the other hand, even negative appeal is a form of identification. Some follow the campaigns because they make them feel superior, and others want to see the inevitable ‘humiliation'. There are those who want to see previously unworthy personalities be made visible and even glorified. Obscure figures can be transformed into heroes and some want to see them last longer than what is usually expected.

The voters' changed tastes and expectations highlight "authenticity" that appears to be unscripted. Especially Trump seems to be a master of this game. The senses of "reality" and who is "real” no longer matches seriousness and experience with being real. This might be one of the problems of Clinton's otherwise dramatic candidacy. She feels scripted and too consistent. The ongoing reality shift is increasingly undermining the practice of appearing presidential, calm, bi-partisan, and balanced.

Rather, a candidate is expected to satisfy a fuller spectrum of people's emotional appetites. The "reality” of the campaigns has to be designed so as to reveal supposedly "authentic" moments. People expect seemingly revelatory ‘oops' and ‘caught you' moments. With Trump you have a candidate that masters them. He is being "real". A candidate with less sense of drama looks to avoid these, and with that, misses what people want to see. "Serious” candidate can fall with a scandal or blunder whereas a "real” one only becomes more human and authentic.

The overall reality shift is connected to the transformation of the popular culture towards bleak, cynical, and realistic content. Gone are the days of bleary-eyed idealistic struggles between good and evil, and of heroic ideal leaders. New content, such as House of Cards, The Good Wife, Boss, and Scandal, portray a much harsher and Machiavellian image of politics where morality exists only in a feigned form. The appeal of these new bleaker portrayals derives from the viewer's recognition that this interpretative frame is more transparent and honest when it comes to contemporary political life not only in US but also in Europe.

The situation is far from ideal. However, the underlying drama power and its counterintuitive and paradoxical expectations are worth considering in evaluations of the candidacies and their sustainability.


The column is part of a series of FIIA columns on the US presidential elections.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors