Today's blog also appears in the Huffington Post.
America–You are about to experience with Donald Trump as president what Minnesota experienced with Jesse Ventura as governor 18 years ago. Both are politainers within a world of politainment where the traditional boundaries between politics and entertainment have merged and the normal rules defining conflict of interest and the personal and public roles of individuals have collapsed. And if the experiences of Ventura are any indication, America is in for an entertaining four years with Trump as president.
Eighteen years ago, James Janos “shocked the world” when he was elected governor of Minnesota. Better known as Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler and a B movie actor, he marketed his media skills and persona to fuel his candidacy. He ran as an anti-establishment, pro working class, truth-talking, third party candidate who would shake things up in St. Paul, Minnesota. And he did. When first elected one of my graduate students and I described him as the culmination of a new breed of candidates for a new era. He was a politainer–a politician and an entertainer combined–operating in a world where politics and entertainment–politainment–had emerged. What does it mean to be a politainer?
Back in 1999 we wrote that a “politainer has a dual career: he uses his entertainment career to benefit his political career, and he uses his political career to benefit his entertainment career.” We described the entertainment persona of politainers as fiction, yet we elect as a politician the persona and not the person. The persona is the political and vice versa. The politainer persona is a commodity to be sold using multi-media venues and marketing techniques to deliver a message that simultaneously convenes both a personal brand and a political statement.
We saw Ventura as the perfect embodiment of a trend in American politics that started with television back in the 1950s. Presidential politics had been remade by television, and presidential candidates capable of selling themselves there have gone on to succeed. There are many examples such as the first political commercials in the 1965s proclaiming “I like Ike.” Or the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate, the 1968 Nixon appearance on the television show Laugh In, Reagan the actor and his ability to deliver his lines, Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall donning dark glasses and a saxophone to play Heart Break Hotel, or simply the emergence of Comedy Central and SNL as major pop culture players in politics. Politics and entertainment had collapsed into one another and Ventura understood that.
As governor Ventura never seemed able to separate marketing his persona from his job as governor—in many ways he was a perfect case study in conflict of interest. He hosted the XFL while governor, claiming to do on his time off. He appeared on his favorite soap opera, and he acted in his persona to host a professional wrestling match while portraying his role as governor. When criticized for all these adventures as conflicts of interest–and I filed several of those complaints as executive of Common Cause Minnesota–he dismissed them, saying that these rules did not apply to him but only to professional politicians or everyone else in the executive branch but him. Trump’s governorship was in part about the triumph of personal interest over the public interest, or at most the pursuit of his interest defined as the public interest. And on top of it all, Ventura had a thin skin for criticism, attacking as “jackals” the very media who made him. By the time his governorship ended, his popularity and support wearied a state that once gave him record approval. Minnesota survived Ventura, but his legacy is at best mixed in terms of what he accomplished.
Minnesotans see Trump as Ventura redux, a politainer for a new generation who also shocked the pundits and media with his election. His political success too is rooted in his entertainment persona–he understood how to market himself to a 24/7 news cycle hungry for ratings and controversy, and he delivered a fresh news story and drama every day that satiated the media hunger for ratings and clicks. But he also mastered the social media, transforming the made for television presidency into the made for Twitter and Facebook one. Trump declared outrageous claims to promote himself and the media took him literally while his supporters took him figuratively, selling himself, the country, and his supporters the belief that his election would represent the victory for the little guy–that is what would make America great again. Conflicts of interest? That is something for professional politicians which is why during the transition he continues to mix personal business with politics, signaling that what is good for Trump the brand will be good for the nation and vice versa.
If Ventura’s experience is any guide, Trump too at best will leave a mixed legacy. At best, it will be a presidency marked by a petty, thin skinned politician who had a chance to change the political paradigm but did not. At worst, it too will be train wreck of shameless self-promotion and marketing gimmicks that confuse the public and private interest. Minnesotans have already lived through an earlier version of Trump and we are ready for his presidency. Are you America?