The godfather vs. the grandmother: How the 2016 election became a battle of "character" over substance

That a proven foreign policy expert has to play the "grandmother card" shows modern politics have descended to PR

Published August 31, 2016 7:23PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (AP/Matt Rourke/Reuters/Carlos Barria/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (AP/Matt Rourke/Reuters/Carlos Barria/Photo montage by Salon)

Even setting aside our explicitly corrupt, undemocratic money-buys-candidates campaign system under Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the political process today bears no resemblance to what the founders of this nation envisioned.If our system is palpably imperfect, their "more perfect Union" was not a democratic republic either — by intent. Only property owners voted for House members and the nation’s chief executive was put in office by those deemed prudent and discerning, the most highly informed and well-educated among the populace. 

An elite Senate was chosen not by direct vote, but by local elites in state legislatures. The founders were not firm friends of popular election — what we call democracy — and James Madison saw danger to the republic coming from those who were able to persuade through charm or charisma but who were otherwise untrustworthy and empty of governing skill.

Future historians will look back in wonderment or perhaps disdain in their attempts to make sense of the voting public of 2016.  How could so many have seen as fit for the presidency or as a representative of their aspirations a supremely self-indulgent, incurious, uncaring, name-calling showman (Republican Donald Trump)? In our quasi-democracy, fear-mongering platitudes form the centerpiece of a conspiracy-fed campaign that resonates with untold millions, whereas the other major party’s bright, competent, worldly alternative is the one popularly known for an inability to connect (Democrat Hillary Clinton). And somehow, it’s still up for grabs in polling samples as to who’s more trustworthy.

Professional politicians are implicitly power brokers. Problems involving varying degrees of ethical uncertainty arise with their interactions with power and money seekers. So let’s not be naive. Weigh the supposed moral failing attached to Clinton's private email server against the showman’s shady history of raising funds for business ventures that serve a moneyed few (and mostly serve himself). His day is spent finding lawyers to pimp his deals, while exploiting honest labor for personal gain. Buoyed by encomiums from national security experts, his learned opponent has been calmly addressing policy specifics for many years. The knowledge gap alone sends up a multitude of red flags. 

But the Democrat’s strategy of educating voters on issues hasn’t done enough to soften her supposedly "shrill" image, nor removed her "negatives." Somehow this gives pause to voters and excites media commentary. As her biography put forward at the Democratic National Convention made clear, Hillary Clinton is trying to make herself more likable so as to win trust; presumably it’s Republican women she’s courting with this. We have to soften her up, they’re all saying. She’s doing better on late-night talk shows.

When meeting with Appalachian voters in southwestern Virginia recently, we were struck that decent folks, vaguely accepting of Trump, who say they would never, ever vote for Hillary, can’t quite put their finger on what it is about her that they dislike.  "There’s just something about her" does not address any concrete matter or even admit an ideology.  "She lies" is their convenient catechism, but really it’s just another way to avoid engagement.

What then is democracy? Campaigns managed by rich donors and savvy PR firms redefine the voter’s reality. More than ever, "character" is a matter of appearance elevated over substance. A detail-oriented, tough-minded progressive is asked to play the "grandmother card," to show her devotion to innocents as proof of her humanity. She is advised to smile more and soothe voters for the broadest possible improvement in likability. Not so Trump. He won’t soothe anyone, except with his criminally vague, single-executive message of "I’ll fix it." 

His team now tells him to pull back from the recurrence to threats (whether veiled or direct). It turns off wavering voters. But who can forget a year’s worth of headline-grabbing nonsense? Without the showmanship, he’s nothing. Doubling down on the cocky, empty, unrestrained tough guy image he’s cultivated, he’s regularly said, "We’re gonna crush ISIS. Believe me." When he says it under his breath, he steals something from Marlon Brando’s signature performance as Mario Puzo’s fictional godfather. In a sense then the image contest of election 2016 pits the would-be grandmother against the would-be godfather. 

While Trump is not a trained actor, his boardroom tsar act on reality TV must have finally convinced him that he could advertise himself for the ultimate executive gig by taking his godfather act on the road. Combining a Putin-esque strongman persona, he cleverly, cynically donned the gaudy "Make America Great Again" Bubba cap in order to talk to "the people" as someone who is at once a billionaire and an outsider with the common touch. Somehow it worked on those who find refreshing his vague and absurd claims delivered in a third grader’s vocabulary. Like the angry guy on the adjacent barstool, he speaks in unscripted prose, the way construction workers used to get away barking at passing women. 

So now the coarse city boy can claim he identifies with those whom socially liberal cosmopolitans don’t get, whom prim-and-proper Republicans don’t respect. Such people are known for their moralizing but hard-core Trumpeters prefer loudness to didacticism. What they detest the most is political correctness: It’s taken to be the worst kind of moralizing and is the language of the do-gooder Hillary Clinton. The Trumpeters’ economic standing matters less than their perception of the members of the social class who act superior to them. In short, dissing and being dissed is what today’s "democracy" is all about.

Trump shouts, "I’m really rich" at fans and foes alike, as an "in your face" to educated elites. Trump is so not "classy" that he is unafraid to put put his name on everything and constantly tout his classy life. But only those who identify with genteel behavior notice. He is giddily oblivious to the fact that he is a composite of bad American clichés. Throwing caution to the wind, he blithely steps into a low-class persona each time he descends the elevator from the penthouse of Trump Tower. He is the temperamental opposite of the charm experts Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, whose presidential smiles evinced a positive, confident outlook on the world that soothed voters. When Trump smiles, it is merely smug and most uninviting. 

Why is it that millions clamor for more of this stuff? They see his smugness as unbridled confidence, which for them is a good thing. His "I love the poorly educated" has been received as an acceptance of simple, black-and-white solutions. It’s how a mature Michael Corleone might have interpreted his father’s method. Trump don’t need no script, and you won’t find in him any haughty disregard for the little people. The suckers respond to this new godfather on a gut level. But it’s a presidential campaign not a movie, so instead of mumbling orders, the reckless, undisciplined son of an outer-borough speculator shouts obscenities when he declares himself the leader of the disaffected. "We’re gonna give it to them," he taunts. He doesn’t care who gets hurt, just so long as he can keep up appearances.       

What makes Mario Puzo’s godfather character, as so poorly performed by Trump, appealing to millions? And how much must one hate Hillary to vote for the unctuous, twisted, remade mob boss? 

We’ll supply a few answers by tracing two deeply rooted political traditions. The first is a style of rabble-rousing that goes all the way back to outsider Andrew Jackson, the first tough-talking, non-elite-identifying presidential candidate, the proven punisher of Native Americans (that is, some are good, but many are terrorists). "Retaliatory violence" was due them, Jackson insisted, because they were "inhumane bloody barbarians." Like Trump, Jackson had a rudimentary vocabulary and reduced the world to simple dichotomies: One was either friend or foe.

When the hotheaded Tennessean arrived in the nation’s capital to take his seat in Congress in 1796, he was described as an "uncouth-looking personage, with long locks hanging over his face." He was marked by his lack of scholarly deportment. One of his rivals said it best: "Boisterous in ordinary conversation, he makes up in oaths what he lacks in arguments." Thin-skinned Jackson used threats of duels to rise politically, much as the oddly coiffed, equally outrageous (if less physically courageous) Trump responds with tweets and cleared the field of Republican rivals with juvenile name-calling. 

His is a simulated form of violence, appropriated by someone who, as part of his act, talks as though he would love to join the mob he’s effectively organizing. The visceral nature of his antics mirror those of Jackson’s vocal supporters. They wanted to beat up the sedentary President John Quincy Adams and "blow" Jackson rival Henry Clay “in the mud.” Someone who ran for office as a Jackson man declared, "If so I’m elected, Gin’ral government shall wear the print of these five knuckles." That’s a Trump rally attendee, circa 1828. 

The other American tradition at play here is the amorphous quest for authenticity. The Jackson movement gained momentum by spreading the idea that professional politicians were dull men, mechanical puppets and simpering panderers — and that raw, untutored men like Jackson were better Americans. He possessed a "rude instinct of masculine liberty," as a prominent supporter wrote. The uninhibited, unintimidated man continued to hold his own in politics. Theodore Roosevelt walked softly and carried a big stick. 

The 20th century redoubled the search for models of masculine authenticity when fan magazines invented Hollywood heroes: John Wayne; the rebel without a cause, James Dean; and young Marlon Brando as a motorcycle gang leader in "The Wild One" of 1953. Admirers of "King" Elvis Presley saw something similar when this hip-shaking son of a sharecropper took to the stage and young girls started "pantin’ like mountain mules," as one of the performer's friends put it. Nearly 20 years later, the quietly seething Don Vito Corleone (the older Brando) barely controls the raw energy exhibited by his violent clan in "The Godfather." 

There was something perversely attractive in their dark vision of the world because once again it was undomesticated men who got the blood flowing, with rawness and rudeness. This is acceptable behavior for someone who shines as a rebel, an iconoclast. Why?  Personal loyalty to an alpha male becomes a substitute for loyalty to the national good. And that’s how demagogues take control.

Trump’s constant display of the "rude instinct of masculine liberty" is what supporters find so appealing. They admire his "raw honesty," by which is meant his crudeness and uncensored taunts, even as it concerned the Muslim parents of a dead soldier. For many of his followers, politeness is a class posture, a sign of political correctness, of elite snobbery. That Trump has little allegiance to the Republican hierarchy has worked in his favor: What many critics see as offensive narcissism, his fans see as autonomy from the party chiefs. It’s why he bragged about running in the primaries without big donor money.

Masculine bravado is deployed so as to erase his privileged childhood and pampered lifestyle. It makes him a "common man" for just long enough to attract a following that hears him saying "bitch," even when he doesn’t use the word, in complaining about Hillary Clinton: She is not the grandmother her daughter Chelsea and Democratic image makers are highlighting but a dangerous, physically unfit elitist, a "corrupt," "unstable" woman, "this lowlife," "a total lightweight" who threatens the tradition of male authority. The man who spearheaded the movement to demand Barack Obama’s birth certificate is branding another demon candidate who dares to overturn the way things are meant to be done. Those of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ardent army who called Hillary backers "vagina voters" are being outdone by an angrier crowd. 

So let’s not pretend that this election isn’t about class anger wrapped in "camo," the garb of masculinity run amok. For Trump supporters, Hillary is the worst kind of grandmother: moralizing, politically correct and too opinionated. They don’t want her teaching them any lessons. They want Trump, the hard-ass, threat-delivering New York "don" to teach her a lesson — some version of waking to find a severed horse’s head in bed with her.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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Democratic Party Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Hillary Clinton Mario Puzo "the Godfather"