When wondering why people might see Donald Trump’s performance in a positive way, simply turn to to Umberto Eco.
In the past two days, I’ve heard two people express some approval of Donald Trump. One person was in the United States. The other in the United Kingdom. Both are intelligent, well informed, high-functioning people.
The person in the US said they disagreed profoundly with a lot of Mr Trump’s policies but perhaps his pugnaciousness was needed on the world stage in order for America to assert itself.
The person in the United Kingdom said there was a lot they didn’t like about Mr Trump but he was at least standing up against China and trying to make peace with North Korea.
When I challenged both my interlocutors, they held to their view.
The thin sample of public opinion is hardly representative of anything but it does tell us something we dimly know but don’t often acknowledge.
Poseurs do well in politics and can keep the show going for as long as people will let them.
Let me explain.
Anyone who reads the detail of Mr Trump’s policies knows that the problem with his trade war with China is not the fact of launching it. It is the lack of a strategy to which China can reasonably agree.
Right now, Mr Trump is not investing in American excellence — education, R&D, infrastructure, healthcare, AI, next-gen solutions for next-gen problems. Instead, he’s trying to meanly hold China back. A futile exercise but there you go. In the meanwhile, Americans — soybean farmers, manufacturers, consumers — are bearing the brunt of Mr Trump’s grandiose strategy to use tariffs as a magic bullet to stun the world.
Then, consider North Korea. When Mr Trump took office, the North Koreans were thought to have anything between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. Mr Trump racheted up tensions, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Then, he had a succession of glossy summit-style meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — sans substance, but with good photos. The end result is what it was when Mr Trump took office, with one crucial difference. Mr Kim and his nukes are being legitimised by Mr Trump. You could call it realpolitik. You could call it the Russian solution or the Chinese approach. Whatever it is, it’s not some great triumph for Mr Trump. Mr Kim still has 20 to 60 nukes and Mr Trump’s crude push for ratings hasn’t changed any of that.
Back to my two interlocutors. I wondered why they saw Mr Trump’s performance in such a positive way. The answer became clear with a little help from Umberto Eco’s brilliant essay ‘How to be a TV host’ (a short essay from Umberto Eco’s collection of essays “How to travel with a Salmon”). Eco described the performance-worship of a people he named the Bongas.
In his essay, the narrator was invited to the Svalbard Islands where he would spend several years studying that fictional nation.
“For example, if we begin to talk, obviously we use words; but we feel no need to say so. A Bonga, on the contrary, in speaking to another Bonga, begins by saying: Pay attention. I am now speaking and I will use some words. We build houses and then (with the exception of the Japanese) we indicate to possible visitors the street, the number, the name of the occupant. The Bongas write “house” on every house, and “door” beside the door. If you ring a Bonga gentleman’s bell, he will open the door, saying, “Now I am opening the door,” and then introduce himself. If he invites you to dinner, he will show you to a chair with the words: “This is the table, and these are the chairs!” Then, in a triumphant tone, he announces, “And now the maid! Here is Rosina. She will ask you what you want and will serve you your favourite dish!” The procedure is the same in restaurants.”
“It is strange to observe the Bongas when they go to the theatre. As the house lights go down, an actor appears and says, “Here is the curtain!” Then the curtain parts and other actors enter, to perform, say, Hamlet. But each actor is introduced to the audience, first with his real first and last names, then with the name of the character he is to play. When an actor has finished speaking, he announces: “Now, a moment of silence!” Some seconds go by, and then the next actor starts speaking. Needless to say, at the end of the first act, one of the players comes to the footlights to inform everyone that “there will now be an intermission.””
“When television shows were first broadcast in Bonga, the producers lured relatives of the organizers into the studio and, thanks to a flashing light (invisible to viewers at home), alerted them when they were to applaud. In no time the viewers discovered the trick, but, while in our country such applause would have immediately been discredited, it was not so for the Bongas. The home audience began to want to join in the applause too, and hordes of Bonga citizens turned up of their own free will in the country’s TV studios, ready to pay for the privilege of clapping. Some of these enthusiasts enrolled in special applause classes. And since at this point everything was in the open, it was the host himself who said, in a loud voice at the appropriate moments, “And now let’s hear a good round of applause.” But soon the studio audience began applauding without any urging from the host. He had simply to question someone in the crowd, asking him, for example, what he did for a living, and when he replied, “I’m in charge of the gas chamber at the city dog pound,” his words were greeted by a resounding ovation.”
“Applause became so indispensable that even during the commercials, when the salesman would say, “Buy PIP slimming tablets,” oceanic applause would be heard. The viewers knew very well that there was no one in the studio with the salesman, but the applause was necessary; otherwise the program would have seemed contrived, and the viewers would switch channels. The Bongas want television to show them real life, as it is lived, without pretence. The applause comes from the audience (which is like us), not from the actor (who is pretending), and it is therefore the only guarantee that television is a window open on the world.”
“I cannot say that the Bongas are our inferiors. Indeed, one of them told me that they plan to conquer the world. That evening I turned on the TV and I saw a host introducing the girls who assisted him, then announcing that he would do a cosmic monologue, and concluding with: “And now our ballet!” A distinguished gentleman, debating grave political problems with another distinguished gentleman, at a certain point broke off to say, “And now, a break for the commercials.” Some entertainers even introduced the audience. Others the camera that was filming them, Everyone applauded.”
“Distressed, I left the house and went to a restaurant famous for its nouvelle cuisine. The waiter arrived bringing me three leaves of lettuce. And he said, “This is our macedoine of laitue lombarde, dotted with rughetta from Piedmont, finely chopped and dressed with sea salt, marinated in the balsamic vinegar of the house, anointed with first-pressing virgin olive oil from Umbria.””
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