Recently, Jeb Bush made headlines when he answered a softball question about superheroes in the dweebiest way possible. There’s no denying that Jeb is not a cool guy. Maureen Dowd’s article in the New York Times highlights the history of Jeb’s political career as he ran for office at the same time as his brother, George W. A particularly cold passage from Dowd’s piece perfectly describe’s the situation so far:
W. headlined a fund-raiser at a Georgetown home Thursday night. When he came out, a TMZ camera captured him jovially signing autographs for people waiting on the street and calling out as he drove away, “Don’t put that on eBay.”
On Friday morning, the chatterers were comparing the stiff Jeb to the loosey-goosey W., gushing with the mistaken cliché that W. is comfortable in his own skin. It was the ultimate vindication for W. His parents had been wrong all along. Jeb wasn’t the Natural on the trail. He was.
In the wake of George Bush and Obama, Jeb seems incredibly boring. This isn’t a United States where sound policy and a strong record can win the presidency alone. Politics is entertainment now more than ever, and candidates have to learn to play the game. As Americans have seen with the rise of Trump, the public loves a good personality. Looking back at the last three presidents, Clinton, George W., and Obama, certain characteristics seem to transcend party lines.
Bill Clinton is infamous for his Whitehouse scandal, comments about inhaling marijuana, and, sometimes, “for being the first black president.” As noted in a 2004 USA Today article, Bush was a “guy’s guy” to voters, giving off a more casual vibe that the political-heavy personality of Kerry. Bush also struggled with alcohol problems like many Americans, and his imperfect past certainly made him seem more like a regular person than reserved candidates. Obama has openly admitted to using marijuana in the past, and pictures of the president at Occidental show him posing for a photoshoot looking pretty damn cool (and smoking who knows what). On television appearance, Barack cracks jokes and makes the audience laugh while still displaying an incredible amount of tactfulness. All three of these presidents have a sort of charisma that goes beyond politics, and this charisma seems to be important to voters.
Some might consider this a “bro” personality, and it’s definitely an explanation for Donald Trump’s popularity amongst poll participants. For bros, Trump is a total bro. He’s not down with that political correctness nonsense. He likes making crazy, overboard statements that entertain the masses. He’s also quick to talk shit –it’s not about decorum it’s about results. He might be more crass than other candidates, but he certainly embodies the bro-vibes that former presidents have demonstrated. It’s no surprise that these antics make him a notorious figure in the mainstream media, increasing his name recognition as polls roll out for the presidential race, but this popularity might also be a result of Americans treating politics as a spectacle.
With smartphones, media can be consumed everywhere, meaning politics can also be consumed all day. President Obama’s use of social media has already been tirelessly discussed, but that does not mean the conversation is over. Social media is entertainment at its core –not news– and relying on algorithms to serve the most pressing political stories is not a good idea. Social media favors the outrageous over the disciplined, the wildcard over the traditional. “Going viral” takes a certain kind of pizazz, but this pizazz is more geared towards the entertainment industry than it is to politics. Obviously social media was not the reason for Bush and Clinton’s election –it was their personalities, but social media allows Americans to constantly interact with a candidate’s platform, and that makes personality increasingly important for their branding and popularity.
Anchorman 2 brilliantly presented the negative effects of 24/7 news on television, and the internet has only added to these problems. Page views, clicks, video plays, retweets, matter more than anything else to news companies. If it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense, and this philosophy will only continue to infect the news industry as consumer choices reduce revenue streams. Americans have long voted for the candidate that embodies the “American man,” but vanilla candidates have become increasingly unviable due to the web. Unless a politician becomes the “internet’s candidate,”like Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders, he or she better bring some personality to the table. America treat politics like a reality show, and a candidate needs to play ball to succeed. Policy alone will not get the job done. To be president, you need to develop your persona into a brand. It does not necessarily need to be bro, but it certainly cannot be stiff. Mass recognition is now gained through virality –not just television and radio time. Clinton, Bush, and Obama might have been bros, but future presidents will need to appeal to the masses with their personas. It’s no longer about being a “guy’s guy,” but about controlling an online personality to cater to different voters.