A Blue Wave was going to rush across the American landscape, washing away once and for all of the Orange Menace and his cronies…
AND IT DIDN’T HAPPEN.
I don’t get political here too often. Yet even as apolitical as I like to be, my spirit was roused against Trump’s unique brand of dangerous demagoguery. He plays on people’s fears, is detached from reality to a great degree, and plays to our basest desires rather than our higher aspirations.
I found myself wishing for the Blue Wave that didn’t materialize. While Biden and Harris may yet eke out a win, it certainly doesn’t amount to any kind of “wave” this year.
WHY WERE THE HOPES (AND OPTIMISTIC PROJECTIONS) SO WRONG?
It starts with something I learned about marketing as I was building my business. There are two fundamental types of communication, those that are “for” and those that are “against.”
The “for” communication can also be called “towards”. It’s all about tuning into people’s desires and even aspirations, and connecting with those in your language. It’s about showing how movement in the desired direction can be beneficial and rewarding.
The “against” discussion is the flip side of that – it boils down to communicating the un-wanted, often in stark terms, and then showing people a potential avenue to move away from that unwanted outcome in their lives.
Both types of communication have the power to move people if they connect with what people already want – or don’t want. Yet they have substantially different effects in the short term and long term.
WHY “AGAINST” COMMUNICATION IS POWERFUL IN THE SHORT TERM, BUT FAILS LONG-TERM
Many communicators, whether they’re politicians, thought leaders, or marketers, realize the immediate power they can seem to wield by playing to people’s fears of the unwanted.
Trump illustrated this handily with his anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions. He continued beating the drum of how bad it would be if “these types” of people were to gain a greater foothold. His message resonated with a certain segment of the population who are truly afraid of such people, and willing to stay with support of Trump based on that fear.
On the other side of the aisle, there’s a healthy dose of fear-mongering “against” communication as well. In the past, it has been focused on things like climate change and gun violence. More recently it shifted focus to police bias and brutality against minorities, and then towards anti-Trumpism.
Ultimately, Trump came to represent the largest symbol “against” which the Democrats rallied. Repeatedly beating the drum of how bad he is and will be if re-elected, there was never a moment that tuning into the news didn’t produce some scathing critique of how awful he is.
While I happened to agree with many of those critiques, this election shows us yet again how ineffective these “against” can be to effect long-term change. If there’s a Blue victory, it will be a squeaker – despite legendary voter turnout, and legendary spending by the campaigns.
What should have been an “easy victory” was instead a whimpering “maybe.”
How could that be? What’s going on here? Has the human population (yet again) gone insane in its relentless backing of the seeming lunatic that is called Trump?
If you listen to Democrats (many of whom are dear friends of mine), the problem is that “many people are stupid, ill-informed, and wrong.” Continuing the polemic: “we are an ailing country whose time has come and gone, and we have very hard work to do to just barely scrape by and eek out our continued existence.”
How much fun does that sound like? If I had a fun scale of zero to ten, I’d rate that a negative five (-5).
During the campaign, Trump frequently focused on (often imaginary) bad deeds of his opponents. Meanwhile, there was little in the way of a “positive vision” communicated in any way that a moderately educated adult could decipher.
So on the surface it could be said that he, too, waged a mostly “against” campaign. From that surface analysis, we had two “againsts” duking it out for the win. According to the factual rules of that game, there should have been a Blue Wave, since Trump’s game was based mostly on fantasy, whereas the other side’s was substantially more grounded in reality (though by no means perfect).
Yet if it’s possible for the Trump-despising mind like mine to step back from the specifics of his ravings, a different picture starts to step out of the fog and into the sunlight.
In that clarity, we see someone in Trump who is often gleeful in his attacks on his opponents. He revels in his tweeting, and he trounces his opponents with his oblivious self-aggrandized rants. They fire back on twitter, but does he care? Does it stop him? No, it just energizes him.
It is reminiscent of watching a football game, with a dynamic and mercurial coach at the helm of one team. The energy, maneuvering, and drama are interesting to watch. It’s why viewers tune in in the first place. It’s the same reason that when there’s a car wreck on the highway, traffic slows while everyone tries to get a glimpse of what happened.
WHAT TRUMP IS REALLY FOR
This leads us to what really separated the candidates. If you can listen beyond Trump’s nonsensical accusations about Biden and Harris, and if you can wield temporary moral amnesia about his attacks on all things that are non-white-male, you see something that hints at his staying power: it’s his fundamental glee and enthusiasm for what he’s doing. It is infectious at a deep level.
Bill Clinton had the same characteristic. Regardless of what was going on around him, he almost always had a sort of fun, mischievous look on his face. He never focused on the “hard work” we would have to do, or the “penance” we the electorate would have to suffer under the Clinton administration, despite being a workaholic himself. Instead, he had fun – so much so that it got him into trouble with the Lewinsky affair – yet even that ultimately slipped right by him. “Teflon Bill” was made of teflon, because he was fun.
We could also see that in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The Gipper had a similar twinkle in his eye, and despite his age, often a lilt in his step. He, too, was a popular president with staying power, despite that things like his “trickle down” theory of economics were widely dismissed as fantasy.
So we have the example of three presidents with surprising staying power, and one commonality: in their own way, each one was fun and interesting.
Trump is tuned into this. Trump is having fun being Trump. He espouses that others should have fun being themselves too, as long as they first and foremost support Trump being Trump.
His opponents aren’t nearly so fun at that deeper level. They talk about problems, they speak of responsibility, and even refer to logical or moral high ground arguments.
THEY JUST SEEM LIKE “HARD WORK”
If you listen to most Democrats, we’ve all got hard work ahead. We’ve got to undo all that stuff Trump did, which will take years. And we’ve got to fix the climate change crisis asap, before the Earth ends in a cataclysm. We’ve also got to start paying people higher minimum wages so they can continue eek out a minimal existence working two jobs, so they can continue the grind. We’ve got to give immigrants a path to citizenship, but only after years of paperwork and bureaucracy. It’s all work, work work, and no fun to be seen.
On the other hand, Trump makes it sound easy and fun. He sets the (bad) example himself: through his (likely nefarious) dealings, he created first a business empire, and then rose to fill the highest political office in the US.
He didn’t rise to these positions by taking the long and tedious road that most people ascribe to of “education and hard work.” He bypassed all that, and rose to his position through much the opposite – philandering, mocking, and gaming his way to the top.
It is exactly what so many Democrats hate him for that gives him his staying power. “How could someone so corrupt and so dismissive of the truth possibly stay in power?”
Because he’s more fun and interesting than the other side, that’s how. His fundamental message is Towards, not Against
He creates an aspiration in people that they too can rise to the top, if only they get a little piece of the “Trump Pie.” He inspires them towards a brighter future where they too can “have it all” despite that they haven’t toiled for years in the glum drudgery of an almost never-ending education, or the subsequent anchor to an often-tedious job required to pay off the college loans.
Looking at the facts, Trump only cares about Trump. He’s not actually in it to help anyone else. So all those people he’s created aspiration in have very little hope of a truly better or easier life for themselves under a Trump regime. It’s all a fantasy in the end.
However, a fun fantasy Trumps grim reality almost every time. Pun intended.
IS THAT A BAD THING?
It’s easy to take a sort of moral high ground and say “of course truth and reality are more important than fantasy!” I have gone down that road myself, many times.
Yet this is a false dichotomy. It’s one that most Democrats aren’t aware of enough to do anything about, and those like Trump seem to naturally attune to.
It’s not about “truth” versus “fantasy” – that’s not the game that’s being played. In the end, the electorate doesn’t care nearly as much about that as some people hope they would.
Instead, the game is about “fun and interesting” versus “boring, tedious, hard work.”
Rather than citing a bunch of boring, tedious, academic studies, I will refer to just one fact: add up how much money is spent on video games and streaming services every year now, and compare that to the National Institutes of Health annual budget, which covers research on cancer, heart disease, stroke, and so on.
Netflix annually grosses half of the NIH budget, at $20 billion, compared to the NIH budget of $42 billion. That’s a single streaming service amounting to half of the government’s annual spending on disease research!
If you add video games into the mix, at $24 billion from 2016 (with likely substantial growth since then), Netflix plus Video games exceeds the serious business of health research – covering all major human diseases. Really? Wow.
If there’s one takeaway message, people are serious about their fun!
SCHITT’S CREEK AND THE FUN FANTASY OF GAY RIGHTS
There’s a little comedy from Canada that became a big hit over the six seasons it ran. It follows the fall from wealth and fame that the fictional Rose family experiences, forcing them to move into a motel in a small town called “Schitt’s Creek.” It follows their travails as their presumptuous wealthy, elite lifestyle repeatedly clashes with small-town modesty, and their newfound economic circumstances after their wealth was taken away.
One of the features of the series is strong and inspiring gay relationship between two main characters.
Notably absent throughout the show is any kind of discrimination or hard-nosed messaging about gay rights. The couple have their drama, much like any couple – but it is not any kind of in-your-face message about the good, the bad, or the ugly politics of being gay. There’s none of that in the show.
Instead, it’s a comedic – and at times lightly dramatic – depiction of life in a small town as a gay couple, given very different upbringings.
It wasn’t until watching the followup to the series with cast interviews, it hit me: this series, by not addressing the weighty issues of gay rights head on, did a tremendous service to gay rights. They showed the cast reading letters they’d received from so many people who’d been inspired by the show, and who had new found hope and purpose because of it.
In other words, Schitt’s creek was wielding a positive influence, changing lives, and doing it in a fun way as a light comedy.
Maybe they know the same thing Trump seems to know, whether by accident or intent.
If we compare Schitt’s Creek to Trump, the message is entirely different, with Trump’s homophobia contrasted to Schitt’s Creek normalization of the Gay Experience. Yet underlying both is a sense of fun, even if quite different types or qualities of fun.
It’s often been said that presidential elections hinge on the state of the economy. If we look at the simple idea that a good economy is a lot more fun than a bad economy, then we can start to see why people might vote with their wallet. It’s not about the money per se, it’s about the fun (or lack thereof) that people experience, depending on how things are going in the economy.
WAY OVEREDUCATED: WHY THE HIGHER EDUCATED ARE SO OFTEN NO FUN
I had a friend in graduate school who talked about forming a band named “way overeducated.” We’d sometimes do music jams, and in the room there were several PhD’s, master’s degrees, and so on. We were way overeducated, and one of the results of our over-education and its stifling overthinking were that we took our music too seriously to go anywhere with it. Being too serious is not how bands “make it.”
In contrast, Brian May, from the band Queen, is an astrophysicist. Yet I’d never have heard of him – nor would most people have – if he’d chosen to slave away in a lab on some high mountaintop staring through a telescope. We’ve heard of him because he contributed to lots of fun – which is what the band Queen represented. Freddy Mercury, the band’s front man, advanced gay rights tremendously – mostly through having fun. He was incredibly dynamic and fun to watch and listen to.
Yet if I contrast that to sitting through talks at the typical academic conference, the latter is like a black hole, its gravitational tentacles inevitably sucking all fun out of the room into a timeless, inescapable abyss. It is a rare bright spot to see a talk that is even moderately fun.
Most academics (myself included as a former academic) just expect this as par for the course. It’s not that we’re immune to wanting to experience fun. It’s clear that fun talks get more attention. Interesting grant proposals – that have an appropriate balance of fun in them (but not so much as to seem non-serious) – do better in review. Fun papers get more reads, whether it’s because of the fun writing or the interesting concepts explored in them – or better yet, both.
Even the research work itself can be fun (yes, really!), though the fun of it often gets buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and grant fund raising, making it seem quite not fun. The fun is then further stifled by poor communication that makes it just tedious, rather than interesting.
It’s clear that academics aren’t immune to – deep-down – wanting some fun. Yet we’ve trained ourselves, and successive generations, to expect non-fun. We’ve trained ourselves that life is hard, life is serious, and there’s no fun at the end of the grind. Instead, at the end of the grind, there’s just more grind.
If we want fun, we have to find that in our hobbies. We eke out a few hours on weekends from our 80-plus hour workweeks for “fun,” in what amounts to more of a recovery-from-exhaustion than it is true fun.
And since right now the political landscape is divided along educational lines, it pays to take heed. Academics represent the epitome of “blue” in the sense of Democratic principles. Whereas non-academics, especially those who never went to college, are most firmly rooted in the “red” of Trumpist Republican principles.
While many who are in the latter category may work very hard, they are different in expecting that life should be and can be fun! (Even if fun amounts to just shooting off AR-15 semi-automatic guns all weekend).
Unlike academics, they have not become so self-brainwashed into the anti-fun abyss. They are not so ready to adopt the premise that “life should be serious, hard work, and definitely not very fun.”
So when someone like Donald Trump comes along, he gives them a hope that life can be fun again (even if it’s just a fantasy). It stirs them. It riles them up. It gets them out to rallies, and gets them to stand in line to vote. They are voting for FUN, not for the man named Donald Trump. He’s just the nearest proxy they can find, and he’s definitely more fun than the other guy (and gal).
For those who hold that there should be a higher path for the human species than having fun by shooting off guns and building walls at the border, there is a way.
TESLA ILLUSTRATES HOW FUN IT CAN BE
Electric cars are one small piece of the puzzle for how we address the ever present need for human transportation, while improving the environmental impact of that. They’re not perfect, but they are a step forward from the gas-guzzlers in many ways.
No discussion of electric vehicles would be complete without mention of Tesla, and there’s a good reason why. The Tesla Model S electric car has a version with a “ludicrous mode.” That vehicle can go from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds. I have to be honest, that sounds like wicked fun, and because of that, I still drool over the idea of at least driving one, if not owning one someday. Even the garden variety Tesla vehicles are fast, responsive, and by most accounts, really fun to drive.
I’ve heard plenty of people say “I don’t need a fast car like that,” yet if you look at Tesla’s sales and stock price, there are a lot of people who do want the fun represented by Tesla.
In contrast, I own a Chevy Volt, and though I find it fun, Chevrolet never marketed it as fun, exciting or interesting, and so it’s no wonder that it was silently discontinued after years of flat sales.
Electric bikes are another example. I once co-owned a shop where we sold them to get more people riding them, for both environmental and economic reasons. What I quickly learned is that people considered them for environmental reasons, but most people who ended up buying them did that because they’re fun! They give a sense of exhilaration, without the hard work of a traditional bike. It was the fun that mainly sold them, not the environmental impact.
These illustrate a principle that the Democrats and their higher-educated supporters like me need to take heed of: doing good in the world can be fun! It doesn’t have to be all drudgery and hard work. It doesn’t have to be glum or sad.
This makes me wonder why the narrative surrounding the Green New Deal is all about boring things like carbon emissions — and from the Trumpist side how that will take away jobs, which sounds no fun, when it could be quite different.
What if the Green New Deal was pitched as something that’s fun and inspiring to behold? Clean cities with fast, fun electric transport? Solar panels that give you the freedom from paying an electric bill? New parks and forests for kids to play in, where there once was concrete? Exciting, well-paying jobs rebuilding our towns and cities?
It would likely gain a lot more traction. However, right now, with a large segment of the populace, it simply sounds un-fun. “Take away my powerboat, my ATV, and my guns? You are Anti Fun! We will never vote for you!” It’s no wonder.
IF WE WANT TO CORRECT THE POLITICAL DEFICIT, WE HAVE TO CORRECT THE FUN DEFICIT
After this election, Democrats will need to do some deep soul searching, or likely slide into further irrelevancy as the Republicans continue to eek out ongoing wins despite being a minority of the populace.
That soul searching will only be effective if they honestly – and yes, seriously – ask themselves: how can we be more fun and interesting?
Doing so doesn’t mean dropping realism and the truth. It simply means seeing reality and the truth through lenses of fun, rather than lenses of tedium and hard work.
Most importantly, it means moving communication away from non-fun academicspeak, into a simpler, more direct language of fun that the population can relate to. I know it can be done, since I’ve seen many academics learn how to communicate with more fun in their grant proposals, to great success.
And who knows, some might even allow themselves a little bit of fun in the process of learning how to better communicate about the fun and joy of human advancement. Wouldn’t that be interesting!
Perhaps the new slogan should be, “Make America Fun Again” or #MAFA. It almost sounds like “Mafia,” isn’t that kind of fun?