Thursday, August 20, 2015

Who's Afraid of Lonesome Rhodes?

A Face in the Crowd is a memorable and entertaining film powered by a force-of-nature performance by Andy Griffith. It is also, in retrospect, rather silly.

What used to be called the intelligentsia (a word peaked about the time this film came out, by the way) was deeply disturbed by the rise of Arthur Godfrey. These days, Godfrey is what Andrew Gelman would call a member of the class Foghorn Leghorn, largely remembered only through the parodies and satires he inspired. Among broadcasters like Ken Levine, however, he is generally described in terms like this:
Before [Bob] Crane established himself as a fine comic actor, he was a truly great radio personality and here’s why: He really knew how to communicate one-to-one with his listeners. He was warm and funny and talked directly to YOU. Very few announcers understand that concept. But the great ones, like Arthur Godfrey, Paul Harvey, Dan Ingram, and Vin Scully do.
Godfrey was arguably the first to fully grasp this concept and almost certainly the one to master it most successfully. In the late forties and early fifties, he was the most influential and bankable broadcaster in television and radio.

When I've brought up Godfrey in previous posts, it has usually (always?) been for some McLuhanesque discussion of different media, but what got me thinking about him recently was the reaction to the Donald Trump campaign.

One of the recurring points on the ongoing Trump thread is how crazy the Donald makes his critics. On the right this mostly comes down to concerns about electability and the threat of a third party run. For the rest of the press, though, the reaction is harder to explain. In terms of policy, he's representative of the Republican Party except for issues like monetary policy and health care where he, if anything, is a bit more moderate.

I've suggested that part of the mainstream press's antipathy comes from the way Trump flouts the conventions those journalists rely on so heavily, but I wonder if another element might be a longstanding distrust of the general public. Since the advent of mass media, intellectuals have been convinced that we were just one fast talking demagogue away from dystopia,  and yet somehow we continue to dodge that bullet.

The subtext of Face in the Crowd and similar cautionary tales is not just that the masses are gullible and easily lead in absolute terms but in relative terms as well. The elites either underestimate or cynically exploit someone like Lonesome Rhodes. Intellectuals play Cassandra. They may fall victim to the demagogue, but they don't fall for his spiel.

But one of the things that our thought leaders are, if anything, easier to fool than the masses, not because they have, on average, significantly less than average intelligence, but because a combination of overconfidence, laziness and convergent thinking have left them open to the most transparent of cons. The same people who believed in Iraqi nukes and the Ryan budget are afraid that the rest of us will fall for Donald Trump.

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