By MINOU ARJOMAND
Pop quiz: which of the following quotes are taken from speeches by Donald Trump?
- We are essentially trying to build a more awesome government,for the people, by
the people, today. We don’t care — (Applause) Thank you.Who doesn’t want a more awesome government, right?We don’t care about politics. . . Now, if I can take a moment and brag about the team for a second — it is the highest concentration of badasses I could have ever dreamed of. We have top
talent from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and the likes, all on staff today.[i]
- The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. . . Listen to politicians now, with their comprehensive 12-point plans. They’re not inspiring anybody. Because there are leaders and there are those who lead.[ii]
- Men tend to –and these are averages—tend to get rid of what they regard as extraneous,focus on what they do,and move in a more step-by-step thinking pattern… In fact, there’s many more male geniuses in the world.[iii]
- I’d like to talk today about how to develop a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace. It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold, something we have to do.[iv]
All these quotes certainly sound like Trump, celebrating a vanguard that will use the tricks of entrepreneurship (and a badass team) to turn the country around; a vanguard that’s not afraid to state the facts of the world and that rejects the constraints of ideology and political correctness. But only (d) is Trump; the other quotes are all from that ubiquitous forum for rousing and inspirations talks, TED. While Trump’s strongest support may come from the radical right, his particular combination of pandering irreverence and stylized authenticity is straight outta Silicon Valley.
What Trump stumps and TED talks share is a rejection of politics as usual. They both offer an ideology that pretends to be anti-ideological: this ideology rejects politics as gridlocked and mendacious beyond repair, and instead celebrates the power of charismatic leaders to change the world through innovation and entrepreneurship. We might snort in disgust at the bros wearing “Make America Great Again” trucker hats, but who among us can resist cheering TED-bro Bono when he assures us that saving the world is in our hands, that “we’re going to win if we work together as one, because the power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.”[v] Maybe the way Trump’s audiences experience his speeches is not so different from the kick that tech-savy liberals get from TED.
TED talks and Trump speeches offer audiences two things: authenticity and community. Both depend less on the content of the speech than on its delivery. Both have been successful in ways that exceeded all expectations.
In 2015 alone, TED Talks were watched over 1 billion times.[vi] The tone of TED talks is immediately recognizable: the speaker speaks from the heart (often starting or ending with a personal confession of some sort), there is a lot of sentiment and little nuance, there is a rousing call at the end celebrating a future of progress in which the speaker and audience work together to save the world. Of course, with over two thousand talks, there are certainly TED talks that defy the genre. There is even one TED talk about how bad TED is, calling it “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.”[vii] But TED, like Trump, has a remarkable ability to feed on criticism. The TED blog reposted eleven of the most blistering parodies of TED with a gloss on “what speakers can learn from them” (“Don’t share an idea you don’t believe in enough to follow through on” and “Don’t let stern faces in the audience get you down.”)[viii]
“Be warm. Be real. Be you.” is the first piece of advice that TED gives its presenters.[ix] In TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (out this summer with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), TED’s “curator” Chris Anderson tells his readers that, “if you commit to being the authentic you, I am certain that you will be capable of tapping into the ancient art that is wired inside us.”[x] According to Anderson, authenticity is more important than perfection. In fact, you can connect to the audience by making the right kinds of mistakes. The damning mistakes are those that reveal the artifice of the performance (a speech that sounds memorized, visible use of a teleprompter). Other mistakes, though—losing track of where you were, needing a sip of water, acknowledging your nerves—are what draws the audience in. Without authenticity, speakers cannot make the primal connections with their audience that Anderson praises throughout his book. Logic, he tells us, can convince people but it does not energize them. To energize people, “a speaker has to go to where a listener is and say, Come, let’s build something together.”[xi]
This is starting to sound familiar.
Political commentators at the outset of the primary were shocked that Trump’s gaffes only helped him. For Trump’s audiences, his racism, misogyny, and crudeness were signs of his authenticity. His meandering speeches sounded, if nothing else, authentic precisely because of all their mistakes.
TED and Trump offer audiences a chance to witness a precisely staged authenticity: method acting for the public stage. In “Build Wealth—My Way,” Trump advises followers that “large parts of life and business involve acting.”[xii] The key, according to Trump, is to recognize that you can connect with your audience through your own experiences. Selling your brand (or idea) is about getting audiences to feel your own passion, as the playbooks for lecturers at Trump University stress: “Don’t ask people what they THINK about something you’ve said. Instead, always ask them how they FEEL about it.”[xiii] To convey feeling to their audience members, Anderson counsels TED speakers to rehearse by linking each line with the memory of a particular emotion (a version of Stanislavski’s “affective memory” exercises). By carefully learning how to trigger those emotions in yourself, you can acquire “a whole new series of tools to get inside your listeners’ heads.” Your audience will “feel your passion” along with you because this passion “spreads automatically, as will every other emotion you authentically feel.”[xiv]
2016 is certainly not the first election cycle in which candidates were praised for their authenticity. But it does seem to be the first one in which authenticity is cited as the most important qualification for office on both ends of the political spectrum. Certainly, Bernie Sanders’ platforms on income inequality, health care, and higher education galvanized his supporters. But above all, it was Bernie’s rumpled authenticity that gave supporters faith that he alone could lead a political revolution for the 99%. As the sobbing at the DNC showed, these supporters didn’t just think Bernie was the best candidate, they felt that he could save us all. This belief went beyond any platform. The Bernie or Bust folks who switched over to the Trump camp demonstrate that the problem with voting on authenticity is that authenticity is devoid of content. Authenticity can be used to sell just about anything; there is a whole subgenre of blogs by marketing consultants devoted to what marketers can learn about branding authenticity from the Trump and Sanders campaign, especially when it comes to millennials. [xv] To be fair, Sanders would no doubt wag a finger at those marketeers. Trump and TED, by contrast, share an unabashed commitment to building their own brands and wealth through public speech.
After using their charisma to stir the passions of their audiences, Trump and the most successful TED speakers go on to offer a cathartic release by revealing a seemingly simple, but eminently marketable, hack. The hack is a creative solution to a difficult problem, one that bypasses the messiness of systemic action through an elegant tweak. Amy Cuddy, in the second most watched video on TED, offers a hack to gender equality in the workplace by teaching women how to literally lean in, demonstrating postures that women can use to boost their levels of testosterone and (presumably thereby) their self-confidence. These hacks are so immensely gratifying because they make us insiders, privy to the trick that makes things great (stand up straight, don’t settle out of court, be willing to walk away from a deal).
In devising and marketing a hack, TED speakers and real estate moguls alike can turn their ideas into commodities and their persons into brands. In the third most watched TED talk, Simon Sinek promises to reveal the secret to leadership based on studying Apple, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King Jr. The secret is that these leaders understood not only what they were doing and how they were doing it, but also why. King was successful because by Sinek’s (incorrect) account he “didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America, he told people what he believed.”[xvi] You may think that every African-American child in Birmingham knew exactly why the Civil Rights Movement was taking place. But they couldn’t have because Sinek himself—according to his own biography—popularized “the concept of Why.”[xvii] Only a few visionaries (Jobs, King) understood “why” intuitively. The rest of us have to buy Sinek’s book.
Sinek’s TED talk has been viewed over 27 million times. Those are a lot of potential costumers. While the TED talk is free, learning how to use the concept of “why” yourself takes a financial investment. The website offers a $129 online course to “Find your Why,” “inspire” cufflinks ($26), flashcards with quotes by Sinek ($16), and a link to book Sinek as a speaker (price not listed).
A strange thing happens at TED: ideas—even seemingly banal—become commodities. Stranger still, they begin to behave like commodities. At TED we see a particular commodity fetishism of the idea economy: people don’t change the world, ideas do.
TED’s mantra is “Ideas Worth Spreading” and the best ideas, we are led to believe, spread themselves. We see this in TED’s repository of educational content (TEDed) and in the many talks celebrating similar repositories: the Khan Academy, MOOCs, the University of the People, Coursera, Self Organized Learning Environments. These platforms disseminate ideas in order to create more ideas, they aim to “enable a wave of innovation, because amazing talent can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa. And if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.”[xviii] Of course, if all it takes for an impoverished child to become Albert Einstein is access to ideas, that makes the job of changing the world a whole lot easier.
If education is a matter of innovative hacks and spreading powerful ideas, Trump University begins to look promising, in theory if not in practice. After all, TED does much of what Trump University promised, but failed, to do: it delivers tips from top entrepreneurs, it offers both free content and expensive multi-day conferences with access to funding sources and networking opportunities. Why shouldn’t it be possible for a down and out veteran to get rich quick by attending a Trump seminar if that impoverished African child can become the next Steve Jobs by watching online videos?
In talk after talk, TED speakers distinguish their own work from the egg-headed otherworldliness of academia at large. The most popular TED talk to date, with over 40 million views, is about how schools quash creativity because they are oriented toward producing academics, folks who are preposterously cerebral, who “look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.”[xix] The speaker, Ken Robinson, urges schools to incorporate art classes and dance classes. Art and dance classes are things that austerity politicians, not academics, have cut, but Robinson does not mention this. Instead he tells schools that they are doing their job wrong, that the solution is creativity, which Robinson defines as “having original ideas that have value.” Creativity doesn’t need history, facts, or teachers: schools just need to stop killing it. This argument against current education systems is just the same old argument against market regulations. It is a laissez-faire economy of ideas, where the market determines value.
Here’s the problem, though: whatever the results of the election, Trump’s campaign has been a kind of success. It is nothing if not innovative. Trump has radically shifted the boundaries of political discourse; it wasn’t just his vitriol but his creativity (remember “Little Marco”?) that won him the Republican primary. He is the success story for an idea—“Make America Great Again”—disseminating across a large continent without the help of political bureaucrats or strong infrastructure on the ground. Trump’s slogans may be backward-looking, but his campaign is the most creative and innovative of the bunch. We can’t simply dismiss Trump as a demagogue of the alt right because he also reveals what it looks like to replace the conventions of politics with entrepreneurial innovation and shows why 15-minute solutions are not always the answer. For those of us in academia, he might also help us articulate why we should not be replaced by online video content. We may even learn more from Trump than from a TED talk.
Minou Arjomand is an assistant professor in English at the University of Texas at Austin. Her writing has appeared in Public Books, n+1, Modern Drama, and Theatre Survey and her book Show Trials: Performing Judgment after Atrocity about theatre and postwar trials is forthcoming with Columbia University Press.
[i] Van Dyck, Haley. “How a start up in the White House is disrupting business as usual.” Filmed Feb 2016. TED video. https://www.ted.com/talks/haley_van_dyck_how_a_start_up_in_the_white_house_is_changing_business_as_usual/transcript?language=en
[ii]Sinek, Simon. “How great leaders inspire action.” Filmed Sept 2009. TED video. https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en
[iii] Fischer, Helen. “Why we love, why we cheat.” Filmed Feb 2006. TED video. https://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_tells_us_why_we_love_cheat
[iv] “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech.” The New York Times. April 27, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html
[v] Bono. “The good news on poverty (yes, there’s good news).” Filmed Feb 2013. TED video. https://www.ted.com/talks/bono_the_good_news_on_poverty_yes_there_s_good_news?language=en
[vi] Anderson, Chris. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. xiii.
[vii] Bratton, Benjamin. “We Need to Talk about TED.” The Guardian. Dec 30, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/30/we-need-to-talk-about-ted
[viii] May, Kate Torgovnick. “What speakers can learn from the funniest TED Talk spoofs.” TED Blog. October 13, 2015. http://blog.ted.com/11-of-the-funniest-ted-talk-spoofs-and-what-speakers-can-learn-from-them/
[ix] Anderson, 50.
[x] Anderson, 10.
[xi] His emphasis. Anderson, 249.
[xii] Trump, Donald T. “Build Wealth—My Way.” In Trump University Wealth Building 101: Your First 90 Days on the Path to Prosperity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 8.
[xiii] Emphasis in the original. Cassidy, John. “Trump University: It’s Worse than You Think.” The New Yorker. June 2, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/trump-university-its-worse-than-you-think
[xiv] Anderson, 202.
[xv] See, for example, Paquette, Aaron. “What Bernie Sanders Can Teach you about Authenticity and Marketing to Gen Z.” Vision Critical. March 22, 2016. https://www.visioncritical.com/bernie-sanders-and-brand-authenticity/; Arnold, Mark. “What Marketers Can Learn from Bernie and the Donald.” On the Mark Strategies. January 28, 2016. http://markarnold.com/2016/01/what-marketers-can-learn-from-bernie-the-donald/; Gallt, Emily and Lindsay Zoeller. “What Marketers Can Learn from the 2016 Election Series.” Agency Chief. August 4, 2016. http://www.agencychief.com/blog/2016/08/what-marketers-can-learn-2016-election-series; “Taking the Bernie Approach to Marketing”. Boom Creative. Nd. http://boomcreative.biz/6-read-this/taking-the-bernie-approach-to-marketing/; D’Angelo, Stephen J.. “3 Successful Content Marketing Strategies of Bernie Sanders.” StephenJDAngelo.com Digital Marketing Strategies. November 14, 2015. http://www.stephenjdangelo.com/3-successful-content-marketing-strategies-of-bernie-sanders-16/
[xvi] Sinek 2009.
[xvii]“Simon Sinek” (long bio). 2014. Start with Why. https://www.startwithwhy.com/Portals/0/Bio%20and%20Press%20Kit/simon_bio_long_2014.pdf
[xviii] Koller, Daphne. “What we’re learning from online education.” Filmed August 2012. TED video. https://www.ted.com/talks/daphne_koller_what_we_re_learning_from_online_education/transcript?language=en)
[xix] Robinson, Ken. “Why schools kill creativity.” Filmed Feb 2006. Ted video. https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/transcript?language=en#t-580421