Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The media, Donald Trump, and the Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton problem

Donald Trump is actually Tony Clifton.  Keep reading, kids.  I'll explain who Tony Clifton is/was, in a roundabout way.

Let's start with press interviews.  Every journalist interviewing candidates aspires to be Tim Russert.  The late Tim Russert was the longtime host of Meet the Press.  The Sunday morning talk shows are pointless and stupid.  Once upon a time, they were ever-so-slightly less pointless and stupid because Tim Russert had one skill.  He could recall every statement ever made by any candidate, and grill them on the inconsistencies so that we, the audience, could enjoy the schadenfreude of watching narcissists squirm.  How good an interviewer was Russert?  That is up for debate.  What is not up for debate is that every interviewer currently living is a pathetic imitator.  I thought Russert was decent.  Decent is an impossible dream to the current crop of wannabes.

The Russert model relies on the premise that the person being interviewed is open to evidence.  More subtly, it relies on the premise that the person being interviewed is a person, not a character.  That brings me to Tony Clifton.

Tony Clifton was a caricature of an obnoxious, incompetent and all-around-vile lounge singer with an overinflated opinion of his own greatness.  Comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman created the character, along with Bob Zmuda, to have fun by prodding the audience.  Most of the time, Kaufman played the character.  The key to the joke was that Kaufman could never admit that Clifton was just a character.  In order to keep the joke going, sometimes Kaufman would have to appear alongside Clifton.  In order for that to happen, Kaufman's partner, Bob Zmuda, would have to perform as Clifton.  Everybody knew it, and everybody had to play along.  Here is a clip of an old interview in which Merv Griffin talked to Kaufman about Tony Clifton.

Griffin knows that Clifton is a character created by Kaufman.  In order to do the interview, though, Griffin has to play along.  Imagine a self-important journalist trying, in all seriousness, to get Kaufman to admit that Clifton doesn't exist.  How absurd would it be?

As it turns out, we have a not-quite answer.  Remember when Stephen Colbert had a show in which he pretended to be a Bill O'Reilly-type figure?  For a decade?  Well, during that period, Colbert would rarely give an interview breaking character.  His inspiration was clearly Andy Kaufman.  (Sacha Baron Cohen has been known to pull the same schtick as, for example, Borat).  As the character of "Stephen Colbert," Colbert appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert.

Russert knew to play along.  Imagine how stupid Russert would have looked if he hadn't.  The character of Colbert was that of a self-important jackass who never thought before he spoke.  He was impervious to evidence, unwilling to admit ever being wrong, and utterly confident in everything he said.  To confront the character with logic or evidence, then, and hope for a reasoned or semi-reasoned response would be to miss the point.

I know what you're thinking.  What could any of this possibly have to do with "Donald Trump?"  Note the quotation marks.  One might wonder how much of "Donald Trump" the candidate is a Clifton-like creation, and how much of it is real.  The more Clifton-like the candidate is, the more futile normal interviews become.

Does Donald Trump believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya?  Almost certainly not.  He first dipped his toes into birtherism by asserting that he had only a small amount of doubt over where Obama was born.  The problem was that, when confronted with evidence, he either needed to admit that he was speaking from ignorance, or dig in his heels.  He chose the latter.  Why?  He was playing to an audience.  Trump's birtherism is about as sincere as Tony Clifton.

On the other hand, what about getting Mexico to pay for a wall?  Quite simply, I don't know of a dumber campaign promise from a major candidate.  Ever.  There is no chance whatsoever of this happening.  None.  Zero.  Physicists will claim that for any possibility that doesn't violate physical laws, there is an alternative universe in which that possibility happens.  There isn't even an alternate universe in which Mexico pays for a wall.  Anyone who believes this promise knows less than nothing about politics.  How informed do you think this guy is?

And yet, Trump almost certainly believes it would happen. Why?  The greatness of Donald Trump is the one thing we know for certain that Trump really believes.  That still leaves interviewers in a bind.  If asked what policy tools a president would have to get Mexico to pay, Trump won't answer.  He will simply assert the greatness of his deal-making skills and his intrinsic powerfulness.

How does one interview Donald Trump, then?  Half the time, he doesn't believe what he says, and the other half, he is just too clueless about how government and policy work to give a reasonable answer to a policy-based question.

The challenge of trying to interview Trump, then, is that getting a serious answer is as futile as trying to get Tony Clifton to admit that he is really Andy Kaufman (or sometimes Bob Zmuda).

Here is my advice to serious journalists, then.  Stop interviewing Donald Trump.  How unprecedented would that be?  About as unprecedented as a presidential candidate who has more in common with Tony Clifton than with any past president.


  1. Professor Buchler, the analysis of the Sanders economic plan
    wasn't a good choice to make your case of "journalists calling out lies". Both Bill Black and James Galbraith show it was Krugman and the four CEAs who were wrong in their partisan smear of Gerald Friedman's analysis of Sanders plan.




    Tom Abraitis

  2. If you are a Sanders supporter, nothing I say will convince you that his plan is based on faulty numbers, so I won't try. I'll just make two observations. First, the phrase, "partisan smear" makes it sound like you are accusing Krugman of just being a shill for Clinton. Will Krugman vote for HRC? Certainly. Is he criticizing Sanders because he is a Hillary supporter, or is he a Hillary supporter because he thinks Sanders is a crank?

    That leads to my second observation. The basis of Sanders' campaign is the premise that, if we pass campaign finance reform, all of Sanders' not-fully-socialist dreams will come true. Why does he believe this? Because Sanders believes that everyone who opposes his policies has been bought off.

    There seems to be a pattern here.

    For economic analysis, one of the things I encourage everyone to do is read widely. Read not just Krugman, but Cochrane too.

    What did Milton Freidman and John Maynard Keynes have in common? They were both smarter than me, and everyone else who might encounter this silly, pretentious little blog of mine.

  3. I'm stunned by your nonresponse response. Do you have any substantive comments visa-visa the Black and Galbraith remarks? Have you read Galbraith's letter to the four former CEAs? http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/ResponsetoCEA.pdf

    Recap: As an academic exercise not commissioned by Sanders an economics professor from Amherst and supporter of Hillary ran Sander's assumptions thru a standard economic model and got big results. Four former CEAs (3 of which have no expertise in macroeconomics)wrote an open letter critical. Krugman jumped in with multiple posts critical. Bill Black pointed out:"The truth is that the Gang of 4 and Krugman launched their smear[his word not mine Justin]of Friedman without pointing out a single error in his work. Indeed, that only begins to reveal the truth, for Krugman plainly did not evaluate the accuracy of Friedman’s modelling before he chose to smear Friedman." If you read and listen to the material I sent you'd agree with my previous comment that this issue is a poor example of a bipartisan lie. Instead you've disparaged me by infering without evidence I'm incapable of being swayed by facts or evidence so you won't try. That's a straw man to substitute assumptions(who I support)and assertions (Sander's plan based on faulty numbers)for substance evidence of your claim. You're dodging a real answer by hiding behind: nothing I say will convince him.
    Your response to me is similar to what Friedman got from the gang of four plus one: long on personal attacks and short on specific facts. Your right there seems to be a patern here. I'd like a real response professor.
    Tom Abraitis

    1. The answers to your questions from the first paragraph are, respectively, "no" and "yes."

      The economics blogosphere is filled with analysis of Sanders, and as a political scientist, I prefer to focus on the politics. That's where I think I might have something different, useful, and maybe entertaining to say.

      As someone with graduate training in economics, I've looked at the numbers on Sanders' plan, and if I went through them for you, the result would look a lot like what you can read from economists ranging from John Cochrane to Brad DeLong, which is a pretty big ideological range. But, since they already said it better, I don't really have anything new to add.

      When John Cochrane and Paul Krugman agree, well, hey, look! An airborne porcine creature!

  4. i love all of these irrelevant responses

    1. Actually, they are relevant to the article from which Mr. Abraitis found this post. Here is the link:
      As you'll see, that old article linked to this post on my blog, which Mr. Abraitis found. For some reason, he posted complaints about my discussion of Sanders here rather than at The Conversation. Why? I don't know. I agree that it winds up looking like a non-sequitur now. But, I don't like deleting stuff, on general principle.