Monday, September 21, 2015

Anti-elitism: from TV lawyers to Donald Trump

It's crazy, the things that get lodged in our memories, isn't it? Moments, images, and the like that seem entirely benign, pointless, or mundane in retrospect live on in our memories. I got to thinking about one recently, a brief incident/conversation with a few buddies back in the mid-eighties.

We were watching TV one afternoon. Or maybe it was morning. Or evening. But that doesn't really matter, nor does what we were watching. A football game? Sit-com? Maybe a movie? Anyway, there was this commercial which I can see in my mind with a ridiculous amount of clarity. It was for a personal injury attorney in Fort Lauderdale, one Jeffrey I. Orseck. The scene was of a faux reporter (a buxom blonde, to be sure) rushing to get an interview with a man leaving the courthouse. She held a microphone up to his face--the microphone had a little call letter sign that read "JIO-TV"--and asked him about his latest triumph in court.

The man was Orseck of course, impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit (Brooks Brothers, no doubt) with a red power tie and matching kerchief and a Mont Blanc poking out of his pocket, as well. And he went into a little spiel about how everyone deserved a lawyer who would fight for their interests and get them the money they deserved...because they had been injured in one way or another.

Tres classy, right?

It was--the mid-eighties--kind of the heyday for TV ads from personal injury attorneys. The king of the hill in this regard was David Singer, who achieved some level of fame for his "Is that a light on in David Singer's office" ads. But Orseck and others weren't far behind. The Florida Bar was just starting to get involved in ad content from lawyers and the rules were loose, to say the least.

Anyway, as we watched the ad, we got to mocking it, the cheesiness of it, the transparency of Orseck's ambulance-chaser mentality, and the stupidity of people who would actually buy into it. I mean, no one could be that stupid, right? At this point, one of my friends--and I know exactly who, by the way, but won't use his name--said something that really stuck with me and is perhaps why I remember all of this so clearly. He said "you guys have no idea; Orseck is like a king to the people he's talking to. They think he's awesome."

My buddy was right, I think. Especially if one goes by the success lawyers like Orseck and Singer were having in those days, all thanks to these ad campaigns. We--my buddies and I--were looking down our collective noses and mocking appeals that were not directed at us in the least. They were directed at people with less education, less sophistication on such matters. To be blunt, we were behaving like textbook elitists. Because less education and sophistication doesn't automatically translate to less intelligence. And the truth is, many people who opted to make use of lawyers like Orseck and Singer benefited mightily. I know this because I know how successful their practices became (Singer is still in business; Orseck passed away in 2007).

That said, this isn't a mea culpa. I'm not apologizing for my attitude here in the least, for my mockery of such ads, for my elitist attitude. It is what it is. But I'm bringing it up and delving into it for purposes of qualifying the weird success Donald Trump continues to have in the polls. Consider his latest tiff, wherein people like me on the Right and most on the Left are rolling their collective eyes. At a Trump campaign event a few days ago, a member of the audience posed a question in the Q&A, wherein he noted that Obama is a Muslim and "not even an American." The man wanted to know when we could "get rid of them [Muslims]." Trump's response:
We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and you know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening and we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Wait, what? "We're going to be looking at that"? Looking at what, how to get rid of "them"? And of course, Trump's response was immediately contrasted with McCain's to a similar question the latter fielded in 2008 when a woman called Obama an Arab. McCain was quick to correct her (and was roundly booed for doing so).

As is the case with ambulance-chaser ads, I can't help but shake my head at the stuff coming out of Trump's mouth (or not coming out of his mouth). But my buddy's point is worth remembering: this shit plays well with the people it is being directed towards. The difference, of course, is that neither Orseck nor Singer were seeking political office with their ads (much less seeking the Presidency). Trump is specifically appealing to the non-elitist crowd and--in my opinion--he's doing it specifically to wind up the elitist crowd, which in and of itself draws cheers from the non-elitists.

I don't accept for a moment the idea that Trump believes most of what he is saying; I think his whole "birther" game was just that, a game. He's not ignorant or stupid. He's a full-bore elitist, himself. But like the successful ambulance-chaser, he's specifically tailoring his message for the less-educated, the less-sophisticated. Trump has, I think, done a very careful calculation in this regard and decided that this is all a zero-sum game, that by taking this slice of the pie, he's denying it in full to everyone else. Thus for Trump, the issue will become whether or not he can successfully carve off some other slivers from others' slices.

That said, I also think Trump is wrong (though I admit that I do not know that he is). It's not a zero-sum game because the actual pie is not defined (meaning that the American electorate changes in scope and size from election to election). And--more importantly--I don't think everyone in the group Trump is catering to is as stupid as Trump thinks. People are going to start wising up, are going to start realizing that they are getting played. Which points to another difference between Trump and the ambulance-chasers: the latter have quantifiable rewards for their supporters (clients) in the form of cold, hard cash. That's what separates the successful ones from the pack. What does Trump have for his supporters? Baseball caps?


  1. Presidents have a long history of rewarding their supporters while sticking it to the voters that put them in office, who continue to love them anyway. President Trump would conduct business as usual.

  2. Presidents have a long history of compensating their supporters while adhering it to the voters that place them in office, who keep on cherishing them at any rate. President Trump would lead the same old thing
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