Can we separate the art from the artist? This question continues to challenge us time and again, in different guises. Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Mel Gibson, Roger Waters — the list keeps going on. Talented people from the world of the arts tainted by human flaws — some manifesting as the most heinous behaviour, others for political views ranging from unpalatable to racist.
While it can be debated whether Donald Trump can be added to the list, the framework is useful to help understand what drives the attitudes of different groups toward him. It is evident that support for him does not go along tradition political or even racial lines.
Those who cannot separate art from artist
Consider Kevin Spacey, talented actor but found to be a sexual predator. In previous times, it may simply have been enough for him to be dropped from any current project. But one of the features of the woke cultural revolution is the extent to which someone’s prior art must be invalidated for a sin of the artist. This is the purge and cancellation that is applied to anyone who violates standards of thinking and behaviour – and this applies equally to ‘old’ sins like sexual abuse, and ‘new’ ones like socially unacceptable beliefs.
For his sins, Spacey’s role in the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards was as a ghost. All that remained of him was a bad memory, and his audio recordings were presented in a way that did not even need viewers to hear his voice. Once might even consider a key plotline of that final season — where his widow as president chooses an all-female cabinet — to be a #MeToo triumph that seeks to further atone for his sins. This example illustrates the extent to which the punishment of an artist without also requires destroying their art.
The two sides of Trump
Essentially, he is a flamboyant salesman and dealmaker. Years of flashy headline business deals (with little or no disclosure of the extent of debt funding) and then his reality TV show established his brand as someone who does not suffer fools, can cut through the crap, and make the deals that no-one else can. It is this brand promise that Trump took to the electorate as he pivoted into the world of politics – that he would “drain the swamp” of Washington DC, and reinstate America’s balls (and global standing) after the Obama years of self-emasculation.
Then there is Trump the individual: philandering, misogynistic, crude, loose with the truth. This kind of behaviour is a red rag to a progressive bull, and accordingly their view of Trump the artist was the sole determining factor in assessing him. Whatever Trump promised to do policy-wise became irrelevant (and worse): his personal values represented everything that progressives despised. He was the prototypical “deplorable”.
The response to Trump
Having made that assessment of Trump, everything he said or did – his art, or him as an artist – was subsequently interpreted by progressives in the worst possible way. Political rhetoric – the bread and butter of all politicians and one that Trump took to new lows – was cast as outright lies, “dog whistles”, racism, and more. Indeed, for the entirety of his first term, progressive media maintained an obsession with everything Trump, and every subsequent article about him was a ramp-up bemoaning quite how bad he was, and what else that was bad in the world could be blamed on him.
The hydroxychloroquine debacle was a case in point. It was discovered as a potential treatment for COVID-19 by a well-regarded microbiologist Didier Raoult, but Trump did the worst thing possible in a highly politicised environment: he boldly declared it as a cure. Immediately, a political kybosh was placed on the treatment, and things went downhill from there.
Those who can separate art from artist
Those people look primarily at Trump’s policies and how they may affect their lives. They think about the domestic economy, jobs, and immigration. They think about America’s expensive involvement in foreign conflicts, so Trump’s rhetoric that other countries are not “paying their way” resonates with them.
It is quite possible that Trump as a person abhors them. They would like to view their president and notional leader of the free world as a role model. Most people do. The difference is that they have been able to remain rational and set this aside because at the end of the day, Trump delivered on much of what he promised.
In a Gallup poll taken in 2018, the professions ranked lowest for honesty and ethical standards included members of congress, and car salespeople. By his business dealings alone and before he chose to enter politics, Trump may have already established low expectations. Accordingly, for people who are able to set aside his moral failings, all he needed to do was exceed their expectations as a politician.
Does this actually come down to political affiliation?
Among Republicans, the Never Trump movement was in 2016 committed to ensuring Trump would not become the Republican nominee. Following his nomination and subsequent election, some elements within that group gave up, while others focussed on defeating Trump in 2020 (even if that meant a Republican defeat). While some 20% of Republican members of Congress did not support Trump as President, it is hard to tell whether that lack of support was on the basis of his policies or him as an individual.
Lack of support by Republican Congressmen does not correlate with popular support amongst Republican voters, nor around those affiliated with the right side of politics. Trump’s job approval for Republican affiliates hovered around the 80s, coming into low 90s leading up to the election. Among Democrats it oscillated in a range from 5-14 during his presidency, nosediving in the lead up to the election.
This indicates that on both sides of the political spectrum, a significant minority were able to look at Trump’s performance beyond him as an individual. The wide range of approval scores over the 4-year term amongst Democrats specifically indicates a sensitivity to political and economic outcomes and performance in the role (the ‘art’), as those elements are more subject to variation over time than opinions about Trump as an individual.
Demarcation between ‘art’ and ‘artist’
What about Trump can be attributed to him as a person versus his appeal and achievements as a politician?
In the case of actors and musicians, it’s reasonably simple to draw a line between the work product that is their art, and what they do in their (not so) private lives. Often, their fame and position in the industry can be used as a vehicle for abusive behaviour or political activism, and this happens in the context of their professional roles. Nevertheless, the two sides of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ can be readily separated.
For Trump, however, the line is a lot blurrier. If we unpack this, we can actually categorise three different sides: First, there is Trump the artist: his behaviour towards and comments about women are clearly part of his personal life. Trump did not have affairs with Whitehouse interns during his presidency. Clinton did, yet remained very presidential and statesman-like in his general behaviour. Secondly, Trump’s art was his policy.
The third element is salesman Trump: say whatever needs to be said to get the deal done. As a politician, this extends to: say whatever needs to be said to keep his voter base on side, to maintain his brand promise as a politician, and to stay in power. His brash statements and unpredictability could be considered intrinsic part of deal making.
This third category of behaviour can be categorised as either ‘art’ or ‘artist’. Those who abhor him as a person would maximally attribute negative behaviour to his persona. As explained earlier, that is consistent with their internal narrative. For example, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was the sign of a reckless and incompetent fool, rather than one calculated step towards peace between Israel and the Emirates. The people and groups he keeps company with, shares “common causes” with, or “dog whistles” to are also interpreted as personal faults rather than political tactics.
For Trump supporters, this salesman bluster may have been part of his appeal, particularly for that portion of the electorate that feels ignored and left behind – the battleground states. They would do the reverse – attribute this category of behaviour to Trump’s skill as a politician who stands up to the “elites” and the “establishment”.
In short, those able to separate art from artist attributed more of Trump to the art, and those unable attributed more to the artist. In this way, Trump was able to polarise the electorate further than ever before.
Conclusion, political strategy implications & learnings
You could say this is what happens when you elect a salesman rather than a politician. For Trump, this was the opportunity of a lifetime – his four- or eight-year mission: to boldly make deals that no man had done before. And he did. Despite being the sorest of sore losers, his legacy will include standing up to a belligerent China, doing peace deals in the Middle East that were previously considered impossible, and appointing three conservative Supreme Court Justices. He achieved all that despite being an abhorrent individual and operating in a hostile political environment.
The Democrats did not understand that their opponents could make the separation between art and artist. That is why they made the mistake of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. They continued to expose Trump over and over for being an awful person with the expectation that at some point, it would start to matter to people who voted for him. Comments like “Now do you see how terrible Trump is?” would appear regularly on my social media feed. But for someone able to separate the art from the artist, this was not a quantitative process – there was no point where a Trump voter would say “he’s finally crossed a moral line and therefore he’s such a bad person that I can no longer support him”. They measured Trump on his ability to deliver on his promises, and he did.
This was a serious strategic error on the part of Democrats. Without seeking to understand the “other” and why they might vote for Trump (because they were so caught up in his personality to be blind to anything else), they were unable to mount a campaign that would change people’s minds.
The past four years could have been a learning experience across the political spectrum, and can still be. The country remains as divided as ever: a relatively small number of districts changed voting patterns significantly from four years ago. The Democrat response to Trump – the “resistance” – achieved very little: the Russia probe failed, the attempts to remove him via impeachment failed, and they were unable to shift the electorate in any meaningful way.
Depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate run-off, Biden could be a lame duck President for at least two years. In any event, he does not have a strong mandate for change. For this to be a learning experience, America needs to engage in the forgotten art of dialogue about the important topic of leadership. What do they expect of leaders – as individuals and as practitioners? Elections in the era or televised debates and social media have been about the cult of personality, cheap slogans, and shallow sound bites. The adage says that we get the leaders we deserve. America has four years to decide if they want a politician or a salesman, a technocrat or a dealmaker, someone to look up to, or someone who gets the job done. It’s not clear that they can have both, and they may just end up with neither.