Trust and Irony

Back in 1949 George Orwell warned us about 1984 – but he didn’t warn us about those Vicks Formula 44 commercials that began airing in 1984, the ones featuring Chris Robinson, who at the time played Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital. Orwell didn’t warn us about soap operas either. The idea was we were supposed to run out and buy Vicks cough syrup, because it was good stuff, and the immediate problem was convincing America that it was good stuff. The question was who America would trust on that, and the answer would be a fake doctor. Thus all the Vicks ads opened with Robinson saying this – “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. And, when many adults get a cough, they play doctor at home. They treat their cough with the same medicine they originally bought for their children.” He went on to tell folks not to play doctor at home – go buy the good stuff from Vicks.

This was an odd marketing strategy. Perhaps the idea was that Robinson only played a doctor on television, so he really did know, from experience, just how silly playing doctor is – you could trust him on that. Don’t do it. But the underlying tone of the thing suggested that since he had built a successful career playing a wonderful and sensitive doctor, convincingly, day after day after day, he must know a thing or two about medicine by now – and thus you could trust him on matters regarding cough syrup, on what the good stuff is. Vicks had things covered either way. Sensible people would respond to the explicit message about not playing doctor yourself and go buy the product, and besotted fools would respond to the implicit message, that this guy played a doctor for years so he must know a few things about medicine. It was trick. You could trust him either way, and Vicks sold a lot of cough syrup. Orwell had warned us about Doublethink – being compelled or at least convinced to hold two absolutely contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and finally just accepting both of them. This was it. Chris Robinson said don’t trust him, and you could trust him on that.

Unfortunately, or ironically, Robinson was convicted of tax evasion and Vicks had to replace him in these ads with Peter Bergman, who was playing Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children at the time. But Vicks didn’t miss a beat. The 1986 ad copy stayed the same word for word – take a look – there was just someone new to trust, one way or the other. Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

Of course people made fun of the Vicks ads and still do. There’s now a whole genre of ironic television ads with celebrities saying don’t worry, they’ve played an airline pilot on television, as they sit down in the copilot’s seat, or some nobody stepping in to do brain surgery or some such thing, but don’t worry – they stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so they must be smart as hell. All this is cute, and it must mean that the concept of trust itself has become deeply ironic. Trust no one, but know you can really trust someone who makes fun of the whole concept of trust. You can trust irony – where what someone says, explicitly, is not what they mean at all, as anyone in on the joke knows full well. And anyone not in on the joke is just stupid.

This was new and eventually morphed into those words everyone has been saying ever since – “Trust me, I’m a doctor.”

That’s always said ironically, even by real doctors. You say it when you’re asking for blind faith, for no reason at all – a little humor helps. Or you say it when you feel insulted that someone doesn’t immediately trust you and you want to sneer at their stupidity. Of course you’re trustworthy, so you slap them upside the head with some heavy irony. The Vicks people started it. Now the currency of modern life is irony. The only people you can trust are those who are insightfully ironic about the slippery nature of trust.

This leads to no end of trouble for those unable to deal with irony, or who never even see it all around them. Such folks tend to look perpetually surprised, and then lapse into defensive explanations that they really are what they say they are, and they see no reason that they should have to explain themselves. They get angry. They’re not sure what’s really going on, but whatever it is, they don’t like it. You know – like Mitt Romney.

There are probably more than a few books on Mormonism and irony and how the two cannot possibly mix in any way – or there should be such books – but it’s not the religion itself that is at issue. It’s the problem of being impenetrably earnest and blissfully self-unaware, if that’s a term. If it isn’t it a term it ought to be. Romney has been arguing, all along, that he has been a hyper-successful businessman, who has become one of the richest men in America, so he knows how to fix things – but he now doesn’t want anyone to look into just what his baby, Bain Capital, actually did. He said Bain Capital created jobs – first it was several hundred thousand, then reporters dug into the history of all the deals and the number kept going down – tens of thousands, and then thousands, and now there’s no specific number. But he says trust him – Bain Capital created lots of jobs.

Trust me. I’m an awesome private equity mastermind – which is even better than being a doctor. But the negative ads didn’t help – first from Newt Gingrich in the primaries and then from the SuperPAC supporting Obama. Folks talking on camera about how what Bain did destroyed their lives didn’t help at all. Romney eventually asked for a truce with Obama – let’s just not talk about Bain anymore, and let’s not talk about my tax returns either. Just trust me – Bain created jobs and even if I won’t release more than a year and a half of tax returns when everyone else has released five or ten or fifteen years of those things, there’s really nothing there. Trust me on that.

Needless to say, this has not been going well for Romney. Trust me I’m a doctor, or whatever, is now always said ironically, and he doesn’t get the joke, as Greg Sargent reports:

In a remarkable bit of political theater, Mitt Romney carefully divulged a bit more information about his tax returns, confirming for the first time that for the past 10 years, he has paid at least 13 percent in taxes.

Romney – asked some time ago by ABC News whether he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent he paid in 2010 – said he didn’t know, and promised to go back and check. After taking a pounding from Obama and Dems, Romney appeared to have decided not to make good on that vow.

But today Romney offered what was clearly a carefully scripted reply, claiming that “over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13 percent.” But in the process, Romney denounced those who keep clamoring to see his returns, adding: “The fascination with the taxes I paid, I find to be very small minded compared to the broad issues we face.”

Why does no one simply trust him? There are bigger issues.

They don’t trust him because no one trusts the concept of trust anymore. That all changed long ago with the soap opera doctors talking about cough syrup, and this is not the early eighties, so Sargent sees this:

What we’re looking at here is an extraordinary gamble by the Romney camp – call it the “just trust me” campaign. In essence, Romney is betting he can withhold huge amounts of detail about his finances and his major policy proposals without the public knowing or caring about it enough to matter.

On taxes, this lack of transparency goes beyond the amounts he paid; tax experts think the returns could shed light on Romney’s various offshore accounts and any techniques – fully legal, but perhaps difficult to explain politically – he used to keep his rates low. Romney has stuck to this stance even though multiple Republicans, including his longtime backer and fundraiser Jon Huntsman Sr., have called on him to come clean with the American people.

And that’s not the half of it:

Romney won’t reveal the names of his major bundlers, even though he’s taken a drubbing from major editorial boards for failing to do so. Romney has claimed he wants to eliminate whole government programs and agencies, but has freely admitted he won’t specify which ones, because so doing could be political problematic. Romney did let a bit of detail slip about which programs and agencies he’d consolidate or eliminate, but only in a closed-door fundraiser that was overheard by reporters.

Romney has proposed a tax overhaul that he vows will be revenue neutral, but he won’t say which loopholes and deductions he’d close to ensure that his plan’s deep tax cuts on the rich will be paid for without hiking the middle class’s tax burden. And not only that, but Romney and his running mate have freely confirmed in interviews that they see no need to reveal these details until after the election – after which, they claim, it can all be worked out with Congress.

It’s “trust me” on everything, and the non-awareness that this might be a problem in the real world:

Dems are betting that all this lack of transparency will undermine the public’s willingness to trust him; today’s revelation will only give Dems another chance to pummel Romney to come clean. But Romney appears to be betting that he can muddle his way through to victory despite the merciless incoming he continues to take, because voters disillusioned by the bad economy will want an alternative so badly that they won’t be too picky about the details.

That seems delusional, but Sargent suggests that Romney has a hedge here:

In one sense, Romney is throwing down the gauntlet before the news media. He is betting that the media will either fail to hold him accountable for his refusal to share basic info about his finances and policies with the American people before they choose their president – or that those efforts won’t matter, because the public simply won’t be informed enough either way to know the difference or just won’t care at all. In other words, Romney is betting on media incompetence – its inability to inform the public – or on voter apathy, or on a combination of both, to allow him to skate through.

Jay Rosen has a cool name for the Romney effort here – the “post truth campaign” – and Sargent is worried that, if this works, we’re all in a world of trouble.

But Romney’s advisers said this is exactly what is going on, in a series of interviews with Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei:

Advisers say the campaign has no plans to pivot from its previous view that diving into details during a general-election race would be suicidal.

The Romney strategy is simple: Hammer away at Obama for proposing cuts to Medicare and promise, in vague, aspirational ways, to protect the program for future retirees – but don’t get pulled into a public discussion of the most unpopular parts of the Ryan plan.

“The nature of running a presidential campaign is that you’re communicating direction to the American people,” a Romney adviser said. “Campaigns that are about specifics, particularly in today’s environment, get tripped up.”

Sargent is now amazed:

Romney has broken with recent precedent – his father included – in refusing to release his tax returns, but he says has paid 13 percent for 10 years. (Just trust me.) Romney has not released the names of his major bundlers, but he won’t be beholden to his donors, as Obama has been. (Just trust me.) Romney vows to eliminate the deficit, and promises that his tax plan will be revenue neutral, even though he won’t say which loopholes and deductions he’d eliminate to pay for deep tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich. (Just trust me.) Romney says he intends to eliminate whole agencies of government, but won’t say which ones, except in closed-door meetings with donors, and even then, details are scarce. (All together now: Just trust me.)

Even the Vicks people weren’t this foolish:

But now, in what appear to be strategic leaks designed to mollify Republicans worried about the campaign’s lack of specificity, Romney advisers are explicitly confirming that all of this is part of a grand strategy to only signal general direction to the American people. It’s a guiding idea that specifics are a political peril to be avoided. The campaign thinks sharing details, about what he’d actually do as president, would be politically suicidal. …

And this is coming after the campaign touted the selection of Paul Ryan as proof that the GOP ticket is deeply serious about policy and committed to making the tough decisions Democrats won’t.

Sargent also cites Steve Benen – “What does it say about the merit of Romney’s policy agenda if voters are likely to recoil if they heard the whole truth?” That’s a thought.

Heather Parton (Digby) adds this:

If a campaign is going to rely on the “trust me” strategy and not talk about any policy specifics, the candidate had better be an upfront, straight arrow of the utmost integrity. For instance, he would need to be like Mitt’s father George, who released all his tax returns in order to show the country that he was a citizen of high ethical standards who not only followed the letter of the law but the spirit of the law as well. It would require a person of very strong principles, principles that have been demonstrated publicly over a long period of time so that the public would understand how this person thinks and acts. …

Mitt Romney is not that person and people of both parties would be right to suspect him of the worst. After all, this is a man whose public record shows that he will literally say and do anything depending on the circumstances. To “trust” him is to trust in a phantom.

And there’s his party:

Now, one might say that the “trust me” strategy could work for someone who is the head of a party which the American people have, rightly or wrongly, deemed trustworthy on certain issues over the long haul. If Romney were a Republican national security expert or a Democrat running on his record of health care achievement, perhaps that would convince enough people to trust him under the right circumstances. But a Republican running on the vague promise to “fix Medicare” while promising to “close tax loopholes” for the wealthy? I don’t think that’s a formula that inspires a lot of trust, do you? In Romney’s case, it may not work even among Republicans who haven’t got a clue what this guy will really do once in office.

In fact, this won’t work for anyone:

Even incumbents in a time of peace and prosperity have a hard time running on the “trust me” platform. Some rich guy – who served one half-hearted term as Governor, belongs to secretive religion, refuses to say what he paid in taxes and has held every conceivable position on every issue – is the last politician on earth who can tell people to quit asking questions and trust him. It’s frighteningly arrogant that he would even try.

No. It’s just amazing unaware. This man simply missed the cultural shift twenty-eight years ago, when the whole concept of trust became deeply ironic. And some people just don’t get irony. Maybe it’s a Mormon thing, like Jell-O – the least ironic food ever invented, or the most ironic.

Maybe Romney is just taking the high road here. People should trust each other and there really is nothing remotely ironic about basic trust.

Well, maybe, but in The New Republic, Nate Cohn argues it may be too late for the high road:

If you don’t have a response to attacks and your own attacks aren’t effective, the best alternative is to take the high ground and attack negative campaigning itself. I’m not even close to the first to make this observation, but that’s because it is not hard to see how this could be a powerful message. Attacking Obama’s campaign style jibes well with the “Obama disappointed me” meme that Crossroads has been pushing since May, and that could be convincing to voters in battleground states who have already endured three months of advertisements at saturation-levels. Romney can convincingly claim that this style of campaigning isn’t the big debate about the direction of the country that voters deserve, and his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate could potentially provide him the credibility necessary to pivot to a high-minded and serious campaign about issues, as a few others have noted.

So we just trust the man and move on:

Combined, these arguments form the outlines of a coherent message that seamlessly transitions from a response to Obama’s attacks to a positive message for change: Obama’s running a negative campaign, don’t believe his lies, we need a serious campaign to change the direction of the country, Ryan and I have a credible plan to solve the debt, the economy, and turn the country around.

Who knows whether this would convince voters to give Romney a second chance or discount the Obama campaign’s attacks, but Romney hasn’t had a message since he decided to stop stressing his business experience, and he desperately needs one heading into the conventions.

Right, and a good idea, but nothing is easy:

Romney’s ability to transition to this new message is complicated by his own relentlessly negative campaign, which has not only exclusively focused on attacking the president, but has not been immune to the criticism of the vaunted fact checkers who occasionally police the campaigns. Who knows whether voters recognize this, but the media certainly will and so will the Obama campaign, which will make it difficult for Romney to suddenly present himself as the high-road serious, positive candidate interested in the big issues.

Run enough negative attack ads, full of what easily can be shown to be false, and you’ll prove that you too are no saint. No high road is now available. You yourself have now unintentionally rendered the words “trust me” even more deeply ironic – even if you don’t get the whole concept of irony and never will.

It all goes back to those old Vicks television commercials with the fake doctors we were supposed to take seriously, or not. No one can say “trust me” anymore. It’s now more complicated than that. Trust me on that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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