There are three positions in the self-help industry.
1. I’m okay, you’re okay = parity.
2. I’m not okay, but you’re okay = inadequacy.
3. I’m okay, you suck = intolerance.
I believe we are currently in cycle three, and this is borne out by a visit to the bookstore. The self-help industry is, annually, the moneymaker for the publishing industry even as the work itself is the most disposable and most prone to obsolescence. Fiction, especially when broken into chapters, fits neatly into reading sessions on electronic devices; as does well-written non-fiction if the writer is equally engaged in the art of storytelling. With these, you can start in on a narrative thread, finish it off, and pick up the next one later.
Whereas with self-help books, people are more inclined to buy the hard copy. I suspect there’s a residual memory of childhood schoolbooks there, that if you actually want the knowledge to stick, you need that physical object to make it work. With this in mind, you can get a sense of the national psychology by looking at the wares in a physical bookstore, mainly because there’s so much more in the self-help section than anywhere else. And this section is currently screaming, “I’m not the problem, you are.”
This is typical of an election year where every presidential candidate has rolled out a book in conjunction with their political aspirations, and the going narrative in these are evergreen: we have to take back America. Such political books are not traditionally best-sellers, if you look over the long haul. Only one candidate is going to win, so the books from all the other candidates are merely curios from losers, to put it bluntly. This affects the self-help market because the audience is already positioned in this mindset. I’m the right one. You’re the wrong one. You need to see this my way. So in turn you’ll see weight loss books more inclined to reassure the reader than to challenge them, more “you’re perfect as you are, but here are some suggestions” than “you have to change.” Relationship books will be less like “how we can all get along” and more like “how we can influence others to see things our way, or learn how to set them adrift without further entanglement.”
Therefore, in this hyper-protectionist climate, the candidate that will win the popular vote is not the one that will provide the most persuasive argument about their position, and why you must change to fit their conception. The candidate that will win is you, with the winner being but a vessel for whatever you happen to be today — optimist, pessimist, reactionary. As we want our self-help gurus to identify with us, not us with them, so too we really want our candidates to reflect us, not for us to be a reflection of them.
This is the biggest hurdle of any candidate in the whole of political science. All of them up to a point have to furnish the room of their aspirations, choose a color, choose a side, and doggedly lock into it. To change one’s mind — even if it the most rational thing to do at that moment — is considered anathema, flip-flopping, the deadly nightshade of the political process. Yet, by being forced into an intractable, fixed position means you will offend a lot of someones and you will not get their vote. The red walls clash with the blue sofa! Byuck! Such is the inherent problems with policies, with taking a stand, with filling that room.
Up until the candidacy of Donald Trump, this has been the most vexing problem for every potential nominee. Like him or loathe him, he has irrevocably changed the game, and he’s done so by presenting ultimately what is an empty room. In this room he hasn’t painted the walls, and one could extrapolate that he hasn’t painted himself into a corner. He hasn’t added a rug or furnishings, hasn’t set in any concrete agendas or policies save one: a big wall separating Mexico from the U.S. He is not a student of history, nor does he promote himself to be so. (Perhaps if he was, the specter of the Maginot Line would taint the visage of his “big, most beautiful wall.”) He doesn’t purport to be intellectual in any way, playing into the assertion that intellectuals think too much and are, in that respect, inherently dishonest, mentally playing with their instinctual side until it conforms in some manner. In short: “I’m okay. You suck.”
The perfection of these empty room politics is that the voter can fill it with anything they want. For the individual who feels powerless, this room represents a new era where he or she has some degree of grassroots control. Obviously! They were able to get a name brand, not a politician, elected president! For the person who feels that regulation has strangled his or her opportunity at being more successful, this empty room represents a rollback of all of that. Trump is a businessman. Why would he want to do anything but roll back regulations? And for the aging white male who feels the encroachment of minorities, powerful women, or the all-inclusive “other” staling away his birthright of authority, Trump enables that too, simply by never challenging any of these.
You hear it in his vague rhetoric; a blankness of intentions that is peppered with terms like “great,” “greatness,” “winning,” “beautiful,” all of which do nothing to clutter this empty chamber. Therein lies the brilliance — and I mean that sincerely — of the Trump campaign so far. He has committed to virtually nothing, promised virtually nothing, has allowed the electorate to fill in the blanks of what they want — not what he wants them to want — and so like a self-help book that tells you you’re good exactly the way you are, it’s the rest of the dumb, stupid world that doesn’t get you that’s the problem. And this is a room customized by the individual. It is functional not only for the respecter of women and people of Mexican descent who are just fed up with the lies of career politicians, but for the guy who hates to see the queues of migrant day laborers outside of the 7-11, or calls that “hot chick” a “fat pig whore” because she objected to him grabbing her butt. Trump has become all things to all people by being none to no one.
Listen to him speak. Most of the time his most outrageous statements are phrased as something someone else said or instigated. “I didn’t call Jeb Bush a ‘pussy,’ someone in the audience did. I just did not dissuade her.” “I didn’t just brag about the size of my penis; that was an assertion from Marco Rubio that sprang from the size of my hands.” Trump says a lot, but it’s mostly stated as the rebroadcast of hearsay.
When Trump really gets in trouble is when he is put on the spot and forced out of the builders beige of his non-talking points. So long as he can stick with “great” and “winning” and “unfair” and “awful,” he remains in control because he has left infinite space in which to maneuver. When he goes on for more than a paragraph’s time, he regularly contradicts himself. He proves and disproves his case quite literally as the words fall from his face, and he knows it is happening. You can hear him cutting off the talk, pivoting hard, and regularly using something blunt and abrasive with which to hit the turn. It is not accidental. It is calculated and, possibly to the chagrin of many of his apolitical followers, intensely political.
You can almost hear him say, “Commit to nothing. Give them nothing to hang onto, because that’s what they swing the rope around.”
The greatest shortcoming about not being promised anything is that you’ll never know what will be delivered. That is, conclusively, the drawback to Trump’s empty room approach, at least for the voter. Once he has their vote, that’s it. He’s in. At that point he could actually decide if he is for the takedown of the benefits of the New Deal, or if he is pro-choice, or if he thinks maybe Obamacare isn’t so bad after all and he might hang onto it for a brief period while he thinks hard about it, say, oh, four or eight years? And those who voted for him? Sure, they can be offended and say these are things he promised he wouldn’t do, but did anyway. But did he? Didn’t he say “I’m going to do something about that”? Did he ever specify what exactly it was he was going to do? No — you filled in that blank. You shouted the epithet, not him. You brought up the questioning of his junk, not him. In other words, be careful when you are voting because you may be pushing the button for what you — fully unsubstantiated — wanted him to say.
I said at the outset that the self-help book industry makes the most money yet retains the least value. Think about that. Are you going back to the diet books you bought last year that did not work? Of course not. They didn’t work — why would you try them again? Why would you keep them at all? It is notoriously difficult to resell used self-help books because of just that, as true as it is difficult to sell a politician’s book once they failed to be elected. But at least those books were bought with some concept of what they might afford the purchaser. As brilliant as “empty room political strategy” is, there are a whole lot of people ready and willing to buy into something without a shred of proof, without even a gossamer wisp of a promise, without as much the empty underline on a page of Mad Libs.