Anyone who has ever pitched a movie or television idea in Hollywood knows the tyranny of the “high concept.” It’s a staple of the entertainment world. A high concept is a simple, succinct, immediately comprehensible gimmick: Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter; the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Jack Frost team up to defeat an evil villain; Superman and Batman face off as enemies; Pride and Prejudice is reimagined as a zombie war in 19th-century England; Lucifer comes to earth to consult with the LAPD. (By the way, these are all real movies or TV shows.)
In Hollywood, one-sentence descriptions like these are called “loglines.” Sometimes they are less than a sentence, sometimes just a title: Planet of the Apes, Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys vs. Aliens. The briefest logline may be the legendary pitch for Miami Vice: “MTV Cops.”
Like so many things in America, the notion of high concept rapidly migrated from Hollywood into the rest of our culture and became a kind of imperative in everything from literature to technology to the culinary arts to websites to religion. If it wasn’t high concept, it got buried.
One of the last redoubts was politics, which had always been a very low-concept arena, stodgy with policy. However, that has changed now, too. Donald Trump’s presidential victory has been ascribed to all sorts of sociological phenomena, but there is also, I think, a cultural one that largely has been overlooked. Trump was the first high-concept presidential candidate, and now he is conducting the first high-concept presidency. That matters, not only in how one gets elected but in how one governs.
You might think of high concept as the Darwinian adaptation of ideas in a fierce competition of ideas — sort of survival of the fittest and pitchiest. We live in a loud world where everyone and everything is fighting for attention and only the boldest ideas survive the battle. Psychologists have a name for it: the cocktail party effect, after the phenomenon that the only way to be heard in a cocktail party where everyone is chattering is to speak more loudly. In that context, a high concept is a loud concept, a way to cut through the chatter, since the simplest, most attention-grabbing idea is the one that is most likely to be heard and succeed. Not incidentally, it is likely to be an extreme idea as well.
What’s more, as has been noted ad nauseum, we live in an increasingly instantaneous world driven by social media where things change second by second. In that world, high concept is a hook, a way to snag attention for more than a second and to do so immediately. There was a time when character-driven stories and narrative accretion were the Hollywood mainstays. Not anymore. What is the one-sentence logline for Citizen Kane or Casablanca or The Godfather or The Deer Hunter? You could write them, but they wouldn’t necessarily sound compelling. In a time-scarce society, character evolution and story development are too slow. We want it now and we want it new. So concept is everything.
The interpenetration of entertainment and politics is nothing new. Like actors, politicians create personae. They devise narratives for their lives and their campaigns. (Norman Mailer may have been the first to see the analogy of film to politics in his famous essay on JFK, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” He described Kennedy and his wife Jackie as the stars of the new American movie.) And they also can provide striking visual set pieces.
As a former movie and TV star, Ronald Reagan perfected the symbiosis, turning his presidency into performance art, not only by creating a wonderful character who was both avuncular and intimidating, but by understanding how the dynamics of politics closely mimic the dynamics of film. In both, the object is to engage the electorate/audience and manipulate their feelings. The best feelings, the ones you want to elicit, create a sense of exhilaration. Reagan was a master.
Now, as the line between politics and entertainment has blurred even further, high concept is something new and potentially even more transformative. It is not character-driven, as Reagan was, nor is it exhilarating. It is all about attention. Reagan took his lessons from Hollywood and applied them to politics. Trump took his lessons from reality TV. In his pre-political life, he was a master of form but not content. He boasted of his exploits without much to show for them. He became, as we all know, a brander rather than a builder, amassing his fortune by franchising his name. In effect, he was a ballyhoo artist, and ballyhoo has a lot in common with high concept. Both are selling salesmanship.
The biggest lesson Trump learned from all this was that grabbing attention was paramount and that it didn’t make a whit of difference how you grabbed it: blasting angry, idiotic tweets; leering over women; mocking the handicapped; insulting opponents; threatening to put Hillary Clinton in jail; and just plain inventing “facts” — lots and lots and lots of invented “facts.”
In the brave new America in which we now live, Trump knew that attention was value- and content-neutral. No one, least of all the media, which has lived on high concept, was going to call you out. Instead, you dominated the cocktail conversation so that no one else could get a word in edgewise. Volume was all. What you said was irrelevant.
Trump began his campaign this way, almost as if he were pitching a film or TV series to the American people: Build a wall. Ban Muslims. Repeal Obamacare. Level ISIS. Stare down China. And, of course, Make America Great Again. These weren’t campaign promises or even campaign slogans. They were loglines. In fact, the entire campaign was a logline: “A business mogul and reality TV star with no political experience runs for president, promising to blow up the system.” No one had ever seen anything like it. It wasn’t just that the campaign was high concept; the very idea of a high-concept campaign was high concept.
In fact, the devotion to high concept even seems to pervade Trump’s staff. We may think that the basic affinity between Trump and “alt-right,” white nationalist adviser Steve Bannon is deep reactionary populism. But 10 years ago, when Bannon was out in Hollywood as a would-be film producer, he pitched a movie idea for which the logline was essentially: Muslims take over the United States and turn it into the Islamic States of America. So the Trump-Bannon bond may not be just political extremism. They are brothers in high-concept extremism.
By contrast to the Trump campaign, there couldn’t have been a lower concept campaign than Hillary Clinton’s, which was largely in keeping with political tradition. Just compare her “Stronger Together” with “Make America Great Again.” Thousands of critics accused her of running a non-aspirational campaign without a theme. What they really meant is that she hadn’t come up with a logline. This made her traditional, policy-oriented campaign seem anachronistic. And it especially hurt her with the press, not only because Trump had accustomed them to a new logline every day, but also because it left a vacuum for the press to fill with loglines of their own — about emails and the Clinton Foundation. In the end, Clinton’s campaign was a casualty of the Hollywood that supported her, a casualty of what constitutes salesmanship in an age of inundation and instantaneousness. Trump’s was the hottest show on American screens.
He has brought exactly the same pitch to his presidency. But here are two things about high concepts: On one hand, they can cause a flurry by making it seem as if they are bold and not just noisy, which can work to Trump’s advantage as he rampages through his presidency throwing off one bluster after another. On the other hand, as anyone who binge watches TV or goes to the movies frequently can tell you, high concepts can quickly run out of gas. One season, Mr. Robot or Orange in the New Black is the most-talked about show on TV; the next season they are afterthoughts, pushed aside by the next high concept.
Put another way, concepts can exhaust themselves while character-driven narratives don’t. This may provide some comfort for those who despair of a Trump presidency. The rescue isn’t likely to come from politics, where Democrats seem impotent, but from our own insatiable proclivities for popular culture. It is entirely possible that the high-concept presidency of Donald Trump may just wear out the audience and make them yearn for something new.
Or so we can hope.
Cross-posted from Moyers & Company.