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The nonpolitical is political — especially on the right

Trump and Carson, The Apprentice and Zondervan.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

There's a fascinating article by Eric Konigsberg in last week's BusinessWeek about Tana Goertz, a former runner-up on The Apprentice who is one of Trump's Iowa co-chairs and a bit of a celebrity in her own right. (She was the spokeswoman for the BeDazzler, an as-seen-on-TV product that puts sequins on just about anything.)

BusinessWeek cites an account by David Axelrod about an online poll (not reported elsewhere, but the source is here) that found Trump's poll numbers in late September were almost twice as high among people who watched the show as among those who didn't. Among the minority who didn't watch The Apprentice, Trump led Jeb Bush by only a single percentage point.

So much about this is hard to understand. The arbitrary cruelties and humiliations of the modern workplace surely have as much to do with the rumbling discontent of the middle class as stagnating wages, yet here is a show that revels in just those cruelties. (Perhaps the answer is that the victims of Trump's humiliating rituals are exactly the obsequious midlevel functionaries who make the workplace so brutal. It's what we imagine the czar would do to the Cossacks, if he only knew.)

Or, if Ron Brownstein is correct that Trump's advantage is with white people without college degrees, it's hard to explain this anecdote from Konigsberg's BusinessWeek story:

Trump abruptly fires another man simply for the humble revelation that he comes from a "white-trash background."

"You think I want to hire somebody that's white trash?" Trump asks rhetorically. "How stupid can you be?"

If I were a cultural critic, perhaps I could drop some Barthes or Baudrillard to explain all this, but instead I'll make a more limited observation: Entirely nonpolitical channels of communication and interaction have a huge role in politics, and are underappreciated. And this is probably more true on the political right than on the left.

Ben Carson may be an even better example. Even more mysterious than the ignorant but soft-spoken ex-surgeon's current lead in Iowa and second-place standing nationwide is the fact that Carson was in second place in Iowa last February, the very first time his name was included in a poll. While many of us who follow politics closely had at best a vague awareness of who Carson was, and his star turn as an Obama hater at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, he evidently had quite a following already, enough to boost him over a dozen governors and senators a full year before the Iowa caucus. As Sarah Posner noted recently at Religion Dispatches, Carson's first book, Healing Hands, "was published by Zondervan, a leading evangelical publishing house which has gone on to publish other Carson books. Evangelicals have long seen the book in Christian bookstores, and have read it and become familiar with Carson's life story."

Celebrity politicians are not new, of course. We've elected an actor and a few generals to the White House, and I worked for a senator whose path to power was smoothed by the fact that he'd been a college and professional basketball star in the state where he ran. But that's more a matter of general name recognition and a common culture. Trump and Carson became well-known through subcultures that were not only not political but also really weren't visible to those of us outside those channels. The worlds of The Apprentice and, even more, of Christian bookstores is only vaguely visible to those of us who don't occupy those worlds.

The key is that these communities are very different from the "filter bubbles" created by Fox News, Daily Kos, or other closed political communities. When we seek to understand political communication on the right, we tend to look to explicitly political outlets. When we look to balance the role of money in politics, we tend to look first at communications explicitly intended to influence an election, and then at other kinds of political communication. But here we have two candidates who reach audiences in the millions with well-crafted public personae, built through largely nonpolitical channels.

We've long known that when it comes to face-to-face organizing, non-political channels, such as megachurches, play a huge role. People who join explicitly political organizations or parties are already deeply committed and likely to vote. That's why effective community organizing often begins "where people are," with community problems that aren't ideological or partisan. The National Rifle Association and AARP knit their members to the organization with practical services and magazines before using their political power. Labor unions were not only a source of political power and bargaining power in the workplace, they also brought together — and still do — workers with different political views or no strong views and helped them learn from one another.

As activists on the center left look to emulate the institutional strengths of the right, they tend to look primarily at political institutions and channels of communication, whether it's Fox News or the Heritage Foundation, and simultaneously we try to police the boundaries of political communication in hopes of keeping "dark money" out. But it may be that the real imbalance is in institutions that are not explicitly political, such as those that Theda Skocpol lamented in her 2003 book, Diminished Democracy, but that have profound political consequences.