by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
When the race for the Republican presidential nomination began in earnest a year or so ago, one of the almost twenty names being kicked about as potential nominees was that of Donald J. Trump. At the time, he was considered at best an extreme long shot and at worst a joke candidate seeking only to feather his ego.
Now, six weeks before the Republican National Convention, Trump has the nomination in hand, and most of the Republican establishment leaders (and even other “outsider” candidates) are in a rush to fall in line, lest the train leave the station without them. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, once an object of scorn for dropping out of the race to back Trump, is now considered a clairvoyant genius. The nation is stunned, the Democratic Party seems not to know whether to laugh or cry, and the news media are having a celebration over their good fortune at having a candidate who will keep viewers watching and advertising minutes selling. The pundits of talk news radio have switched from decrying Trump as a fake conservative to touting him as the only way to beat Hillary Clinton. The rest of the world looks on in wonder.
Image credit: news-leader.com
How did he do it? How did someone with no political experience, no backing from anyone among the party leaders, and no articulated platform capture the nomination so easily?
A plethora of explanations are making the rounds of the talk news shows and op-ed pages. Trump offers a home to the disaffected, downwardly-mobile, white working and middle class that feels it is being ignored and robbed by the politicians and the bankers. Trump is a rabble-rousing demagogue who tells unthinking people what they want to hear with no concrete policies to back up his promises. Trump is an empty vessel into which people pour their hopes and dreams, identifying him with their fulfillment. Trump is the outsider who offers true change. Trump is the consummate insider who knows everybody and knows the tricks that will slyly persuade or outright snooker them.
Looking at the overall effect of the times and the circumstances that exist today, there are a few things that can be said for sure about Donald Trump and how he took the Republican nomination.
Trump has great name recognition. We’ve had celebrity candidates before (Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example), but they generally do not start their political careers by running for president. Governor or U.S. Senator is the typical springboard, as shown by Ronald Reagan, the closest historical example to Trump in terms of branding. During his days as host of GE Theater, Reagan and his family became a fixture in American households for a decade. The program format brought us into the Reagan household as the family showed off their new General Electric appliances. In the same way, Trump’s fourteen years as the star of The Apprentice reinforced his self-created image as the greatest business mind and most successful entrepreneur in America. That Trump is nothing special as entrepreneurs go (he inherited millions of dollars as well as connections and expertise from his father) doesn’t matter, because he is perceived as something special, and in politics perception beats reality every time.
Trump knows how to work the media. Traditionally, politicians have not openly sought out the news reporting outlets. They may hold press conferences or release statements, but only Trump has made it his regular business to openly go to the news media instead of waiting for them to come to him. If something happens, Trump gets on the air first because he immediately goes to the news outlets with his statement while other candidates are waiting to be asked. Trump’s experience in this line goes back at least 25 years, to his “John Miller” calls to reporters that gave him a lot of free brand promotion and PR boosts. He knows, as well, that media people want you as much as you want them. He played Fox News’s Megyn Kelly like a kazoo, first attacking her and then letting her ride his coattails to fame by giving her an exclusive interview in which she repaid him by kissing up and lobbing softballs for him to knock out of the park.
Trump knows it isn’t 1992 anymore. It’s not even 2012. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is often attributed to his mastery of modern electronic media, but Trump has gone far beyond that. A year ago, one would have thought that Jeb Bush, with the backing of the party establishment, a huge advantage in fundraising, and the name recognition that comes with being the son and brother of presidents as well as governor of a large State, would mop the floor with Trump. What nobody was noticing at that time was the influence of social media, whereby a candidate with tens of millions dollars in campaign contributions was at a disadvantage to a candidate with six million Twitter followers. These are not the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where hundreds of people stood for hours to listen to intellectual discussions of arcane political policies. These are the days of 142-character blips whose contents are forgotten as soon as they are read, but whose imparted feelings remain.
Trump is, at the center, a persuader. He calls himself the master of deal-making, and what is deal-making if not persuasion? Persuasion is best accomplished by trickery. In politics, the oldest trick in the book is having somebody else say what you can’t say. You have one of your associates or supporters say something provocative, and if it turns out to be unacceptable, you disavow it. That way you get it said twice: once when they say it, and once when you disavow it. Trump also employs the mechanism whereby he utters unsubstantiated claims and smears by attributing them to somebody else. “I’ve heard,” he will say, “that Hillary Clinton [fill in the blank with your favorite Whitewater/Vince Foster/Benghazi story]…….” It’s not him saying it, he will explain with disingenuous pseudology, he’s just saying what he’s been told or what the National Enquirer has reported. He just retweeted what somebody else said. “That’s not me talking, that’s what I’ve been told – it’s what people are saying.”
Trump knows that what he says doesn’t matter. Throughout this stretched-out process, Trump has said so many outrageous things, so many contradictory things, and so few things of any actual substance that observers keep waiting for him to “go too far.” When, they wonder, will he finally exceed American voters’ limits on talk or behavior? The answer appears to be, “Never.” In this day of Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., it doesn’t matter what you said yesterday, and it doesn’t matter what you’re going to say tomorrow. All anyone notices is what you say to them right now. Not two hours ago. Right now. Say something bizarre? No worries – just say something else and everyone will forget that first one. The news turns over constantly, and with networks such as CNN and MSNBC devoting their political coverage to whatever draws the most viewers, “All Trump, all the time” is a plan for ratings success. The sheer quantity of information swamps any coherent message, allowing Trump’s speeches and pronouncements to be, in the words of George Will, “stream of semi-consciousness.”
In 1981, boxing promoter Bob Arum uttered this immortal statement: “Yesterday I was lying, but today I’m telling the truth.” Donald Trump is Bob Arum put in motion. He has demonstrated that one need not even acknowledge that there is a difference between telling the truth and telling a lie.
[Note: For my earlier post on Trump’s fitness for office, click here.]