Among my friends, who include many pundits, “clown prince” is a comparatively mild epithet. “Fucking idiot” is more popular. Yet this supposed clown, this alleged idiot, has succeeded enormously at just about everything he’s tried. Trump has made a lot of money in real estate. (It is objected that Trump doesn’t really build buildings, or manage them; he mostly collects fees for putting his name on stuff. True enough, but nice work if you can get it, and who but Trump can?) Trump is the most popular reality TV star of all time. Trump is a best-selling author whose books people not only buy, but actually read. Trump has married a string of beautiful women and raised what appear to be competent and well-adjusted children. And Trump will shortly become the first political novice since Eisenhower to be nominated by a major party for President of the United States.
The linchpin, then, of my theory of Trump is that Trump knows what he’s doing. So what is he doing? Fortunately Trump is transparent. He tells you exactly what he will do — indeed, writes books on the subject — before he does it. Trump is running for President because he thinks he will be a good President, and because he has nothing left to prove in business. Trump has considered running several times before; he chose this year because he saw a weak field. So far, like most of what Trump does, this has panned out.
Whether Trump will be a good President is not my concern here. I am interested in his considerable merits as a candidate. Trump understands persuasion better than any other candidate in the race, and far better than Hillary Clinton. Let’s look at how he has dominated the Republican race.
Trump recognizes that people don’t vote for policies. They vote for identities. (This is also true of pundits, though they like to kid themselves.) Trump has almost nothing in the way of traditional political positions. What does he stand for? Build a wall, sock it to China, keep out the Muslims. These scarcely add up to a coherent platform. What they do add up to is a coherent identity. They convey to the voters that Trump, more than any other candidate, will defend the interests of American citizens. That’s a pretty good identity to have in an election. Hillary has nothing to touch it.
This is just one of many of Trump’s supposed fatal weaknesses — no policies! — that are actually great strengths. Perhaps you have noticed that every news cycle in this election centers on Trump, who gets more press coverage than the rest of the candidates combined. Trump has long been expert at exploiting the press this way; for years in New York he collateralized real estate loans with newspaper headlines. His great secret is the “gaffe”. Trump will say something outrageous. The media will jump all over it, sure that this time they have found the remark that will sink him. Trump will in turn accuse the media of political correctness and bias against him — not without reason — and double down. Meanwhile, for the other candidates, the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Each “gaffe” makes him more popular than ever.
Trump’s few inchoate ideas are alleged to be unworkable. Mexico will pay for a wall? Absurd! Here again Trump understands persuasion better than his detractors. Trump views the President as, essentially, Negotiator-in-Chief, and “Mexico will pay” is simply his opening gambit — his “first ask”, in the argot. Is the President really Negotiator-in-Chief? Not entirely, but it is among the most visible things he does, and Trump, by positioning himself this way, reinforces his identity as the candidate who will protect the interests of American citizens.
I could go on at length about Hillary’s weaknesses, and about the way social media has shifted national politics in America in favor of Trump and Sanders, and against establishment candidates like Clinton. But these considerations do not strictly belong to a Theory of Trump, and this has got too long already. And this Theory of Trump does not strictly belong to me — it belongs to Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, who predicted the rise of Trump last August, when no one else did, including me. Adams has what he calls the Master Persuader series on his blog, all of his Trump-related posts from then until now, and I recommend it to all.