By Jeff Cahlon
One of the most memorable moments of the presidential campaign occurred at a recent Republican debate, when Donald Trump boasted about the size of his “hands”—and what that signified about the size of “something else”. To Trump’s detractors, Trump’s boast only served to affirm some of his many faults. He’s crude. Vulgar. Vain. Narcissistic. Egotistical. Dishonest. When it comes to policy; he’s ignorant, incoherent and apathetic. He has some disturbingly authoritarian tendencies. And while his “hands” might be fine, there is something seriously unnatural about his hair.
Most of these qualities have been apparent since Trump announced his candidacy in June, which is partly why his candidacy was initially treated as something of a joke by much of the country, including the elite media. Trump’s nonsensical, patently ridiculous rambling about “winning”, and blatant ignorance, were largely regarded as an entertaining sideshow–useful fodder for late night comedians, but ultimately irrelevant to the presidential race. His initial favourable polling numbers were thought to be sure to fade as voters caught on to his act. Surely he had no chance of actually winning the Republican nomination, let alone be elected president.
There were also doubts that Trump actually wanted to be president, which contributed to the tendency to dismiss Trump’s candidacy. Prior to his current presidential run, Trump had never run for or held public office, and he’d only sporadically displayed more than a passing interest in politics or public policy. And it’s hard to imagine Trump ever running for say, state senate or city council, the typical “entry level job” for someone who may aspire to someday be President—or to even imagine Trump running for Congress. Such positions involve a ratio of ass-kissing to power-tripping that is much too high for Trump’s ego of legendarily epic proportions. But the presidency is the exception that proves the rule, and for the thrice-married reality television star and celebrity businessman in winter, in search of a new, possibly final ego trip, it was a tempting target.
Once he’d decided to run for the Republican nomination, Trump quickly adopted standard conservative positions on most issues. As recently as 2004, Trump declared that “In many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat”. From opposition to abortion rights, to opposition to gay marriage, to opposition to even the most modest gun control measures, to supporting repeal of Obamacare, to proposing a massive budget-busting tax cut plan, Trump dutifully checked off the boxes required of Republican presidential candidates. For the ultimate “anti-establishment” candidate, what’s most remarkable about Trump is how little he deviates from establishment-approved positions. But Trump’s policy positions are themselves further evidence of his disinterest in policy. He simply adopts the default Republican positions (rarely bringing them up unless prodded to), so he can move on to matters of greater importance to him, like which candidate has the hottest wife.
With little to distinguish his policy positions, Trump’s crassness and penchant for slinging gratuitous personal insults are not bugs of his campaign, they’re features. Put another way, Trump isn’t running on the size of his tax cut plan, he’s running on the size of his “hands”. And while Trump’s personality may draw more disdain than admiration, its sheer magnitude distinguishes him from most politicians. For example, while Trump is far from articulate or eloquent—in fact, his rambling often descends into incoherence—he is endlessly voluble, and his bluntness can come across as refreshingly candid.
Similarly, unbound by the usual constraints of logic and reason, Trump makes grandiose (if often vague to the point of being meaningless) promises. He’ll bring jobs back from China. He’ll build a wall on the border and have Mexico pay for it. He’ll be “so good at the military your head will explode”. He’ll both repeal Obamacare and “take care of everybody … much better than they’re taken care of now”. He’ll be the “greatest jobs president God ever created”. He’ll deport millions of illegal immigrants—in a very “nice” way, of course. How will he do all these great things? Simple. By being Donald Trump. Viewed logically, such promises don’t merely lack credibility; they’re absurd. But delivered with Trump’s brashness and swagger, to Trump’s supporters, they feel true, which is more important.
While the degree to which Trump’s campaign emphasises personality over policy may seem novel, personality has always played an important, if underappreciated, role in political success. Most voters don’t make voting decisions by poring over detailed policy proposals. Fundamentally, in any election for elective office, voters choose a person, not a set of policy positions. This is especially the case in a primary campaign, where ideological differences tend to be minor, if not indecipherable.
The importance of personality in politics has particularly been true since voters have gotten regular exposure to candidates on television. For example, the 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon featured the first televised presidential debates. Viewers who watched the first debate on television believed Kennedy won, while those who listened to the debate on the radio believed Nixon won or the debate was a tie. Kennedy’s greater success with television viewers was widely attributed to his natural charm and charisma, more readily conveyed via television.
In the age of social media, the importance of personality has only been magnified. Trump has been particularly effective in his use of social media, most notably tweeting novel insults and other colourful pronouncements to rally supporters, needle opponents and detractors, and draw free media coverage. By recognising that a well-crafted tweet is more politically valuable than a well-crafted tax-cut plan, Trump has simply taken personality politics to its logical conclusion.
Similarly, Trump’s talent for self-promotion has enabled him to present himself as a great success story, despite a business career riddled with busts and bankruptcies, his company having been reduced to little more than a licensing operation. Fittingly, like his candidacy, his company is essentially a brand without a product, offering nothing of substance yet not any less ubiquitous for it.
Or, as Trump might put it: policy is for losers.