Solomon: Trump Therapy
It has been months since the 2016 presidential campaign season started, and I still have to rub my eyes as I walk by the Class of 1953 Commons newsstands each morning seeing presidential candidate Donald Trump in the headlines. The usual “joke candidates” should have died out by now — and it is clear that most consider Trump a joke. A June 2015 Huffington Post and YouGov poll indicated only 21 percent of Americans consider Trump to be a serious candidate. Yet, despite no significant changes in campaigning style and few specific policy announcements, Trump has gone from being a political laughingstock to the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Frankly, I do not know how to explain that — but I will give it a try.
First, it is important to note the present nature of elections. Voters are more influenced by the perceived character of candidates than by their policies. In a 2007 poll, Associated Press-Ipsos found that 55 percent of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other character traits the primary determinants in their choices for political leaders. Less than one third looked to leadership characteristics, experience or intelligence. This makes sense. Voters would want genuine candidates because the president, once elected, will base his decisions on his political team, rather than on the calculated but largely unrealistic promises made during campaign season. In the minds of Americans, policy goals will either change or fail, but the character of the president will not.
Politicians like Trump know this. Modern political debates seem far more focused on image and rhetoric and far less on factual, objective argumentation. Perhaps that is why Trump has been so successful. His platform is almost entirely character-based, with only a few substantive policy ideas and no serious plans for implementation.
Trump’s biggest card is that he is not a politician. He wants to seem real, unaffiliated, unencumbered by political pressure. He plays down his political inexperience by portraying politicians as corrupt and lazy and himself as a breath of fresh air — a virtuous defender of the average American. Yet during the Aug. 2015 Fox News Republican primary debate, he talked about giving money to politicians in return for favors. He also said he had given money to Hillary Clinton and therefore she had no choice but to attend his wedding when asked. When planning his wedding day, Trump decided he wanted one of the country’s biggest political figures to sit in the front row as he said “I do,” yet now, he is trying to convince voters — and somehow succeeding — that he will work against political insiders.
Trump tells voters he’s a successful businessman and that America needs to be run like a business. Trump has also gone through four bankruptcies. He, like most businessmen who crave success, has acted with sole regard to his own good — he got rich off of Atlantic City but then dumped it when he ran into financial trouble.
Trump tells voters he’s a good negotiator. That may be true, but he lacks experience with foreign officials — who could not care less about his billions, cannot just be sued into submission by his lawyers and probably will not even take him seriously as a former television star and beauty pageant owner. Moreover, it is unclear where Trump’s interests lie, which is particularly concerning when it is not difficult to get richer through politics. Trump’s assets in real estate and his business holdings are significant enough that the decisions he would make in office could affect him personally, and that’s a dangerous scenario that more Americans should recognize.
Trump tells voters exactly what they want to hear — no filters, reservations or political correctness. He feeds off of people who are so frustrated with the political process that they desperately need something new — people who feel that their voices have been marginalized because classist, racist and sexist commentary has been rightfully admonished, people who are so upset with the current state of American politics that they would even be OK with starting from scratch again.
If you’re a Trump supporter — and even if you’re not — think about what makes him a good candidate. Think about whether Trump actually deserves a vote on the basis of his competence. And if you are frustrated with the state of American politics, do express it. Vote. But make sure you vote for a candidate who deserves your support because you consider him the best option, not the least worst.