Fishbein: Who's the Puppet?

In redefining Clinton’s words, Trump has created a new dialogue.

by Daniel Fishbein | 11/3/16 12:15am

In the third and final presidential debate, Clinton called Trump a puppet. He retaliated by telling her that he was not a puppet, but that she was one. In changing the definition of this word to strike at Clinton, Trump inadvertently gave viewers a glimpse into his strategy during the entire election.

While Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the face of the populist left, has spoken frequently about his distaste for Trump, it seems as if the two can agree on at least one thing: Clinton belongs to the establishment. In Trump’s view, the powers-that-be in Washington — those which both Trump and Sanders have had so much success campaigning against — are pulling the strings behind Clinton’s campaign. She is so beholden to these political puppet masters that she will do anything — even if it is illegal — to please them. To him, Clinton cannot be trusted because she does not control her own actions.

In Clinton’s view, Trump is the puppet of his own ego. Like Clinton, Trump cannot control himself — not because he has to answer to higher-ups but rather because he cannot control his desire to bring attention to himself. His past actions, brought to light by recent media coverage, capture his egocentric attitude. As he said on the Access Hollywood bus, he will literally put his hands anywhere to get what he wants. Trump lacks the prim and proper mannerisms of conventional politicians, doing anything his own hunger for power tells him to do.

Trump and Clinton thus use the term “puppet” to insult each other in different ways. While Trump derides Clinton for her connections with the establishment, Clinton derides Trump for his seemingly total lack of self-control.

This distinction between how Clinton and Trump view a “puppet” can shed light on the different strategies they have employed so far in the election. Clinton has been the Democratic Party’s favorite 2016 presidential candidate since President Barack Obama’s primary victory in 2008. She, far more than Trump, can rest on her laurels, and unlike Trump, she can rely on the institutions which brought her oh-so-close to a nomination eight years ago to bring her to victory.

Trump, on the other hand, knows that he needs to shake things up. It’s as if he’s a football team down big at halftime. To pull off the upset victory, he needs to come out with a playing style that the opposition cannot anticipate. No one, even though it has been more than a year into Trump’s bid for presidency, really knows how to handle him because his strategies are so unprecedented. Every bombastic, factually incorrect and offensive statement he makes only seems to gain him new support.

To win the election, Trump knows he needs to change the conversation. He needs to define the terms: in his own words, he needs to tell Clinton that it is in fact she who is the puppet. Facts and knowledge are both on Clinton’s side. She has an insurmountable lead among people holding college degrees. Intellectuals favor her. The politically correct culture we live in — the one Trump frequently spits in the face of — favors her.

To beat Clinton, Trump needs to reject conventional wisdom. He needs to create a Trump-dominated, alt-right world where his will dictates what’s important, where he can define the facts, where politically correct culture bows down to the white supremacy and patriarchy of the past. From accusing Obama of being Kenyan to claiming that Clinton founded ISIS, Trump has used his willpower to turn what he says into what his supporters see as fact. Trump has worked to change the national discourse from one of tolerance and diversity to one where darkness surrounds our country — a country that we need to “Make Great Again.”

Without facts, the political establishment or prevailing cultural norms on his side, Trump has already turned his slim chances of winning the Republican nomination into an opportunity to win the presidency itself. To do so, Trump has rejected the definitions used by Clinton and political elites, using his bravado to make his own.