Sunday, August 30, 2015

Trump: Some of all the right noises

EVEN WHILE he seems to be winging it in his current bid for the American presidency, the height of unpredictability, you can't help but think that billionaire attention enthusiast Donald John Trump is starting to paint by the numbers. Lately he’s hired at least 10 paid staffers, and brought on Chuck Laudner, a top advisor to Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign. And The Donald’s been dutifully making the rounds, not content to let his tireless celebrity status run laps for him on the campaign trail. He’s been putting in his time.

With such displays of credibility, Trump intends to show the legions of doubters across the country that this time, he’s serious. Trouble is, Donald Trump is serious about running for president at a time that can’t help him: when America itself isn’t really that serious about who’s running for president. Not yet.

But that fact hasn’t calmed the rattled nerves of the leadership of the Republican Party, which is still deeply skeptical of Trump’s sudden bid for gravitas. Their fears are reinforced by his standing in some recent polls — he was top of the pops in an Aug. 18  CNN/ORC poll, besting rival Jeb Bush of Florida by 11 points (Trump 24%, Jeb Bush 13%). He’s in the same position in the Aug. 27 Quinnipiac University poll, topping Ben Carson by about 15 points. Television news and the late-night crowd can’t get enough of him.

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At this moment, when Republicans presumably intend to start weighing real options for 2016, Donald Trump is consuming much of the media oxygen that other, more politically credible candidates could use. And that’s the rub: it’s precisely that outsider status poll that the respondents seem inclined to support right now — when there’s nothing on the line but cosmetics. These are the early days of the beauty contest, debates and all.

For now, Donald Trump is the bell cow, precisely the early frontrunner candidate the Republican Party deserves. And they better be careful: Since no other Republican candidate will find reinvention as necessary as The Donald, no other candidate will benefit more from reinvention, or have a more compelling evolutionary narrative — rags to riches, politically speaking — the longer he stays in the race. Longevity bestows gravitas on a presidential campaign by definition. The longer a campaign remains a campaign, the more seriously it’s regarded. Trump’s favorables are likely to improve the longer he hangs around and presumably improves himself as a candidate. We’ve seen the polling evidence of that already.

With relatively few exceptions, if you’ve got a message and a palatable agenda, if you’ve got the big money to grease the wheels of a serious, balls-to-the-wall presidential campaign, you’re going to become more effective as a candidate. There’s no reason to think Trump, writing his own checks, will be any different.

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AND YET ... one problem for Trump is just political thermodynamics. Momentum is not selectively transferable over time. Having it early is one thing; sustaining it for weeks and months is something else entirely. At this point, Trump’s first-place standing in the polls is the same as a major-league baseball team’s first-place standing ... two weeks after the start of the season. It doesn’t really count for much. It can’t count for much. Not yet. Right now, Trump’s campaign fills another powerful role, one that’s got less to do with policy and everything to do with passion.

Donald Trump has taken point in the GOP’s Visual Persona Sweepstakes. He fills a vacuum of identity, one you wouldn’t expect in a field this crowded. Ironically, with so many candidates running at the same time, the Republicans in the field ran the risk of looking vague, amorphous, faceless, one indistinct Republican morphing grayly into another.

Donald Trump sure as hell took care of that. At least in the pre-early going.

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His other challenge is something he may not be able to do anything about. It means, to a great degree, that Trump has to transform himself into someone with the potential to be a true statesman — or a politician, if you like — and of all the things Trump has done or been accused of, being statesmanlike probably isn’t one of them.

Past performance is all but a guarantee of future results. We’ve had 40 years of watching him in the public eye, seeing him cultivate the swagger, the braggadocious bloviation, the attitude. He is, quite possibly, the greatest carnival barker who ever lived. But president of the United States? Please.

We hear the expression “take the gloves off,” often if not usually in a political context. That’s where Trump is at a profound deficit. He’s always got the gloves off. For him, there is no countervailing dynamic. For Trump, modulation is something you adjust on a stereo, and if you want nuance, you go to France and get a dog. Since there are no degrees to Trump’s political pugilism, there’s no way to properly gauge his moods or his temperament, no reliable emotional barometer by which to assess his ability to govern. Not to rule, but to govern.

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AND WHAT plays handsomely with a pre-primary-season audience may not travel as widely or as well in those primaries, and beyond, a year from this November, when the aggregate American voting public gets real about who it wants to have the authority to tell our nuclear missiles, “You’re fired.”

Donald Trump is making some of the right noises, and he’s the beneficiary of the perceptions of people less attentive to policy and more attentive to personality. They say he’s defying political gravity, and in the shortest short term, maybe he is. But further out, as the campaign months grind into winter and spring, Trump will no more defy political gravity than he’ll ever defy the other kind of gravity.

The immutable bylaws of business and those of politics are much the same: Adapt Or Die. They’re not repealing those laws for him or anyone else.

Image credits: Trump: Gage Skidmore. Logo: Trump 2016 campaign.
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