10 Reasons Donald Trump May Be A Political Genius
Ask most people to name the country’s greatest joke, and they’ll immediately answer “Donald Trump.” The former TV star has been branded a jackass and a “monumental moron.” His hair is a national punchline. He publicly refers to himself as “The Donald.” But Trump might not be such a joke after all. He might even be a political genius.
Since entering the Republican presidential race in June 2015, Trump has gone from a rank outsider to leading the field. He’s crushed candidates whose dust he should be eating. He’s shaken off scandal without even taking a hit. While we’d never claim to endorse anything he stands for, it’s becoming harder and harder to dismiss him. Here’s why.
10He Plays The Media Like A Pro
By any logical reasoning, Donald Trump’s campaign should have gone down like the Titanic the moment it launched. One of his first acts as a candidate was to label all Mexicans drug runners and “rapists.” The claim generated wall-to-wall negative coverage. Any other candidate would have withdrawn. But far from showing his ignorance, Trump’s comment showed he can play the media like a pro.
Trump’s campaign is being run by Corey Lewandowski, a PR man known affectionately as a “bomb thrower.” His modus operandi is to chuck a linguistic grenade into any discussion then use the resulting attention to boost his client’s profile. The strategy suits Trump to a T. Every time he detonates a political IED—whether it’s mocking John McCain’s record as a war hero or claiming African-American youth have no “spirit”—he takes precious airtime away from other candidates. The Republican primary race becomes “The Donald Trump Show.”
The tactic is working. According to NBC, between June 14 and July 12, Trump got more airtime than candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio combined. At the same time, his poll numbers soared. Republican hopeful Rand Paul declared that the two factors were directly linked. In an interview with Fox, he claimed, “If I could just get a billion dollars’ worth of free TV, I think we maybe we’d get the same kind of surge.”
9He’s Shifted The Debate
A few short months ago, smart money was on a moderate Republican like Rubio or Bush to dominate the primary. They may yet still cinch the nomination, but Trump’s explosive antics have shifted the debate so far away from the center ground it’s barely a blip on the horizon.
Take his comments about Mexicans being rapists. As Trump’s soaring poll numbers show, a large swath of voters like the opinion. This backs other candidates into a corner. The media demands they respond to Trump, especially as he keeps pulling stunts like visiting the US-Mexican border. This leaves them with two unappetizing options. They can either agree with him, which makes it seem like they’re simply Trump clones. Or they can oppose him, which will instantly lose them support among anti-immigrant voters.
As the BBC put it, Trump gets to be the man throwing red meat to a hungry crowd. Moderates like Rubio, by comparison, come off looking like “kale-eating vegans.” The more Trump pushes the debate toward topics he can dominate, the harder it becomes for moderate candidates to get a word in edgeways.
8He Understands His Base
One of the difficulties of being a Republican candidate is the hatred most conservatives have for the government. According to The Washington Post, the percentage of self-identified GOP voters who feel “angry” about the way the government works is 37 percent. That’s up one-third since 2002 and nearly one-quarter higher than among self-identified Democrats. This is important because it means GOP voters inherently distrust career politicians. And just about everyone running against Trump is tainted by the whiff of Washington.
Trump not only understands this—he’s a master at exploiting it. Despite being worth around $10 billion, his long career in the real world means he can still paint himself as the outsider. When The Hill interviewed him about the Republican establishment, Trump declared “I want to do what’s right for the country—not what’s good for special interest groups that contribute, not what’s good for the lobbyists and the donors.”
This is the sort of rhetoric many voters love. In the same report we linked to above, the Post identified the ideal Republican candidate as “an outsider who can shake things up, who isn’t afraid to speak the truth even if it offends, and one who has proven leadership abilities.” That’s exactly how a supporter might describe Trump.
7He’s Made Himself A Willing Clown
There’s an old saying: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” It means there’s no point descending to your opponent’s level because you’ll never win on their terms. Trump has managed to paint himself as something far more dangerous than a pig. He’s willingly made himself a clown.
At first glance, this seems ridiculous. No voter wants an idiot in the White House. But in reality, it gives Trump a supreme tactical advantage. By having the media treat him like a sideshow, he avoids any serious questioning of his campaign’s weaknesses.
As The Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog pointed out, Trump’s candidacy has so many holes that it should have fallen to pieces by now. No details have emerged about his supposed plan to seal the southern border, he’s said nothing about his plans to reduce unemployment, and just about every pledge he’s made is unfunded. Yet the media rarely quiz him on it. Instead, they play his game, reporting his antics with a mixture of outrage and head-scratching amusement.
This means Trump goes unchallenged on what his presidency would look like. Some have argued that journalists treating Trump as entertainment news is a dereliction of duty. Yet his carefully crafted clown persona means it’s difficult for them to treat him any other way.
6He Refuses To Apologize
In recent years, our world has begun to run on outrage. Slate has calculated not a day went by in 2014 without a Twitter frenzy. We’re so used to seeing bloggers, politicians, scientists, and game designers publicly backpedalling that it can seem like a breath of fresh air when someone won’t say sorry. For many GOP voters, Donald Trump is that breath of fresh air.
Conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh said as much recently on his show. In one of his characteristic rants, he claimed that voters were fed up of seeing someone speak their mind then get called out on it by the media. In his view, many people no longer think the liberal media speaks for them. So when Trump responds to criticism by becoming even more vocal, it wins him a lot of fans. The Daily Mail ran an op-ed a couple of days ago, claiming the exact same thing.
The problem can be summed up in one handy phrase: political correctness. As far back as 2010, polls were indicating as many as three-quarters of Americans felt political correctness was a problem. In such a climate, Trump’s refusal to apologize for racially insulting Mexicans can feel to unrepresented whites like a blow for free speech.
5He’s Completely Unpredictable
Before his campaign announcement, Trump’s staff had honed his speech down to a snappy 91 words. As their candidate rode the escalator down to the waiting crowd at Trump Towers, they emailed highlights to journalists. Then something unexpected happened. The Donald went off-script. A short speech ballooned to a 1,700-word monstrosity. By the end, no one was sure what the heck their candidate was going to say.
When a man can pull the rug out from under his own campaign team like that, you know you’re not dealing with a logical player. For his opponents, this represents a tactical nightmare. It’s one thing to be up against an opponent you can craftily entangle in their own contradictory statements. It’s another entirely to be up against a man who will happily give out your cell phone number to a baying crowd.
Because he’s always ready to pull some outrageous move, Trump’s opponents can’t predict where to strike. If they want to debate immigration, he’ll be busy smearing veterans. If they try and throw logic his way, he’ll return with innuendo and make believe. Foolishly, some are even trying to outmaneuver him. Lindsey Graham’s entire campaign has become about finding wacky ways to respond to Trump’s insanity. Rand Paul has taken to releasing cringe-inducing stunt videos. Yet all this madness only deflects attention back to its source: the freewheeling Trump campaign.
4He’s The Master Of Reinvention
Ignoring his comments about Mexicans and veterans, there’s one inarguable reason why Donald Trump shouldn’t be in the running for the Republican nomination. He’s not a conservative. He’s not even close.
Prior to 2012, Trump was a big-time Democrat donor. Of all his political donations since 1989, 54 percent had been to Democrat candidates or causes. He’s given money to Hillary Clinton and invited her to his most recent wedding. He’s previously made pro-choice comments, pro–gay marriage comments, condemned Mitt Romney for making unfair comments about immigrants, and supported a Canadian-style system of universal health care. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign was sabotaged in part by his introduction of an Obamacare-style system in Massachusetts in 2006. By rights, The Donald’s past should have seen him excommunicated from the GOP weeks ago.
Yet he’s not only still standing but leading the pack, showing just how completely he’s mastered the art of reinvention. This is a man who has filed for multiple bankruptcies and is still considered a financial whiz. Thanks to the sheer force of his personality (and savvy media skills), no one remembers any of his baggage.
3He’s Ignoring The Kingmakers
If you want to win the Republican nomination, there are some things you have to do. One is to go around the important states like Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire and cozy up to the local party bigwigs. Ignore those guys, goes the logic, and your campaign is toast. But Trump might be about to sweep all of that away.
Since announcing his candidacy, Trump has been actively ignoring the GOP kingmakers. Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann says The Donald hasn’t called him or asked for a meeting once. In South Carolina, they’ve heard even less. This should have doomed his campaign in all the early-voting states. Instead, it’s making him stronger.
At time of writing, Iowa is going nuts for Trump. Locals are voicing their support for his candidacy, and his speeches are pulling enormous crowds. In South Carolina, too, Trump’s support among grassroots activists is refusing to diminish. By avoiding party bigwigs and going straight to the source, Trump seems to be cementing his outsider status.
Things could go even further. While the strategy may yet backfire, Trump’s may have calculated that all the other states are fed up with early voters getting all the attention. By bloodying the nose of complacent Iowan and New Hampshire kingmakers, Trump might make himself even more popular with the voters elsewhere.
2He’s Made Himself Untouchable
In a bruising primary, a foolish candidate tries to hide his flaws. A good candidate embraces them. Donald Trump has taken this logic to a hideous extreme. By playing up his ridiculous side, he ensures that people expect ridiculous things from him. If Jeb Bush had forgotten half his own campaign announcement, he would be polling somewhere around zero percent. When Trump does it, it’s just part of The Donald’s eccentric charm.
Same deal with the racism. Trump’s “rapists” remark should have seen him thrown out of the running and shut down by the GOP. Instead, no one said anything for a whole two weeks. The ship sailed. If Trump makes more anti-Mexican comments, any other candidate who tries to challenge him will look ludicrous. By weathering the first storm, he’s been granted the power to say things the rest of the field would find unsayable.
It’s not a nice or noble way to play the game of politics, but then Trump’s not claiming to be a nice or noble man. He’s claiming to speak for an unrepresented minority who feel their party has abandoned them. As polling continues to show, he may well be right.
1He’s Got A Long-Term Strategy
Most serious analysts agree that Trump’s poll lead can’t last forever. Once normal Republicans start to get involved, crowding out the random subjects who answer current polls, he may well drop behind Bush and Rubio and possibly Walker and Paul. This probably won’t faze The Donald. From what we can tell, Trump has his eyes on one prize: the televised Fox News debate.
Already scheduled for August 6, the debate picks the top 10 from the Republican crowd by polling numbers and brings them together to duke it out. At this stage, even a complete implosion in the Trump campaign would probably leave him enough residual support to be one of the 10. At that point, you have a born showman with 20 years of TV experience onstage, in front of the cameras with a vast audience. Almost everyone agrees the entire debate would quickly be overwhelmed by his personality.
As the first major debate coming a month ahead of the next one, August 6 will be crucial for defining candidates’ views. If Trump comes out on top or simply manages to rile up his base, he’ll go from being a flash in the pan to a serious contender. Even if he doesn’t clinch the nomination (and it still seems unlikely he will), he’ll have set the agenda for the whole of the race. We may be wrong. His campaign may well fall off a cliff in the next couple of weeks. On the other hand, everyone thought his McCain comments would signal the end of his ambitions. No such luck.