Last summer, my spoken communication class was assigned a group project on the presidential election. Four groups focused on the rhetoric of one of four candidates, looking mainly at the campaign announcements, speeches, websites, and reported policies. One group studied the rhetoric of Donald Trump. We were amazed by what one student described as his lack of any filters, but we recognized that some voters would interpret his coarse language as an indication of authenticity. We knew his image as a successful businessman would attract some voters and his character on a reality TV show would give him some star power. We also knew that his status as an outsider would attract voters who were afraid of change or were frustrated with politics as usual. We laughed at much of what he said, but we realized that his candidacy was not a joke. While the class expected him to fizzle out when his loose lips latched onto the wrong target, we knew that his “Make America Great Again” rhetoric would appeal to many voters, making him a contender.
That summer class did not fully appreciate how savvy Trump appeared to be at controlling the media. Trump continued to dominate the news, which made his weaknesses in organizing, fund-raising, and staying on message relatively insignificant. We knew, however, that Trump’s candidacy was not funny, even though he did not seem to take running for president seriously. I wondered if he was just in the race as a low-cost way to enhance his brand, since he gave little effort on the infrastructure of his campaign.
The spoken communication class in the fall had a similar end-of-the-semester project, but this time around, we studied a few rhetorical theories in depth at the beginning of the semester and I used examples of political speeches throughout the semester. By this time, Donald Trump was attracting large crowds. He continued to dominate the news. Everyone was reacting to what Trump said. His Republican opponents had trouble getting out their messages, since Mr. Trump’s controversies encouraged reporters to ask for their reactions to what he said. Trump’s weekly “gaffe” was free advertisement that kept his name in the news. As Trump defended his statements and made additional divisive remarks, the class began to wonder who would vote for him. We could not find any detailed policy statements. Trump promised to provide more information, but when he didn’t, he fended off criticism by saying that he would hire experts to address the problems he raised. The successful leader, as he defined it, surrounded himself with experts who would implement the leader’s vision.
That fall class found it difficult to study Trump’s rhetoric when there were no clear goals and no apparent strategies. His speeches, campaign commercials, and other media pronouncements had little substance and seemed to be off the cuff. While we knew he was tapping into people’s frustrations, we expected everyone but a narrow demographic to eventually get turned off by him. August, September, October, November, December. Trump continued to lead the polls. When his tragic flaw, or flaws, did not produce a tragic ending, we had to try to better understand his target audience. We needed to know more about the audience needs that Trump and the other candidates were trying to fill.
In the spring, the study of the presidential campaign in the spoken communication class expanded from a political thread and an end-of-the-semester project to a week-by-week analysis of the campaign, looking at the story being told by the top candidates. By this time, the debates were in full swing and the votes were being tallied. Every week produced another startling story.
Trump was not the only one making the news. The competition between Clinton and Sanders was also quite interesting. The class noted the similarities between Sanders and Trump. We talked about how Trump’s rhetoric was comparable to past nationalistic leaders. We continued to question who would vote for Trump as he insulted group after group of people and made direct personal attacks on his opponents. He didn’t bother with plausible deniability. He didn’t have many surrogates to do his dirty work for him. Donald Trump seemed to like stirring the pot himself.
Was it his star power, his wealth, his outsider status, his willingness to be unconventional, or his willingness to say what others were thinking but afraid to say out loud? We thought it was possible that Trump was being strategic; you see, we still assumed that he was smart. You have to be smart, don’t you, to amass a fortune? We assumed that he was using media to his advantage and was shocking people to maintain everyone’s focus on him. We thought that perhaps he was simply making a deal, taking some extreme positions as opening negotiating stances. In our best scenario, we expected, that if elected, he would defer to the experts he hired and spend time to become versed in the realities of governing. However, it became increasingly clear that that would not happen.
Trump shoots from the hip without a Plan B. Heck, there is no Plan A. There are no deeper layers of The Donald to penetrate. What he tweets is not a piece of a grand strategy. He’s not going to pivot. He expects everyone else to pivot around him. His ego is massive.
Now, the only remaining viable candidates are Clinton and Trump. Trump’s positions have been more exposed since he has far fewer opponents to attack. This summer, the question in my mind is less about who he appeals to and more about why he continues to appeal to anyone as the evidence builds that his claims are false. Trump argued that he didn’t have to know all the details about policy because he would surround himself with the best people. Well, we have been seeing that many politicians in his own party do not want to be associated with him. The campaign (composed of the people he has selected) is in turmoil. There has been infighting and numerous other problems. His claim to be independent–free from being bought–is suspect. For example, Trump decided to stop self-financing a while ago. He turned his loan to the campaign into a gift because of how collecting on the loan, using donations from citizens and lobbyists, would look. His vast amount of money, once thought to be a virtue because it made him immune to bribery, should look like a liability because the rich rarely care about the common person. His campaign is not run professionally, probably because he wants to maintain control. His fundraising has been weak, the number of staffers is far too few, and there are few people hired around the country who can get out the vote for him. Clinton is so far ahead in terms of having a well-funded, professionally staffed campaign that Trump’s organization, by comparison, looks like he is running for his high school class presidency. Trump tells his followers to trust him. He says, things will be great. But, his first Trump/Pence logo, which lasted a few hours, was subject to ridicule. Melania, his third wife, gave a speech on the first day of the convention that included lifted lines from Michelle Obama of all people. Cruz dissed him on the third day. Trump had promised a star-studded, dazzling affair, but the Cleveland Convention was populated by B stars and third-rate politicians. Not even The Fonze could have rescued this weak cast of players. In addition, the prime-time speakers did not follow Trump’s nightly themes, there were technical difficulties, and his main backers were his family. Trump argued that his business skills would be valuable and would restore America’s greatness, but we know that he has declared bankruptcy several times, Trump University is a scam, his estimate of his wealth is exaggerated, and his failure to provide his tax returns is a sign that he has something to hide.
It’s easy to fall in love with an image, but when the image fails repeatedly to conform to reality, don’t most people fall out of love and begin loathing the suitor? Some well-known Republicans and insiders have claimed Donald Trump is incapable of deep thinking and focused attention. They note he is incredibly self-centered and characterize him as a con man. There is quite a bit of evidence to support these views. If elected, I doubt that he would choose his cabinet wisely, nor would he listen to his cabinet anyway. He is dangerous because he is ignorant and impulsive.
Are his followers in denial? They talk about the overriding need to defeat Hillary Clinton. Okay, while this argument is defensible, it ignores the dangers that Trump poses to our existence as he talks about not backing NATO allies, deporting foreigners, torturing suspects, and standing up to world leaders. His lengthy speech at the convention plays upon people’s fears. He treats the American people like they were his debate opponents. He divides then attacks. He displays no understanding of world history, he does not see how things are connected, and he has not expressed any desire to learn how things work. Trump apparently surfs the Internet for information, not having read a book for years.
Why does anyone continue to support Donald Trump as more and more contradictions are uncovered? I liked listening to his supporters at the convention. Were they discounting the facts, denying what he has said, thinking that Trump will change, or were they actually glad to see that he has flaws like theirs? Was Trump simply their boy, like parents who would support a bratty child who committed a crime no matter what he did or said? A little of all of these, but mostly, it seemed that his followers just accepted him wholeheartedly, focusing on what they liked about him and noting how much they disliked Hillary Clinton.
I would compare voting for him to hiring an alcoholic school bus driver who has never driven a vehicle before and does not know the rules of the road. Worse still, this bus driver would be oblivious to what the other cars are doing because he would be looking in the mirror to see his face as he praised himself for being the best driver ever. He would be riding high until he actually tried to get somewhere without a road map or until he encountered a flat tire. We would all be stuck on the bus, waiting for a ride after the inevitable accident, but the rescue would take four long years to arrive.
I plan to tackle the question of why some voters continue to like him in greater depth in the next post. I’m not liking my answer to the question, but I may have to write it anyway. Stay tuned. You probably won’t like it either…