From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

trump_the_art_of_the_deal
“The Art of the Deal”, by Donald Trump.  Image via Wikipedia, re-used under Fair Use

Donald Trump lists this as his second-favorite book, saying only the Bible is better. He also would include writing it as one of his major accomplishments in some of the early debates. He has written other books, but this is seemingly the only one he considers memorable. So, I decided to check it out.

It starts off with a chapter giving us a play-by-play account of a week in the life of Donald Trump, circa 1987. It seemed like an excuse to do a lot of name dropping. Trump likes to do that.

Fortunately, the book gets much better after that. Trump gives background on his early life, and resells some anecdotes from his real estate career. The real highlights of the book are the chapters about his purchases of Manhattan real estate. Trump clearly worked very hard to become knowledgeable about relevant zoning laws, and he deserves credit for the tenacity and thoroughness with which he put together many of his deals.

If the book ended after Chapter 7, I would have said I was pretty impressed. But it doesn’t–there are seven more chapters to go, and Trump’s flaws start to appear in these pages.

First comes Trump’s Atlantic City Casino adventure. Trump clearly knows less about casino gambling than about real estate. He seemingly views casinos as special lucky buildings that magically earn more money than regular ones. This is clear when he asserts “The New York Stock Exchange happens to be the biggest casino in the world.”

Wrong, Trump. Casinos are deliberately rigged against the players. The stock exchange isn’t. Trump apparently fails to appreciate this difference.

It gets worse. Trump goes on to describe an incident where the Holiday Inn Board of Directors was coming to inspect the site of a casino Trump was building. They were thinking of partnering with him, but wanted to see how construction was going.

Trump got worried that the construction crew didn’t look busy, and thought that might ruin the deal. So he told his crew to act like they were busy–didn’t matter what they did or whether it needed done. Just look busy.

This is bad enough. But then, one of the board members asked him why bulldozers were digging and refilling holes. Trump doesn’t say what BS line he used to get out of this. Can’t reveal all his secrets, I guess.

This wasn’t just dishonest; it was reckless and stupid. Trump didn’t offer any evidence for why he thought they might be mad if the crew wasn’t busy, just some nebulous feeling. And then he risked them definitely getting mad if they figured out he was deceiving them. He was lucky they were stupid.

Actually, the story of Trump’s life might be “he was lucky they were stupid”. He seems to reap huge benefits from the fact that the other guys make stupid mistakes.

As bad as the casino episode was, the worst part of the book was definitely the chapter on the United States Football League. Trump owned the New Jersey Generals. By his own description, he sounds like the owner from hell. He describes threatening to fire the coach if he didn’t give the ball to Herschel Walker more often. That is exactly the kind of meddling that wrecks a football team.

When the league failed because of his decision to move the season to the Fall to compete against the NFL, he proceeded to blame everybody but himself for it. It is in this chapter that you really see the Trump we are all familiar with today, always hurling insults around with no substantive point.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Trump has two major skills: knowing a good real estate deal (especially in Manhattan), and knowing how to play the press to get attention. He is a master at using the latter to enhance the former. He frequently would make controversial statements that would draw media coverage to his buildings.

In the section “Get the Word Out” in the chapter “Trump Cards”, he writes “[E]ven a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.” And he goes on to say “The final key to the way I promote is bravado, I play to people’s fantasies. […] That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”

This is also the playbook for the Trump 2016 campaign:

1. Say outrageous stuff.
2. Benefit from all the media attention.
3. Rinse and repeat.

So far, the only press person I have seen call Trump out on this is Megyn Kelly. Maybe that is why Trump doesn’t like her. It’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she actually read his book and is, as he would say, “totally wise to him”.

The proposed wall on the southern border is just the latest instance of Trump promising to build something big and gaudy to get the press’s attention. The only difference is that this time the only way he can get zoning permission from the government is to take over the government.

Throughout The Art of the Deal, there are all sorts of fascinating tidbits that would probably sink any other Republican candidate. For instance, Trump says then-President Ronald Reagan was “so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people.  Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.”

Overall, the Trump we see in Art of the Deal is far more appealing than the one we see on the campaign trail. But even the more serious, younger Trump seems too arrogant to be President. People can change a lot in 30 years, and Trump may be a very different person now. So you can’t evaluate him as a candidate based just on his book.

However, I think everybody in the press covering his campaign should absolutely read the book, and then perhaps it will become clear to them just how plainly he is manipulating them to boost his political campaign.

As my long-time readers may have noticed, I don’t blog about politics much these days.  This is in spite of the fact that we are having perhaps the most interesting primary season I can remember.

Well, in the words of Warren Zevon: “there’s nothing I can do or say/I haven’t done or said”. There’s nothing new here, even as stunning as it is to watch.

I’m just revisiting all my old posts about charisma and nationalism and realizing that Trump is the culmination of two trends in American politics: the ever-increasing preference for charismatic “big personalities” over policy details, and a growing desire among the people to pursue protectionist economic program and reverse decades of free-trade policies made by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Given that, I feel like I should have seen it coming.