Trump strikes a chord with a small slice of the electorate

Posted at 2:23 PM, Aug 03, 2015

Consumer Alert, Political Division: Enjoy the Donald Trump Burlesque Show while you can.

There are several ways to do this safely:

  • If you are an independent and disillusioned, savor Trump’s act as a form of guerilla satire. Tune in as you would Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert or John Oliver. Who cares if Trump isn’t trying to be funny or ironic on purpose?  What could be a better spoof of presidential pandemonium than Donald Trump’s moment of pseudo-credibility? Think of it as performance art by someone who doesn’t know what performance art is.
  • If you’re a Democrat, simply gloat and keep gloating. If you’re a Democratic presidential candidate (well, if you are THE presidential candidate), run to a Zen retreat and take a four-week vow of silence.
  • If you’re a true-red Republican, this is hard, we know. But take solace in the fact that there is at least one GOP candidate whom regular civilians recognize on TV. That wasn’t true a couple of weeks ago (sorry, Jeb).
  • If you’re an anti-immigrant, xenophobic, angry white person that thinks the whole liberal/big government/Wall Street/media/civil rights establishment can be taken down a notch by a hit man rich enough to be fearless, now is your moment. Send Trump some of your money; he would love that. Stay in his hotels. You’ll be back to your slow simmer soon enough.

Whatever you do, don’t worry. Do not fret about a President Trump. Unless you are paid to do it, like me, don’t spend time trying to dissect the Trump moment because it is just that -- a moment. A simple list makes this point definitely:

Mitt Romney

Sarah Palin

Mike Huckabee

Rudy Giuliani

Newt Gingrich

Chris Christie

Donald Trump

Michele Bachmann

Rick Perry

Herman Cain

Rick Santorum

Each one of these characters led at least one poll in the course of the 2012 election. When they poll-peaked, each one received at least a sprinkling of Serious Coverage. 

None of that mattered except to the pocketbooks of a couple wannabes who snatched book or broadcast deals out of their antics.  (As a personal aside, I think three of the people on that list were “scarier” than Trump. You are welcome to send me your guesses.)

This same analysis applies to Bernie Sanders, though not perfectly.

Trump is getting crazy high poll numbers because he’s crazy famous, shamelessly theatrical and, indeed, because he strikes a chord with a small slice of the electorate.

Sanders’ unexpected performance in polls and on the stump seems to stem from his traditional progressive populism, the impression that he isn’t a robot politician and, of course, because a slice of the electorate – and the Democratic base – can’t stomach Hillary. He’s the only alternative, however farfetched.

All this is not to say that the season of Bernie and the Donald, their offbeat popularity, doesn’t matter. It obviously oozes from how chafed voters are about the goofball state of statecraft. Pardon my French, but “duh.”

The fact that a self-proclaimed socialist is worrying  Team Hillary is weird. And it’s weird that so many hopeless, unqualified eccentrics have had moments of glory in the Republican Party’s last two presidential parades.

I have a theory about this that I don’t think is provable empirically, but here it is.

Americans increasingly crave authenticity. 

I define authenticity simply: It is the absence of blatant phoniness and/or robot-ness in a person. When we spot authenticity, we like it almost all of the time. And we are totally faked out sometimes and that is discouraging: case in point, Bill Cosby.

In elections, most voters aren’t loyal to a party. They mostly favor the candidate they think has “character.”  They are looking for a real human being inside the suit and the TV – not a scripted, poll-tested, programmed, double-speak machine with no visible humanity.

There is a problem: It is next to impossible for a mere mortal to maintain being perceived as authentic for very long when they’re in high-profile positions of actual responsibility. The stakes are too high.

In politics, a gaffe, a slip of the tongue, a moment of impolitic candor, and off-color wisecrack can unleash the rabid pit bulls of the opposition party, the news media, social media and satirists. And now that can all happen in an hour.

Language is the primary media of authenticity. 

Presidents, CEOs, cabinet officers, mayors, diplomats, generals and the like have to stay on script or they risk pillory. They also, of course, torture normal speech when they are being manipulative and dishonest, too. So except for a few superstars, responsible public people tend to speak unnaturally. They use what is called “crafted language.”

This can be a fatal condition. Phony, crafted talking grosses us out. We can hear it a mile away. We mock it. 

So when one person shows up who sounds like an actual normal person, who speaks in a way that isn’t blatantly phony, we are attracted.

Trump doesn’t sound like a phony. He might sound like a boar and boor, but not a robot. Sanders sounds like a cranky wise guy from Brooklyn, not a Stepford Democrat. Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Howard Dean, Ross Perot, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie: All of them sounded authentic – for a while. And they were popular – for a while.

We are more powerfully attracted to authenticity than ever because we spend a massive part of every waking day with media and not face to face with living people. Media comes with marketing, advertising, branding, deception, fake sincerity and phoniness as vast as the Cloud. Media and marketing are often merged.

So we rebel when we notice this, when we can and when it’s easy. Craft beers, foul-mouthed comedians and nostalgia products are beloved. We get a kick out of Trump dissing all the civility rules and basking in the tut-tutting, even if his motive is vanity not moral tutelage.

But in serious matters, authenticity is only one virtue. The most genuine, authentic person you know is no friend if he’s mean. A CEO who is the model of authenticity will fail if she can’t increase profits.

In politics, we don’t really expect authenticity; we lust after it and it is a bonus when we get it. But after the early courtship, it has to be matched with other qualities: brains, discipline, seriousness, gravitas and knowledge.

A few top politicians in the post-Internet age have managed to hold on to their aura of authenticity.

George W. Bush avoided the Authenticity Gap, maybe because he was so defeated by the English language that he didn’t have to use plastic, crafted speech. John McCain, I think, is seen that way still, though in the presidential election his unsteadiness eclipsed the straight talk. Barack Obama isn’t seen as phony, but his disciplined use of language and rigid carriage strike many as cold and robotic, not quite authentically down to earth.

Hillary Clinton has been famous for 23 years. Her public speech has always been plastic and awkward, so polls show many think she is not honest, warm or genuine. They can’t smell a real person in there. That’s not going to change this late.

Mitt Romney, Al Gore and John Kerry had the robot problem. Bob Dole was a hilarious wisecracker, but he spoke in Senatese. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were uncomfortable speakers but they managed to overcome it, though neither managed a good exit.

Trump and Sanders are enjoying authenticity bumps primarily because they are fresh faces who don’t talk like politicians. That goes a long way – for a while.

A few other candidates will pierce the phoniness bubble before this endless, lunatic election is over in 15 months (but who’s counting?).  There is a massive authenticity gap in American politics. But it’s dangerous terrain.

There’s always a shootout at the Authenticity Corral. Someone’s going to get bloodied.