As I recently tweeted, I have this unshakable image of the Donald Trump campaign headquarters. Everyone’s sitting around after Trump’s latest blowhard blunder and somebody buries their face in their hands and says, “Can we just run this like an 1880’s campaign? Y’know, where he stays home and says nothing for three months while we do all the campaigning? You think he’d go for that?”
I’ve been following Presidential election campaigns for the vast majority of the thirty-three years I’ve been dragging a crank around this planet and I can honestly say this, without hyperbole or rush to judgment: this campaign is the damnedest one I’ve ever seen.
Both of the major candidates seem to do far better when they stay OUT of the headlines. Think about it. All through May and into June, Hillary Clinton was riding high in the polls. Not because she had finally won over a skeptical (or outright hostile) voting public, but because every news cycle was about Trump’s latest proclamation: his ill-conceived response to Orlando, his refusal to raise campaign funds, his ongoing pissing match with Senator Elizabeth Warren. What did Trump do to turn things around? Turns out: nothing. The news cycle instead shifted to Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal” and the FBI’s refusal to prosecute. Trump surged because he was standing in his least-favorite spot: the sidelines.
Yes, each candidate got the expected bounce from their conventions, but Clinton’s turned out to be a little higher. Why? Because America finally embraced her as the candidate best positioned to steer this country into its future? No, not really. All Clinton had to do was stand aside and allow Trump to unleash a tweetstorm at his various DNC critics, most pointedly Khizr Khan, the father of a deceased American soldier. While some would see this as the jumping off point between Trump and the behavior of a decent human being, it is at least the jumping off point between a celebrity and a politician.
The word “politician” is universally thought to be a dirty one. And I’m not here to argue that point. If the term “politician” has come to mean, “He or She who does the bidding of their major donors without any concern for the public as a whole” that’s only because the idea is largely accurate. However, the Donald Trump phenomenon has re-introduced America (because apparently twenty years was enough time to forget Ross Perot) to what happens when we let non-politicians play with this particular brand of fire.
You see, for whatever you’re going to say about them–and you’re welcomed to say plenty–one thing politicians quickly learn to develop is a thick skin. Every elected official from President of the United States to local dog-catcher is going to get flack from SOME corner of their constituency. I mean, your election opponent probably wouldn’t be running if they couldn’t establish, in some fundamental way, that you suck at your job. And the bigger the office, the more people who will feel that way. Tuning those people out isn’t just a political necessity, it’s a survival mechanism.
The Trump phenomenon has been largely built on the idea that he’s not a politician by trade. While, to an undeniable segment of the population, this is part of his appeal, it’s also left him unprepared to deal with the day-in, day-out grind of criticism that every politician must face. It can reasonably argued that nobody EXCEPT a politician could be prepared to deal with it. And for Trump, this is a problem because he comes from an entirely different world.
While I wouldn’t be so crass as to insinuate that business leaders and celebrities don’t face criticism, the difference between what they face and what a politician faces is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it. Celebrities and business leaders are also in the business of building a firewall against this sort of thing. Somebody like Trump has spent most of his life surrounded by bobos and yes-men, to the point where he’s come to believe that everything that comes out of his mouth must be the truth. After all, who’s ever cared enough to call him on his s**t? When people like Trump get beyond that little circle and suddenly realize that people who don’t have anything invested in them refuse to believe their every statement–that there are, actually, people devoted to fact-checking this stuff–the reaction is somewhere between befuddlement and rage. Or in Trump’s case, simply rage.
This is where we reach the difference between a celebrity and a politician. Taylor Swift and Kanye West have their fans and that’s great. But as much as I hate to break this to both of them: their lives don’t really matter. In a hundred years, nobody’s going to know who they were or care what they did. So if Kanye says something that pisses Taylor off and she comes right back with something that pisses Kanye off, that’s just fine. It’s an interesting diversion that has absolutely no impact on my life (other than giving me the opportunity to write about it.) And certainly nobody around either Taylor or Kanye is telling them to let it go. A little celebrity feud keeps their names in the press and helps them move widgets. Hell, if Chris Brown can keep selling records, then truly no news is bad news in that world.
And this is the world that Trump comes from. Much like a celebrity, his knee-jerk reaction is to respond to EVERY barb thrown his direction. And in the political world, it simply has the effect of making Trump look temperamentally unsuited for the office he seeks. For example, a politician would look at the situation with Khazr Khan and say, “I will ignore this because I can only come out of it looking bad.” A celebrity, on the other hand, will say, “F**k that guy! He can’t say that stuff about me!” and immediately take to Twitter. If they’re particularly thick-headed, they’ll turn it into a running debate.
While Trump will always have his defenders, his inability to rise above ANY criticism leveled at him may prove to be his undoing. Political campaigns are, in essence, long and incredibly expensive job interviews. If you can’t show your potential employer that you’re capable of handling the interview process, you’re not really showing them that you can handle the job itself. If Donald Trump can’t keep it together for three months of campaigning, how in the world is going to endure the criticism that even the most popular of his predecessors endured?
We might be better off not finding out.