A few short months ago, Donald Trump was seen by pundits as a bit of a buffoon and not taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Today, he is the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination and could potentially become the next president of the United States. How did this happen?
Trump is far from a buffoon. He has campaigned cleverly, making use of social media and the propensity of the broadcast media to focus on bombast and sensationalism. Beginning with the first televised GOP presidential debate, Trump has made it his business to drive the political agenda by making bold political claims and assertions that seemed to make his opponents’ carefully developed “talking points” seem pale and boring. Trump, as is well known, asserted that he would build a wall along the US border with Mexico. The idea is, of course, preposterous and Trump refused to answer questions about how this could be accomplished but Trump’s assertion was bold and seemed far more exciting than the carefully calibrated plans floated by his opponents for addressing the question of illegal immigration. The news media focused on Trump’s “plan” and every other politician came to be measured in relation to Trump. Following the debate, Trump attacked Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators, claiming that she had been unfair to him and implying that she might have been in a bad mood because of her menstrual cycle. For the next week, media discussion of the Megyn Kelly incident, stoked by Trump, dominated the news, erasing any memory of anything that might have been said by any other candidate.
This debate performance was reenacted by Trump many times. Bombastic claims designed to dominate the headlines, refusal to discuss specifics, and ad hominem attacks. Trump also uses Twitter to effectively tweet headlines to the news media, essentially writing his own news. Following the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Trump revealed his plan to ban Muslims from entering the US, again refusing to offer specifics. As presumably planned, this idea gave Trump total domination of the news media for more than a week. Most commentators and politicians denounced him but Trump was indifferent to what they said. Everyone was talking about him and that was all that mattered. Other candidates faded into the background.
In an era of careful candidates with elaborate plans that bore much of the electorate Trump seems authentic–a candidate with bold visions he is not afraid to assert. In reality, Trump is quite careful. He works carefully to dominate the news, tweets headlines, gauges the impact of his statements, reminds Republican leaders that he is capable of launching a third-party bid if he feels thwarted. Trump does not shoot from the hip. Instead he carefully works to convey the impression of a candidate speaking spontaneously and from the heart.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of a Trump presidency.