Trump: How to Be Cleverly Reckless
Donald Trump’s political success so far in 2016 is in large measure a result of his ability to not only dominate, but to drive the news. Beginning with his attack on FOX debate moderator Megyn Kelly and his pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border (to be funded by Mexico), and his later plan to prohibit non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States, Trump has been able to invent issues and positions sufficiently outlandish to capture the full attention of the media and leave no space for coverage of other candidates.
All that anyone can recall about the first GOP debate was what Trump did or did not say about Megyn Kelly. The Iowa debate boycotted by Trump–something no other candidate has ever dared to do–was completely overshadowed by media discussion of whether Trump would or would not, should or should not have participated. The substance of the debate was completely overshadowed by Trump.
Generally, Trump’s apparently outlandish positions are calculated to address issues likely to resonate with Republican voters. Trump’s bombastic attacks on the media, and on illegal immigrants, as well as his dire warnings about possible terrorists among Muslims entering the U.S. articulate the beliefs and concerns of average voters. Trump, moreover, presents these concerns in a way certain to drive the news and to drown out other voices. What seems reckless and outlandish is clever and calculating. Polls generally show that Republican voters agreed with Trump.
Take Trump’s surprising attack on the Pope. On the eve of the February South Carolina primary, Trump cheerfully picked a fight with the pope that allowed him to dominate the media for several days before voters went to the polls. After Pope Francis criticized Trump for his anti-immigrant stance, which the Pope called “unChristian,” Trump attacked the pontiff for meddling in American politics and for criticizing another person’s religious beliefs. Trump suggested that if the Vatican was attacked by ISIS the pope would need Trump in the White House to save him.
On the surface, attacking the pope would seem to be a poor political move as well as unseemly. But, of course, Trump knew that many of South Carolina’s mainly Evangelical and Pentecostal Republicans distinguish between Catholics and Christians and would likely resent the head of the Catholic church referring to a Protestant as “unChristian.”
So, while the news media and commentators were transfixed by another apparently reckless Trump statement, Trump knew he was on safe terrain. As has been the case so often in this campaign, Trump generated hundreds of millions of dollars in free coverage and eclipsed his opponents while the media focused on the exciting saga of the Donald versus the Pope.