Trump is not just the figurehead of his own campaign -- his personality is the campaign
So far, Trump's unique, personal and unconventional campaign style has worked
It’s all about Donald Trump.
From his condemnation of journalists to his racially tinged attacks on a judge presiding over a lawsuit related to Trump University to his feud with New Mexico GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, there’s one thing in common about the mounting Trump controversies: The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is aiming to make the entire 2016 campaign about himself.
American politics is littered with larger-than-life personalities. But no presidential candidate in living memory has built a campaign so exclusively on the foundation of his own personal, brand, self-congratulatory rhetoric and life story as Trump. And don’t expect anything different if he makes it to the White House.
“You think I’m going to change?” he told reporters at a press conference this week. “I’m not going to change.”
Trump has prospered by being the loudest, most unapologetic salesman of self in politics that most seasoned observers have ever seen. He is not just the figurehead of his own campaign – his personality is the campaign, as evidenced by stump speeches, press conferences and endless television and radio interviews that add up to an unstoppable torrent of self-promotion.
“The Trump campaign is not about any cause, it is all about Trump,” said Peter Wehner, who has watched candidates and presidents up close as an aide in the last three Republican administrations. “His campaign is all about him. How he treats other people is all about him – whether one is praised and patted on the head or cruelly mocked depends on what you have said about him.”
Trump’s self-aggrandizement has become a dominant theme of the presidential campaign.
The billionaire boasts about his wealth, his portfolio of gleaming buildings and golf resorts, soaring poll numbers, the size of his crowds, his “crazy” television ratings, how Mexicans will love him, how his book is an all time best-seller and how his 757 jet is superior to Air Force One.
It’s an ego-driven strategy that would doom most politicians.
But, so far, Trump’s unique, personal and unconventional campaign style has worked. He’s dispatched his rivals in a bloated Republican field and is now locked in a tight general election duel with Hillary Clinton. His style could even help him win over disaffected workers who also seem themselves as victimized by the political and economic establishment.
Still, there are major questions about whether a personality-driven campaign – lacking the traditional organizational and field skills – can be successful during a complex national contest.
The Clinton campaign is working overtime to make Trump’s personal mythologizing look like a fatal flaw. The former secretary of state is mounting a two-pronged strategy that centers directly on Trump’s persona. She hopes to make a case that his volatile personality makes him unsuitable to be commander-in-chief and to use incidents from his colorful character and business career to deconstruct Trump’s carefully built self image.
“He is trying to scam America the way he scammed all those people at Trump University,” Clinton said Wednesday, referring to the growing scrutiny surrounding Trump’s namesake training programs.
Clinton will keep up the attacks Thursday during a foreign policy speech in San Diego. An aide said Clinton will use the address to “rebuke the fear, bigotry and misplaced defeatism that Trump has been selling to the American people.”
Trump’s allies dismiss the idea that his campaign style lacks the gravitas and temperament required of a President, arguing that his tirades against the press, for instance, are merely a result of unfair coverage.
‘A temperament question’
“Many of the reporters know the facts, but choose to write horrible stories about him or portray him in a negative light,” Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, adding that if Trump becomes President he will have wide public support. “So it’s not going to get to the point of a temperament question because the people will be behind Mr. Trump.”
Trump is hardly alone in getting high on himself: Self-confidence is synonymous with politics.
But presidential candidates typically take pains to mask their personal ambition in a flurry of detailed policy positions and ostentatious attempts to feel the voters’ pain.
Peter Feaver, a former aide to President George W. Bush, said Trump’s reliance on his personality is unique.
“This persona is actually one he has been honing for decades,” said Feaver, a former senior National Security Council official, noting that unlike other big personalities that took aim at the presidency, Trump lacked core ideological convictions.
“Take Ronald Reagan for instance. He clearly had a persona that was built up over decades but even more he had a governing philosophy even as he was developing a persona,” Fever said. “Trump doesn’t have that. He just has the persona.”
Feaver also notes the irony that after spending eight years lambasting President Barack Obama as a hubristic, self-obsessed figure, Republicans are about to nominate someone who takes those perceived deficiencies to extremes.
The presumptive GOP nominee is not known for introspection. But he seems to agree with critics who say the campaign is almost exclusively about himself.
“A very good musician said Trump is the greatest in the world without a guitar, meaning without an instrument. I’ve got to stand up here by myself,” Trump said in California last week, explaining his unique style of political performance art.
He want on to boast how a good friend – who was “by the way, one of the most successful people in the country, in the world” – asked him how he was able to hold such large audiences in the palm of his hand.
“I said, ‘You know, honestly, it’s not hard because there’s so much love in the room. It’s unbelievable.’”
Such comments, laced throughout Trump’s public appearances, reveal a politician apparently intoxicated with his own magnetism and brimming with self belief.
Contrasting with conventional nominees
And they contrast with the stump speeches of more conventional political nominees – which sag with policies designed to lure various constituencies of a party and cliched invocations to a higher national purpose and political unity that Trump’s speeches conspicuously lack.
His public appearances, while hitting top political points on illegal immigration, free trade and U.S. allies who he says are fleecing America, are effectively a list of his personal triumphs – that seem like the obsessions of a billionaire and have little in common with his heartland audiences.
He frequently relates the tale of his new hotel in Washington in the city’s old Post Office building which he says will come in under budget and ahead of schedule and will be “a higher-quality hotel than anybody ever saw before.” And he often recalls the media frenzy as he and his wife Melania descended the escalator at Trump tower to launch his campaign last year, saying it “looked, literally, like the Academy Awards.”
Trump’s implicit case is that his personality is so dominant, his presence alone makes the need for detailed policy proposals moot. That’s why when he vows to rescue health care for veterans, he doesn’t say how he will get it done. He promises to bring back jobs from Mexico and China – again without revealing his approach. He says he will “knock the hell out of ISIS” but doesn’t detail a credible military strategy.
Given the billionaire’s somewhat ill defined political creed and unpredictable style, no one can say for sure what his presidency would be like.
But if the campaign is anything to go by, one thing is certain: it would be all about Trump.