There are many advantages to living in Sarasota—great weather, world famous quartz-sand beaches, a vibrant cultural community, and no state taxes. But one significant advantage that few realize is that living in Florida forces you to think about weird things and accept them as normal: wacky weather, swamp land giveaways, invasive species, tropical creatures that appear in your garage, odd laws, criminals who are dumber than a stump, a wild west gun culture, and a flow of news items that make the jaw drop (remember the hanging “chads” of election 2000?)
So what better way to apply our skills in making sense of the inexplicable than to use them to try to explain the presidential nomination of Donald Trump.
Members of the media and political pundits have struggled to explain how Trump has been so successful doing things that would have disqualified any other candidate from serious contention. These breaches of decorum include insulting people (and refusing to apologize), fabrication of facts (i.e., lies), changes in positions almost at will, demonstration of a disturbing ignorance of important political issues, taking positions directly contrary to traditional Republican positions, contradicting himself, and ignoring his own political advisors. Even more recently, he has suggested that his opponent Hillary Clinton might only be stopped by Second Amendment enthusiasts (an invitation to assassination?!?)
How can voters make sense of this? How do we evaluate Trump?
In a series of five essays to follow I will attempt to explain why Trump has been as successful as he has been. (Hint: it has to do with a paradigm shift). But, for now let me provide some reasons why the criteria normally used to evaluate candidates fail when applied to Trump and what you can do about it.
Issues. Trump makes things up all the time, so much so that the media is exhausted trying to continually point out that what he says is not true. In many ways it’s a clever strategy because the media report the statements and if you are only half-listening it is easy to only hear Trump’s statement and pay little or no attention to the fact that it is not true. Furthermore, Trump has developed a strategy for dealing with media critics—he is the victim of the “liberal media” who are out to get him by making him appear to be ignorant about the issues. Clever. So in essence, Trump tells his supporters: don’t evaluate me on the basis of the issues. Take his advice, don’t.
Party Identification. Around 2/3rds of the voters identify fairly strongly with a political party. They use this identification to help them make decisions. It’s no wonder that Republicans tend to vote for Republicans and Democrats tend to vote for Democrats. This process isn’t as irrational as you might think. People usually have pretty good reasons for identifying with a particular party and the candidates of that party usually adhere to the traditional policies embraced by their parties.
In securing the nomination of his party Trump made a special point of running against the party establishment. While doing so he articulated a number of positions that actually ran counter to traditional Republican positions. While it is difficult to trust any positions he has taken given that he changes them so frequently, it would make it very problematic to use party ID as a reliable indicator to predict his behavior if elected. In the Age of Trump using party ID as a criterion for voting is not a good idea.
Trusted Friends. Usually trusted friends are a reliable short-cut to help make a voting decision. Rather than following what at times is a disgusting campaign you can find some friends who enjoys being a political junkies and let them do that for you. Then pump them for information just before election time.
But something strange is happening in 2016. While politics always engenders emotions, this year there seems to be a substantially greater amount of emotional intensity. A little bit of emotion in politics can actually be beneficial as it engages people in the political process, but the intensity of the emotion in the 2016 presidential contest threatens to overwhelm logical thought. Thus, I recommend not talking to friends who begin to foam at the mouth when Trump’s name pops up. In talking about Trump friends can’t be trusted.
What does that leave us with when trying to evaluate Trump?
OK, just kidding…
Character. One of the few political scientists who wrote a best-selling book (Presidential Character by James David Barber) claims that the most important factor to determine what a president will do once in office is his/her “character.” All other considerations should take a back seat to this critically important factor. What’s more, according to Barber the media provides us with enough information about the candidates to make relatively informed decisions about this.
While I am a bit uncomfortable relying so heavily on character when looking at presidential candidates, I’m afraid that in this election we are left with little else that can be considered reliable information about Trump. So, to assess candidate Trump I recommend you look at how he has managed things in the past, how he goes about collecting information to make decisions, and what is his world view of causation. In addition, what has been his pattern in life as far as being active or passive, whether he enjoys the give-and-take of politics or instead views serving as a duty or political differences as personal assaults. Finally, what is his relationship with people: does he like people; does he surround himself with different types of people to get different viewpoints, does he empathize with people, etc?
In short, we know Trump is a character, but does he have the character of a President.