Forget misogyny, racism or the economy: an ancient craft is what decided this election.
In the midst of all the “how could they?” angst-fest is a crucial component of the Trump persona that is rarely discussed: his authenticity, by which I mean the unvarnished, direct, unmediated conversational connection he so easily projects. That was the quality that had me call him the winner of the first debate (the only one I watched end-to-end). Everyone at the time told me I was wrong and that Clinton had won. It was obvious she hadn’t.
Listen to a Trump speech or meeting. Ignore the crowds and the context. Focus on Trump’s delivery. Listen to the beautifully lilting New York twang filled with non-sequiturs, growls, “bigs” and “beautifuls” and “folks” and endless repetitions. Listen to his bountiful lies, and how skilfully they are deployed. Compare that to Clinton’s stilted, wooden delivery of technocratic language.
In an election in which every sign pointed to a voter rebellion against established candidates, to a yearning for the unvarnished (see Bernie), Trump’s direct, conversational, open and vulgar delivery hit home in a spectacular way. That is why his lack of a conventional campaign, ground game or party support was irrelevant to his approach: he had that direct connection to the masses. It was clear from the primaries that Clinton was struggling in that race.
This authenticity is why so many people felt a connection to Trump. That is why more African-Americans and Hispanics voted for him than for Romney in 2012. Trump bonded with them through language, using his authenticity not just to buy a free pass for his lies, but to deploy his lies in the service of his authenticity.
Interview after interview with Trump voters show that they knew he was lying, but understood those lies to mere linguistic signals, not to be taken too seriously. Every outraged media piece howling “lies! lies! lies!” merely reinforced the feeling that unlike Trump, those overeducated metropolitans just didn’t get it.
The democratic nobility, the Clinton campaign, the media, the coastal elites; yes, even all those Republicans who gravely opined that Trump was a threat to the republic (which, to be clear, he is) – none picked up on this essential trait. None.
How could they? Universities stopped teaching rhetoric as a core subject centuries ago. Paradoxically, it is Trump the impatient, the boor and the ignorant who studied that art and mastered it, during his years as an apprentice rhetoretician on The Apprentice. He used a neglected craft to brilliant effect.
Bernie also had this ineffable whiff of authenticity, as did Biden. While Bernie’s was wrapped in the linguistic equivalent of a patched-up old coat, Biden was a skilled rhetoretician, too. Either could, I think, have beaten Trump at that game, as their much longer history of selfless service – and lack of scandal – would have resonated widely.
Note that I am not commenting on all the other factors that aided Trump, from the explosive growth of the alt-right to the decadal war on truth and on the Clintons Republicans have waged. These issues clearly helped him win, too. But they were not central to his success. Authenticity was.