Showman vs Mad Monk

This may be the most illuminating description of Donald Trump as we enter the earnest phase of the presidential campaign.  I think I’ll be much more generous than Schwartz in summing up Trump: a shallow (probably vastly shallower) version of Teddy Roosevelt.

The similarities are quite staggering. Both were born to privilege in New York City and suffered persistently from “manhood” issues, the sense that they had to brsshly take actions that proclaimed their machismo.  The latter, combined their natural charisma and staggering talent for reading what their audiences wanted, turned them both into preternaturally capable, even if crass and insufferable, showmen.  They exulted in publicity, attention, backslapping, and bad mouthing, but also found means to turn them into substantive assets.

The similarity ends when the substances are to be compared.  Roosevelt was a genuine intellectual, a gifted historian and an excellent biologist, who could easily have been a full time scholar in humanities or sciences had the course suited his temperament.  On the other hand, Trump is no intellectual.  I don’t think Trump is as foolish or unlearned he is thought to be.  He is doubtlessly a quite clever businessman and, even as he put up his crass act, his instincts have shown themselves more than once.  He has rather more sensible ideas about foreign policy than grandiose plans to keep intervening into and reshaping the world to suit some fanciful theories.  But it seems quite evident that Trump also does not do careful long term thinking or planning.  He takes on big risks and relies on his cleverness to gain advantages for the short to medium term, without regard for long run.

I am not sure if Trump’sweaknesses are necessarily fatal compared to most contemporary politicians: vast majority of the politicians, after all, are increasingly showmen rather than statesmen and, quite frankly, are no better at statesmanship than Trump, while also being incomparably worse showmen.  Still, that is not a tough competition to beat.

In a sense, Hillary Clinton is exactly the opposite of Trump.  She is the embodiment of the conventional wisdom, who can articulate what “the important people” think should be “the right answer” with an irresistible force, if dripping in condescension.  She is also obsessed with secrecy, paranoid about loyalty, and fixated on control.  In other words, she does not enjoy surprising others or being surprised herself.  This comports with the revealing Pew survey question I pointed to earlier: Trump is the high variance candidate and Clinton the low.  Trump is both a gambler, in his own actions, and a gamble, for the voters.  He might indeed pull off something unexpectedly impressive, but equally likely (actually, probably much more likely) he will be a total and complete screwup.  Clinton offers the continuation of the status quo, which may not be terrible, but highly unsatisfactory to most people, combined with all the PR savvy and political style of Richard Nixon or a Rasputin.

In a sense, this is the most amazing election ever, in terms of the sharply contrasting differences each offers, even if what exactly these differences are cannot be readily measured in terms of conventional metrics. What is interesting, knowing the choices, is the remarkable continuity and predictability in national polls:. Trump has always stayed in low 40’s, with his support firmly entrenched among the subset of the white working class who apparently see him as a worthwhile gamble (exactly the opposite of their attitude towards normal Republicans) while frightening away the usual Republicans, affluent and educated whites, especially women.  Clinton’s numbers have been fluctuating much more, depending on how the “usual” Republicans might vote (or not): with a large enough chunk of Republican women crossing the party line, we may be seeing a Clinton landslide in process of formation; without them, the race is relatively tight–which I think is the more likely outcome, for now.

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