Of the many expectations President Trump has blown to smithereens, perhaps the most basic is that a candidate has to be someone they’re not in order to win over voters. Don a mask of politesse, flash endless forced smiles, go fishing, dance awkwardly on “Ellen,” eat a corn dog at a state fair and pray that it all translates to “relatability” and its even more valuable cousin, “likability.”
The ruling class — they’re just like us! Except they’re not.
As a candidate and as president, Mr. Trump never had to craft a public persona in order to “humanize” himself. Having been a prominent figure for decades, he had no need for public reintroduction. And having been a successful businessman, he doesn’t have the time or patience for a personality masquerade.
Mr. Trump’s authenticity is self-evident. He talks like a guy from Queens — because he’s a guy from Queens. He eats fast food — because he loves fast food. He calls it like he sees it — because why waste time with elaborate word games? He fires people — because he thinks someone else can do the job better. He uses social media — because he wants to speak directly to the American people. He speaks honestly about the nation’s problems — because he’s impatient to find solutions. He never claimed to be a saint — because he’s not one.
There wasn’t a need to “humanize” Mr. Trump — because as a non-politician, he was already considered “one of us.” He simply asked voters to take him as he is and trust him to “make America great again.” And they did.
His opponents attack him for being dishonest, but he is about as straightforward a political figure as we’ve ever had. They project onto him their own deficiencies and fakery. They pose as champions of virtue, tolerance and compassion but engage in deceit, intolerance and viciousness.
As the 2020 election cycle gets underway, we’re already seeing candidates who have clearly learned nothing from Mr. Trump’s authenticity model. Granted, he’s a unique figure, with the fearlessness of a true outsider. Those from the professional political class don’t possess that kind of courage. But it’s astonishing to see the first ones out of the gate immediately reach for laughable contrivance.
On the heels of her disastrous Native American DNA “reveal,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced a presidential exploratory committee, accompanied by an Instagram livestream in which the learned Harvard professor said, “Hold on a sec — I’m gonna get me a beer.” She then thanked her husband “for being here,” by which she meant in the kitchen of his own house. She posted other clips of her schlepping on an Amtrak train and strolling her ‘hood. Just Lizzie from the Boston block.
For her announcement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made the now-de rigueur trip to “The Late Show,” where Stephen Colbert had to rescue her from an interminable deer-in-the-headlights pause. Up next: Kirsten makes frittatas with Rachael Ray.
Sen. Cory Booker announced his run from a gritty Newark neighborhood which screamed “street cred.” No word if his imaginary drug dealer friend “T-Bone” was on hand.
Sen. Kamala Harris has had the most successful launch so far, which she then muddied by casually endorsing the total elimination of private health insurance as part of a radical “Medicare-for-all” plan. After biting criticism, she backtracked, only to backtrack from the backtrack. She began the week looking like the first viable black female presidential candidate and ended it looking like a garden-variety pol.
Of course, recent history is littered with politicians who’ve engaged in stunts to better connect with ordinary folk: Richard Nixon exclaiming “Sock it to me!” on “Laugh-In”; Michael Dukakis riding a tank in the combat zone of Michigan; George H.W. Bush’s professed love of beef jerky; Bill Clinton answering the boxers-or-briefs question on MTV; a camouflage-jacketed John Kerry asking a rural store owner “Can I get me a hunting license here?”; Barack Obama dropping in on Ben’s Chili Bowl; Mitt Romney’s carefully disheveled hair; Hillary Clinton proclaiming “I ain’t no ways tired” in a black church; just about every presidential candidate’s hedging on issues was based on what they thought a particular audience wanted to hear.
None of this really works anymore, because Mr. Trump has crushed the expectation of political falsity. He has conditioned voters to want their political appeals straight-up, no chaser. This is why true-believing socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have resonance.
When politicians pander now, it’s no longer just cringe-worthy. It’s seen as desperate, pathetic and worse, passe.
Mr. Trump has changed the game. Contrived opportunism is out. Raw authenticity is in. And all of his potential challengers are still trying to figure out how to fake that.
• Monica Crowley is a columnist for The Washington Times.
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