A trusted correspondent objected to my characterization of Donald Trump as an idiot. He’s right; I was wrong. Trump didn’t succeed by being stupid. Not only that, his blowhard gambit has been remarkably effective at shifting the debate.
Donald Trump continues to make bunches of patently inaccurate statements. But in yesterday’s post, I forgot the first rule of analysis, which is to ask why people do things. If you evaluate the possible reasons that Trump is doing what he’s doing, you begin to see a strategy emerge. I’ll list some possible reasons, which are not mutually exclusive, and estimate the likelihood for each.
He believes that he can make up facts and still have a chance to be the nominee. Statements need not be true to be popular. Memes on Facebook prove that. But neither America nor the Republican Party are ready to nominate someone who continually makes stuff up. Likelihood: Low.
He wants to boost his future as a talk show host and book author. Many of the candidates who fail this time around will pursue this “Huckabee route.” But Trump doesn’t need the money from a book or personal appearances. He could bankroll his own talk show if he felt like it. Likelihood: Low.
He likes to hear the sound of his own voice and he relishes the coverage. This is a man who likes like play with the media. He actually seems to relish the criticism, which spurs him to continue in this vein. While this rings true, I don’t think it’s the only reason. Likelihood: High.
He is trying to get the other candidates to speak more boldly. Let’s try this narrative on. Trump is frustrated with the hedging and pusillanimity of the rest of the Republican field. He is trying to show, by example, that you can make a powerful statement and win adherents. He’s prodding them to be more courageous. There’s no way to prove this, but I find it plausible. Likelihood: Moderate.
He wants the Republican party to address his points on the issues. Trump thinks immigration is a problem and he’s not interested in compromises. He thinks our foreign policy in the Middle East is ineffective. And he thinks we treat veterans poorly. Now the rest of the field must respond to his statements and take a stand. He has shifted the debate. If this is his plan, it’s effective. Likelihood: High.
He wants to drag the candidates in his direction. The rest of the candidates are far more interested than Trump is in polls and financial backing. As they see how popular his positions are, they may take up those positions or at least move in that direction. This shifts the field and helps Trump to accomplish a goal of changing policies. Likelihood: High.
Put this all together and the picture become clearer. As a presidential candidate, Trump is not credible. But his performance has changed the style, the debate, and the positions of the other candidates. Call it the blowhard gambit. And it’s working.
Photo: John Locher/AP.