I was watching President Trump speak at a rally and I suddenly realized why his performance seemed so familiar, even though his speaking style is unlike any other politician’s.
Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservatives, moderates, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.
What is shtick?
Among comedy performers, “shtick” is a Yiddish word that basically describes a comedian’s signature style, the collection of topics and delivery that sets that performer apart. It often uses catchphrases or other identifying characteristics that make it unique and easily identifiable as belonging to that performer. Every comedian is, or ought to be, making a point, and shtick is what brings the performance together to make that point.
Think of Robin Williams doing his manic collection of impressions of odd characters.
Rodney Dangerfield spitting out one-liners about “I don’t get no respect.”
Jerry Seinfeld complaining mildly, but revealingly, about the annoying little things we all do and the way we describe them.
George Carlin shifting cadences and inflections to dive deeply into how we use words to reveal — and hide — what we really mean.
Every one of those performers has a shtick. The bits that make up that shtick are really good, but what keeps it all together — and what attracts and maintains the audience — is how it all adds up to that performer’s shtick.
Shtick wears thin unless you update it regularly. But that’s ringing the changes on the theme, not reinventing that theme completely. You can’t go from Hollywood impressions to gender satire, or from silly puns to mime — not without losing and having to rebuild your audience, that is.
What is Trump’s shtick?
Trump loves to be in front of an audience. But he doesn’t give speeches. He gives performances.
His shtick is mostly about making fun of other people.
That’s why everyone and everything has a nickname: Sleepy Joe, Phony Kamala, Mini Mike Bloomberg, Crooked Hillary, Shifty Shiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer. China Virus, 13 Angry Democrats, “The Squad” (AOC plus 3), Jeff Bozo, Fake News, MSDNC, Failing New York Times, Big Beautiful Wall, and the Witch Hunt (Impeachment).
This is not just meanness. It is how Trump communicates with his audience. In front of a crowd, if he mentions “Crooked Hillary,” he waits. The crowd inevitably responds with “Lock her up!” When he mentions the big beautiful wall, they cheer. When he tells Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” in an interview that she is part of the fake news, the audience is not visibly there, but he knows they are listening.
As with any performer, the followers and the performer are symbiotic. The audience gives the performer power, legitimacy, and a nice ego boost. The performer gives the audience laughs, feelings of being part of an “in-group,” and justification for their beliefs.
It’s not just nicknames. Trump’s shtick is far more developed than that. It’s gang members coming in at the border. It’s snowflake Democrats that want to give everything away and raise taxes. It’s being proud of being white, and supporting police, and “law and order.” It’s also rallying people around Trump’s actual accomplishments, like conservative judges and a tax cut.
But the shtick is not really about promises. Those are for ordinary politicians. The Trump promises are vague — a great economy, more jobs, protect the suburbs, get rid of handouts, a beautiful “health care plan” — but there’s no real plan to get there. There doesn’t have to be. It’s shtick. George Carlin wanted you to laugh at the world’s absurdity, not vote. Jerry Seinfeld wants you go “hmm,” not actually fix the things he complains about. Trump just wants you to reelect him and hope things work out for the best. That’s your role in the shtick.
This is truly unlike any other politician I’ve ever seen. Sure, all politicians have shtick. Obama was “Hope and Change.” McCain was “Country first” and being a Vietnam war hero. Bill Clinton was “I feel your pain.” And they had their own quirks of delivery: George W. Bush’s folky malapropism-laden midwestern ramble, Obama’s clipped and chiseled phrases, John F. Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric in a heavy Boston accent.
But nobody had shtick refined to the level that Trump does. Nobody else has that level of connection with the audience. Nobody works it quite as hard or refines it quite as well as Trump does.
Biden has weak shtick. “Here’s the deal” is his shtick. The rest is responsible policy papers and leftover feelings from Obama. He is trying to reach a broad audience, which requires more empathy than shtick.
This is part of the reason that it is so effective for Alec Baldwin to lampoon Trump’s delivery — because we recognize it, and because it’s delivered in short bursts. You recognize the shtick immediately. It doesn’t work so well on Biden, because Biden’s style and content, being diverse, aren’t as easily characterized.
Shtick, truth, and governing
Imagine for a moment that the most important thing you are doing is performing — and that you are president.
Governing would get in the way.
Part of the reason for the massive amount of turnover in the Trump administration is that governing doesn’t interest Trump. Governing is hard work requiring data and compromise. That gets in the way of the shtick.
The other problem is reality. Reality really crushes shtick. When your shtick is that you have created an amazing economy, and the reality is record levels of unemployment, reality is getting in the way. When your shtick is that you’ve triumphed over the virus and it’s vanquished, rising cases undermine that. When your shtick is that you built a border wall and Mexico is paying for it, the failure to build much wall or get Mexico to pay gets in the way.
Trump solves this problem simply — he just ignores the problems, repeats the lies and distortions, and lives in a reality where his shtick can continue on the way he likes it. And the audience eats it up. They don’t want fact checks. They want applause lines.
Here’s a graphic the New York Times did of the words in a Trump rally, where the lies and distortions are shown in red. They want you to notice the number of lies. But I’m telling you, the red is shtick. It can’t really change to be more truthful, because then it wouldn’t be giving the audience what it craves.
Why this matters . . . and what happens next
Other politicians use shtick, to the extent that they have it, to get into a position to govern and accomplish their goals. That’s why they are not that good at it. They concentrate on shtick as a means to an end. Not only that, when conditions change or they are challenged or they need to compromise, that often undermines their shtick. (George H.W. Bush’s shtick was “Read my lips, no new taxes.” When reality required him to raise taxes, his shtick was dead — and soon after, he wasn’t reelected.)
Trump uses government to get to do shtick. Government is the means and shtick is the end. Oh sure, there are plenty of cool perks, like big parties, making Democrats upset, and telling generals to bomb things. But the real fun is in doing the shtick. It’s why Trump kept doing rallies even in the first two years after he was elected. It’s why he calls into Fox News and noodles with the conservative hosts. It’s why he talks about his accomplishments and himself. It’s all shtick, and it’s fun.
If Trump loses the election, this gives us a clue as to what will happen next. He won’t admit he lost, because that would interfere with the shtick. He’ll thunder and deny on the way out the door. He’ll keep holding rallies, because that’s where the fun is. And he’ll become the biggest act in American history. He’ll make more money than Seinfeld, and be bigger than Sinatra. He’ll use that money to stave off his creditors and brand more and bigger properties and pay lawyers to get him off the hook in the prosecution that’s coming. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. And Joe Biden will be stuck with the workaday effort of actually governing and undoing what Trump’s lack of attention and unbound henchmen have left behind.
The real question in my mind is what happens to the remains of the Republican party. Ex-presidents are supposed to lay low — look at George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Obama only got lured into the fray in the last few months. But Trump will never lay low, because he needs to perform.
It won’t be sustainable for Republicans to get behind an ex-president who’s making a living as a highly visible performer. But all that noise will get in the way of whatever they try to do next. The Mike Pences, Marco Rubios, and Ted Cruzes of the world will have a harder than normal time differentiating themselves from the world Trump left behind. And they can’t compete on shtick, because Trump is miles ahead on that front.
I have no idea what they will do. But I’m pretty certain what Trump will. He’s not going away folks, regardless of whether he wins or not.