The Skeleton Key to Understanding Donald Trump on Education...and Everything Else

It is both comedy and tragedy to try and grasp Donald Trump's political position on anything, much less on a policy position such as education that is not even listed on his campaign website. As Max Abelson writes in Bloomberg Business, this is a "post-politics" campaign of reinvention.

But I want to suggest that the skeleton key to all of Trump's policy positions is grounded in a very simple realization: Trump is not just a candidate with political positions; Trump is the political position.

In other words, it is irrelevant where Trump stands on specific issues, whether it is education, foreign policy, or health care. Education policy wonks may thus scrutinize Trump's stated stances on issues such as the Common Core (he's seemingly against it) or school choice (he's seemingly for it). They may salivate as they wait for his campaign to post his positions. But it is in vain.

Trump is not running on behalf of a political party. Or an ideology. Or governing principles. Trump is running as the answer. To everything. Trump's slogan of "Make America Great Again" thus makes perfect sense because Trump sees himself as great, and if he's great he can make America great.

This is a self-created and self-referential loop about himself. To be clear, Trump's candidacy is not about his brand or his ratings. Yes, his ratings and his brand will go up as he campaigns; but what this really does is add legitimacy to his claim of greatness; which, in turn, will make his ratings and his brand go up again; ad infinitum. This is what makes this self-referential loop so elegantly powerful.

Traditionally this is known as signaling theory. Animals display certain colors or have certain attributes to signal certain things, such as their sexual prowess to a potential mate or their level of toxicity to enemies who may want to eat them. Usually the mate is attracted and the enemy repelled, and all is good. And, sometimes, as we know, some animals are dishonest in their signaling by mimicking certain colors or characteristics without having such prowess or level of toxicity. This is what we would usually call bluffing. Sometimes they get away with it. Sometimes they don't.

Trump doesn't just get away with it. Trump has created a perfect house of mirrors by linking bluff and truth, perception and reality. True self-invention.

And it is in his educational background where this becomes picture-perfect clear. If Trump is ever quoted about education, it is his comment in The Art of the Deal that "Perhaps the most important thing I learned at [University of Pennsylvania's] Wharton [School of Finance] was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials." The implication is that, as Trump has said again and again, he's really smart.

But the real essence of Trump's worldview comes a sentence later: "The other important thing I got from Wharton was a Wharton degree. In my opinion, that degree doesn't prove very much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously, and it's considered very prestigious."

This is signally theory run amok in a house of mirrors. It is pure perception that creates its own reality. It is what the sociologist Randall Collins termed the "credential society" almost forty years ago: where the image overwhelmed and replaced the reality and, in turn, created ever more distance between the haves and the have nots.

It is thus no coincidence that Trump brings up Wharton every chance he gets. Or that his "Trump University" had to change its name after being sued by New York State for fraud. Or that three of his five kids have gone to the University of Pennsylvania. The bluff creates the reality that sustains the bluff.

But it is all, to be clear, bluff. It is Trump being himself. Which may be all well and good for "The Donald."

But it's not education policy.