It is now commonplace to say that Donald Trump is breaking and confounding all the rules of political behavior. He does everything you're not supposed to do -- disparage war heroes, demean minorities, insult women, ridicule opponents, yell at reporters, flaunt your wealth -- and yet each "no-no" he raucously performs serves only to increase his popularity and drive up his ratings.
This amazing ability to turn what would be a liability for any other candidate into a strength extends to Trump's style of speaking. A good political speech is supposed to make policy points in a way that is easy to follow; examples should be apt; the line of argument should be clear and crisp; the effect should be cumulative, building up to a strong and earned conclusion. You want to give the impression of being fully in control -- you don't want it to look like you're pulling things out of a grab bag on the spur of the moment, and you don't want to seem to be saying whatever happens to come into your head.
But that is exactly what Trump appears to be doing when he gives a speech. There are no formal preambles; he just jumps in with a topic that he then abandons within seconds. He never quite manages to make a point because on the way to it something else has occurred to him. He offers asides (often jibes at his rivals) that become the main path, but only until another aside diverts the path again. He interrupts himself to say something about his hair, or his hotels, or his apartment houses. He tells you that he went to the Wharton School. He reads from the polls. He recalls conversations with friends. He beats up on the press. And he does all these things in no particular order and with an apparent unconcern with either the coherence or relevance of what he's saying.
This hodgepodge of anecdote, innuendo, braggadocio, self-promotion and bombast has led one political observer (Jack Shafer) to proclaim that "Donald Trump talks like a third-grader." No, Donald Trump talks like Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the smartest men who ever lived.
In his "Essays" Montaigne practiced what was regarded by many as a new way of writing. Reacting against the tradition in which writing is composed in a highly structured manner (marked by rolling oratorical sentences and intricate patterns of sound and syntax), Montaigne announces that, "I write naturally and without a plan; the first strike of the pen just leads to a second," and then to a third and then to a fourth. His prose, he says, is "the "minute to minute" unfolding of "changeable" and sometimes "contradictory" notions.
Sound familiar? The idea is to enter into a relationship of fellowship, not mastery, with your audience. You're not a superior intelligence leading your auditors by the nose; you're testifying to a shared experience; you're telling it like it is just as you see it. "I don't use teleprompters," Trump tells his audiences. "I speak from the heart."
A statement like this suggests that the essayistic style -- the style that breathes spontaneity -- is artless as opposed to the obvious artfulness of the oratorical style. But there is art on both sides of the divide, and either style can be the vehicle of points forcefully made. In the oratorical style the force comes from the accelerated pace of an unfolding design. In the essayistic style the force comes from circling back to the same themes over and over again in an apparently haphazard manner. In the oratorical style, it is important not to introduce extraneous matters. In the essayistic style, nothing is extraneous because there is no formal center; consequently there is always space to glance in multiple directions. You can do a lot of things at the same time.
Listen, for example, to Trump as he performs one of his favorite riffs. He begins by making some remark apparently critical of the Mexicans and the Chinese. Then he says, I love the Mexican and Chinese people, and they love me, especially the rich ones who buy my apartments or stay at my hotels or play on my golf courses. Notice what has happened. The potentially offensive insult turns into backhand praise of its targets, at least of those who can afford to live in Trump's world.
Even those I criticize, he is saying, want to be like me. Then he returns to the attack, but in a way that bestows a compliment. It's their leaders, he says, inviting you to think that he is going to say something bad about them; but what he says is that they are smarter and stronger than our leaders. They're beating us, he declares -- a sentiment made up equally of complaint and admiration. The implication of course is that they wouldn't be beating us if he were our leader: If I can sell them condominiums, rent space to them in my buildings at my price, and outfox them in deals, I could certainly outmaneuver them when it came to trade negotiations, treaties and immigration policy.
So we have in rapid succession a naming of the Mexican and Chinese as our adversaries (in a bolder fashion than any of his rival candidates), a reminder of just how successful Donald Trump has been, the pulling of the sting from his criticism of other races (they're really alright if you show them strength and savvy), and a boast (they're beating us now, but they won't be when I get in) that doesn't even have to be uttered. And then it's off to the races for more of the same.
On another occasion Trump replies to reports that sponsors and businesses are dropping him. Yes, they are, he acknowledges; but the joke is on them. ESPN reneges on an agreement to rent one of his golf courses. Fine; he takes the deposit and then rents it to someone else for more money. NASCAR defaults on the rental of a banquet hall. Again, he pockets the deposit and makes a better deal with someone else. Macy's drops his line of ties, and he says it's no big deal and they are made in China anyway (another drive-away hit at the Chinese); when the news gets out, he crows, thousands of people cut up their Macy's credit cards. Trump wins again.
Trump always wins, and the message (again not explicitly stated) is that he will win the nomination, win the presidency and win every battle he fights in the effort to make America great again. All the little anecdotes, all the references to his vast commercial empire, all the put-downs of Obama, Clinton, Bush, Walker, Rubio, Graham ("he's lower in the polls than Pataki") return in a feedback loop to the one big message: I am Donald Trump, I'm not those other guys, I don't owe anyone anything, I'm not pandering to you, I'm not blowing smoke, I'm not lording it over you, I am you or what you would like to be if you were as rich and dominant as I am; if you want wonky policy details and ten-point plans, go somewhere else; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.
Trump is often called "crazy," but there is method to his madness, and that method is matched and displayed by the speaking style he employs on the stump. Even his detractors see that a large part of his appeal is that he comes across as unscripted. What better form to clothe (and extend) that appeal than a form of presentation that has the feeling of being as unscripted as he is?