Michael Kinsley has said that the definition of a gaffe is when a politician tells "some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say." But in the upside-down world of the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump has brought us back to the original meaning of the term as a reputation-killing mistake, before those days when air-brushed, focus-grouped candidates became too careful to say anything crazy or offensive. Crazy and offensive is a core factor in the Trump campaign; it's almost his brand. The contrast between no-impulse control, oh-no-he-didn't Trump and his extra-credit homework-turned-in-early, ultra-scripted opponent makes it even more outrageous; Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton is like an extreme sports version of Gilderoy Lockhart vs. Hermione Granger, Kanye vs. Taylor, id vs. superego.
Unfortunately, it is also a distraction from the far more significant questions about his candidacy and the kind of President he might be. It is important to understand why Trump talks this way, and even more important to understand why both fans and #NeverTrumpers respond the way we do.
Why Donald Trump talks this way:
1. As he constantly reminds us, Trump is a deal guy. His loose and grandiose speech patterns have worked very well for him in that context, where ambiguity gives him an advantage in negotiations. He can always say that he was misunderstood when he delivers less than what he appeared to promise. Or when he does not deliver at all. Watch how often that "I was misunderstood" excuse comes up in the campaign.
2. Donald Trump's crude, Borscht belt-shticky, belligerently eye-rolling idea of "humor" also gives rise to a lot of "I was misunderstood" excuses, too. Rich guys who run big companies are constantly surrounded by people who pretend to find the boss' jokes hilarious. And Trump is not that one CEO out of a thousand who insists on honest feedback. So for decades, people have been laughing at his jokes and he genuinely has no clue that only people on his payroll might find it hilarious when he asks Russia to hack Hillary Clinton or urges "2nd Amendment people" to shoot her.
3. Insult is not argument. It does not illuminate the problem or reach toward common ground. Blaming the victim does not solve anything. But Trump likes to rely on the stage magician's most important tool: misdirection. When voters and the press get caught up in his outrage of the day, they are distracted from the more complex and significant issues like the details (when there are any) of his policies, the legitimacy of his claims of success as a businessman, and the reasons for his refusal to make the most basic financial disclosures. Remember the Wizard of Oz saying, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?" Trump's off-script, headline-grabbing four-Pinocchio comments are his way of saying, "Pay no attention to the lack of research/consistency/substance/accuracy behind my views."
Instead of his ignorant and dangerous views on NATO, the use of nuclear weapons, outsourcing domestic and international policy to the vice president, and initiatives that violate the 1st Amendment, we focus on what dumb thing he said today and what everyone has to say about it.
4. Like "the great communicator," Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump bypasses the Washington establishment, the policy wonks and media commentators who are all about caution, detail, and nuance, and being respectful and inclusive. By using strong, direct words, Trump simulates authority and courage. His lowest common denominator vocabulary is an accessibility dog whistle to those who have felt condescended to or talked over. Some people who believe that they have lost something -- economic stability, a sense of confidence in better opportunities -- read anger as strength and complexity as weakness. And Trump coalesces and inflames their sense of victimhood by telling them it is not their fault. He tells them it is okay to blame everyone else. That may be reassuring and validating, but it is also deceptive and pandering. And it does not bring us any closer to a solution.
5. His constant bragging -- everything about him is the best, the most, the most gold-plated, the most tremendous, the winning-est -- sounds like Charlie Sheen's manic "tiger blood" rant. It is the salesman's language of ABC: always be closing. He can worry about whether he will deliver after he has cashed the check. That may work in business, though if we get those tax returns and unseal some of the litigation records from the over 3000 suits filed against him we will find out whether it was as successful as he claims. But governing is different. Words and promises matter and the stakes are as high as they get.
Trump's best-selling book is called The Art of the Deal. It should have been called The Art is the Deal because for him the excitement and satisfaction comes from negotiating the terms in a manner that makes him feel that he got away with something; not in the operation and execution that create goods, services, jobs, and communities. This is why most of his revenues come from licensing his name for everything from suits to steaks rather than creating and running businesses.
6. Trump's philosophy: Never explain. Never apologize. Even when he is proven to be factually wrong, patently offensive, or just plain cray-cray, Trump understands that it is impossible to apologize without sounding weak and prevaricating. So he does not.
What it says about us:
While some party stalwarts cannot get away fast enough from the chaos and mayhem of the Trump campaign, for some voters, campaign by tweet and hashtag matches the ADD spirit of our era, impatience, frustration, and a combined skepticism and overload of media/mediated reporting. #Sad.
Trump and Bernie Sanders did not agree on much, but both succeeded by identifying as outsiders and promising not to take money from Wall Street, billionaires, and big corporations (Trump has since reversed that position). The big divide Trump's candidacy reveals is not between conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats or those on opposite sides of debates on guns, immigration, climate change, or abortion. It is between those who believe in the system, as imperfect as it is, because it is based on shared notions of fairness, cooperation, and empiricism, and those who believe the system is irrevocably skewed against them. Those voters do not like Trump in spite of his gaffes. They find him refreshingly authentic and they like him because of them.