Two years ago, a story in The New York Times described President Obama's exasperation with the constraints of his office. "In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought," the article read. "While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."
Bulworth isn't the only movie in which a politician throws away his script, talks from the heart and tells it like it is, then finds to everyone's surprise that it's just what the voters are looking for; in fact, it's a pretty common plot line in films about politics. Strangely enough, we almost never see it enacted in real life, which might be a function of politicians' cowardice, or might be because we don't actually want a politician to tell it like it is.
Nevertheless, that's what many supporters of Donald Trump are now saying is the source of their affection for the Republican frontrunner. Unlike all those phony politicians, they say, Trump tells it like it is. Mexicans? A bunch of rapists! A journalist who asked him an uncomfortable question? Some two-bit loser! POWs? Didn't have the sense to not get captured!
It sure sounds like "telling it like it is." But is it really, or is it just being a jerk? And is that its own kind of act?
The truth is that Trump is enacting a performance no less than any of the other candidates. He's playing a character called "Donald Trump," one that he honed over decades in public life and years as the host of a reality TV show. It's similar to the way, say, Bill O'Reilly plays a character called "Bill O'Reilly" every night — it's a persona based on the real person, but it's turned up to 11 once the camera light goes on. The real difference between Trump's persona and those of the other candidates is that his is all about bluntness and bombast, to the point where offending people is a key part of the act. The politician's persona, on the other hand, is usually about not offending people.
That's because politicians have to keep convincing people to vote for them and give them money if they want their careers to continue, which breeds a default stance of friendliness and politeness. If a constituent comes up to them and says, "Tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare," they'll say, "I share your concerns about Medicare's future, and I'm going to keep fighting for it," when inside they'd probably rather say, "Look, you idiot, Medicare is the biggest government program there is! If I tried to keep government's hands off it you'd run me out of office!"
A lot of what we consider the politician's inherent phoniness is the expression of this need to be nice to so many people. There are exceptions here or there — former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was happy to tell you the question you just asked him was stupid, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) was just a mean old cur — but they're extremely rare.
What Trump figured out is that a lot of primary voters are actually attracted to jerks, so long as their jerkiness is directed toward the right people. If Trump is insulting immigrants, women, other politicians, and even the occasional Fox News host (riskier, but not necessarily bad), his supporters cheer. He's like that right-wing uncle you dread seeing at Thanksgiving, just with a national media profile — and your uncle couldn't be happier about it.
The latest of Trump's colorful statements is revealed in a new Rolling Stone article, which contains this tidbit describing him watching television with a reporter and some aides:
When the anchor throws to Carly Fiorina for her reaction to Trump's momentum, Trump's expression sours in schoolboy disgust as the camera bores in on Fiorina. "Look at that face!" he cries. "Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!" The laughter grows halting and faint behind him. "I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not s'posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?" [Rolling Stone]
Trump now says that he wasn't talking about Fiorina's face when he talked about her face, but nobody believes him and I doubt too many of his supporters care. Your average politician knows that there are some people they can insult and degrade, like the leaders of foreign countries or some members of the opposing party, but it's a relatively small list. Now that Trump has made "telling it like it is" one of the foundations of his political brand, there's almost no one he can't get away with insulting.
But when it comes to policy and the things he might actually do as president, Trump's "telling it like it is" sounds a lot more like "handing everyone a line of bull." Is it "telling it like it is" to say that he'll make China give us our jobs back, or that he'll replace the Affordable Care Act with "something terrific," or, when he gets asked a question about foreign policy, responds, "I will be so good at the military, your head will spin"? Of course not. It's a different variety of spin, but because it's delivered with a kind of maniacal overconfidence, it sounds to some people like forthrightness.
In the end, we don't really want politicians who'll tell us exactly what they're thinking and feeling. We want to believe that they're just like us, which means that they believe what we believe, like who we like, and hate who we hate. Trump just figured out that there are plenty of people who would like to see a candidate express their ugliest feelings. But it's still an act.