One candidate for president of the United States has devoted decades of her life to the goal — a never-ending 30-years-long campaign for power and respect. Another adheres so strongly to a set of beliefs that he calls himself a socialist long after it's lost its cool. Another fashions himself as a redeemer of a lifetime’s worth of conservative grievances, risking social isolation and the faith and credit of the United States to make a point.
And then there’s Donald Trump, who more or less has nothing to lose. Trump, who started the race as a rich man’s lark, who probably never thought he had a strong chance to win, place, or show, who doesn’t have to spend much money to keep going, can more or less say anything he wants because he has nothing to fear. He has the least to lose and the most to gain.
More than his showman’s instinct for working a room, more than his ability to disrupt narratives with a single tweet, and even more than his unique New York patter, the most dangerous thing about him, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Ted Cruz, is that he alone can run as if he has nothing lose, because he doesn’t, and they cannot. He can say whatever is on his mind, Bullworth-esque, because the risks are minimal. The others must still calibrate their messages carefully, because they’ve invested their lives in a cause.
The following thought experiment comes courtesy of Penn Jillette, whose insight about Trump’s fearlessness (in a non-boozy, real-food fueled conversation I had with him and director Andy Lerner last week), prompted this post. (Jillette discussed our thoughts on his Penn's Sunday School podcast yesterday).
Let’s say you were part of the tiny cabal that controls American politics, and you were to come to Hillary Clinton and propose, in exchange for dropping her candidate’s mask, she’d have a 50 percent greater chance of becoming president if she were to admit that, of all the people involved in her husband’s Oval Office affair, Monica Lewinsky has handled herself with the most grace and courage and deserves a lot better than she’s gotten.
Let’s say that the cabal proposed to Bernie Sanders that it could guarantee he’d become president if only he would agree to ease up on Wall Street.
Let’s say that the cabal proposed to Trump that it would make him president if only he agreed to drop his proposal to build a wall around the United States and instead focus on creating an immediate pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already living here.
Trump would take the deal. The others would not.
And that tells you all you need to know about the presidential race after the nomination.
On the one side there's a candidate who intuitively understands the currency of power now. We are living in the era of Douglas Rushkoff’s “present shock,” where moments are worth more than narrative. This candidate, again, has not a thing to lose by shooting off at the mouth.
On the other, there are candidate with everything to lose. One has a narrative, but no mastery of the present moment. Another is searching for a narrative, and can’t find one. They still calibrate Tweets. They still think they deserve the presidency based on merit and qualification.
One of these candidates is going to win the infinitely iterative virtual news cycle, and it’s not going to be the Democratic nominee.
If Trump’s popularity turns out to be more than just a big in-joke, a prank played by a frustrated electorate on the elites, then the best way to run against him would be to undercut his core appeal. As he tells the truth in the moment, so should you. As Trump has nothing to lose, act as if you has nothing to lose.
Right now, I don’t see either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders changing so fundamentally.
I do see another billionaire begin to leak word that he might be interested in the presidency, a guy who has Trump’s fascinating combination of fearlessness and pettiness, but who inhabits the role of a billionaire philanthropist so thoroughly that he masks guilelessness with a charming indifference. This is a guy who can tell the truth (as he sees it) and who has nothing to lose.
And now I’m beginning to understand why Michael Bloomberg might suddenly think that, in this age of moments, his moment is now.