America seems to be catching onto the flaws of “Trumpspeak” — the GOP candidate’s method, perfected over decades in the public eye, of winning attention and creating an illusion of unbounded success.
Polls in key swing states and nationally now show him well behind Hillary Clinton and some of his rhetorical tricks, like the use of “people are saying” to spread falsehoods while avoiding responsibility for them, have become popular memes.
Still, anything can happen with nearly three months left to go in the election. So it’s instructive to look at the five elements of Trumpspeak:
1) Say everything
The media record is littered with moments when Donald Trump appeared to set a new mark for outrageousness that even he couldn’t surpass. Then came another day and a new bizarre performance. The current example of the presidential candidate at his Trumpiest is the argument that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the “founder” and “co-founder” of ISIS.
In the uproar that followed, Trump has been criticized even by the former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden, a Republican. But he brushed off the chance to explain his charge in a more sophisticated way because, as he told radio host Hugh Hewitt, “Everyone’s liking it.” Predictably, the next day he complained that CNN had failed to realize his naming Obama the founder of ISIS was “sarcasm.” It was more a case of extreme hyperbole. But no matter what you call it, Trump’s statement gained press attention, which is what he so often wants.
In Trump’s world, public attention, even when it’s negative, has tremendous value. He explained this to one of his casino executives, John O’Donnell, during the tabloid sex scandal that ended his marriage. As O’Donnell reported, Trump rejected his counsel to “lay low,” insisting, “This is good for business. Trust me. I know.” He also said, “This’ll bring all the men in. They are going to want to be with Trump.”
At a rally this summer in Virginia, Trump heard a baby cry and at first, he offered warm reassurance to the mother, earning the crowd’s admiration. But Trump suddenly reversed himself, expressing discomfort and inviting his listeners to join him in humiliating the mother. “I think she really believed me,” he said mockingly. In this odd sequence of events, Trump was able to win approval for expressing kindness and then establish his superiority by reversing his stance entirely.
In capsule form, Trump’s run-in with Rally Baby demonstrated his lifelong propensity for taking both sides of an issue. He has been a Democrat, an independent and a Republican. At one time Trump considered the question of abortion and declared himself “very pro-choice.” Now he says he is against all abortions except in cases of incest and to save a mother’s life.
Trump is no less wavering when it comes to claims about himself. In 1987, he said he believes “the simplest approach is often the most effective.” Ten years later he said, “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.” In 2011, he said he doesn’t try to be provocative. In 2014, he said, “I do love provoking people.” He has claimed, alternately, that he reads “a lot” and “I don’t read much” and that he find travel boring but also “too fantastic to miss out on.”
On the campaign trail, Trump has sometimes seemed to contradict himself in the same sentence as when he told Fox last May, “I don’t want to have guns in classrooms, although in some cases teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly.” A month earlier, Trump offered a more succinct contradiction when he answered a question from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about the use of nuclear weapons in Europe. He said, “I’m not going to use nuclear, but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”
2) The art of the false claim
Trump’s recent controversies include a prime example of another rhetorical habit — the false claim. In this case, Trump said the National Football league had sent him a letter expressing concern about the timing of presidential debates scheduled for nights when football games would be on TV. The problem was the NFL denied ever sending such a letter.
The alleged NFL fabrication fits into a pattern Trump established in the 1970s and 80s. His very first real estate project, a massive renovation of the Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Terminal, hinged on what appeared to be a deception. Asked to prove to the City of New York that he owned the rights to redevelop the site, which then belonged to the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad, Trump submitted a contract that supposedly established that he did. If city officials had looked closely, they would have seen that the papers weren’t signed and were thus not valid. Either they didn’t look or they didn’t care, because Trump says he won the city’s support for the job.
Rewarded for his trickery, Trump embarked on a decades-long practice of making claims that were either impossible to check or verifiably false. When he built Trump Tower, which he said was more stories high than it is, Trump said that members of British royal family were interested in buying homes there.
No proof was offered, and they never did. Before he was forced to sell his Trump Shuttle airline, he claimed, without evidence, that competitor Pan Am was unable to maintain its planes as well as his company did. Later came claims, made as he adopted a fake persona, that all sorts of famous and glamorous women sought to date him. According to a deposition, he then inflated a 30 percent stake in a Manhattan development to 50 percent, and repeatedly insisted that his wealth was far greater than outside experts estimated.
In his pursuit of the presidency, Trump said he saw Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the attacks on America of September 11, 2001. “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering,” said Trump. No law enforcement officials or media ever reported such celebrations and, after Trump made this claim, he was widely refuted. Informed of the facts, Trump nevertheless insisted the celebration “was on television. I saw it.” He has never backed away from this claim.
3) “People are saying”
Although Trump routinely attacks the press for its supposed bias, he consistently promotes arguments with little basis in fact and no specific sources. With phrases like “many people are saying” and “I’m hearing,” Trump manages to insert unsubstantiated notions into the electoral discourse without taking responsibility for the messages he’s sending.
I experienced Trump’s “people are saying” method when I interviewed him, and he told me that “a lot of people are saying” that he should run for president. In a variation of this theme, he said that an unnamed police detective told him that the settlement with the exonerated men in the Central Park jogger cases was “the heist of the century.” With this argument, he was able to smear the men by citing the authority of a detective without producing any evidence.
Prior to the current election season, Trump used variations on “people are saying” to maintain the so-called “Birther” attack on Obama. Long after others abandoned the effort to challenge the president’s citizenship, Trump said, “Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further. The people that went to school with him never saw him; they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”
Trump’s innuendo had no basis in fact. When he spoke, the president’s short form birth record had been released by officials in Hawaii, and there was no mystery about his college years. Nevertheless, Trump built a following with this method and continues to use it.
Just days ago, he declared that “many people are saying that the Iranians killed the scientist who helped the U.S. because of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.” In fact, no public source has linked Clinton to the execution of the Iranian scientist.
4) I’m a winner (even when I’m not)
During the primary season, Trump made his record of success in state contests into an argument for people continuing to support him. After winning in the Nevada caucuses, Trump went so far as to brag about how he received the most votes even among the least educated voters. “I love the poorly educated!” he crowed in his victory address. In the same speech, he pledged to win many big victories for the United States. “We’re going to grab and grab and grab,” he said. “We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything.”
Long before he became a politician, Trump pitched himself as a success to business partners, investors and American consumers. He has made these claims despite massive corporate bankruptcies that forced losses upon stockholders and bond investors, and left contractors holding unpaid bills. In total, his companies discharged an estimated $4.7 billion in debt. This is the record of a man who told Rolling Stone that he’s running for president because the country is “essentially bankrupt, and it needs a successful businessman.”
In addition to touting his success in business, where his record is decidedly mixed, Trump made a habit of insisting that he was a far bigger draw on television than he ever was. Trump used to pressure the publicist for “The Apprentice” with demands that he tout the programs high ratings even when the show was not at the top. Last year, he told a group of TV industry reporters that his show “Celebrity Apprentice” was number one in the ratings. When challenged on this claim, he corrected himself and said it was top on the night it was broadcast. Corrected again, he offered the excuse, “That’s just what I had heard.”
How is it that someone who cares so much about numbers as represented in his business record and ratings comes to declare himself a winner in ways that can be so readily refuted? It’s possible that the template was established so long ago that it’s an ingrained habit.
When I interviewed Trump, he told me more than once that in his youth he had been the best high school baseball player in New York State. In those years, the Empire State was home to several future major leaguers and at least one future Hall of Famer. The players who competed in big city leagues played against the toughest opponents. Trump played for a tiny school that squared-off against other small schools in Upstate New York. The chance that he was “the best” is practically zero.
Where Trump may in fact be an uncontested champion is in the arena of self-promotion and denigration of others. Beginning in the early 1970s, he offered himself as the picture of a successful young mogul, and certain credulous media outlets accepted his claim. When he began to make enemies, he defined them as untrustworthy. In the 1980s, he called New York City Mayor Ed Koch a “moron” and “a disaster.” He went on to establish a long record of calling people fat, ugly, disgusting and “losers.” Women who criticize him, including Bette Midler, Cher and Rosie O’Donnell, have all been on the receiving ends of his insults.
5) It’s unfair
Never one to be outdone in any contest, Trump likes to respond to looming failures by saying he’s being treated unfairly. This is a constant refrain when he talks about the press who, in his view, are “slime,” “unfair” and “dishonest.” At his rallies, he often instructs his supporters to turn and look at the reporters covering the campaign while he describes them as his enemies.
Although he usually confines himself to complaints about the press in general, Trump attacked MSNBC’s Katy Tur by name. Taking issue with something Tur had reported, Trump pointed at her and said, “What a lie. Katy Tur. What a lie it was. Third. Rate. Reporter. Remember that.” The Secret Service agents at the event were so concerned for her safety that they escorted Tur to her car when the rally was over.
Last week, the man who cruised through an endless series of primaries and caucuses began to warn that the election could be rigged. Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity he said, “I’m telling you, November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
Trump offered no evidence to support his prediction, and the United States has had such a long and deep history of above-board elections that his suggestion is ridiculous. However, this is a claim he has made before. Prior to the Republican National Convention, Trump began to complain about how the party operated. “It’s a rigged system. It’s a crooked system; it’s 100 percent crooked,” he said. Trump stopped talking this way when it seemed certain he would get the nomination, and as he accepted his victory, no mention was made about how the party was operated unfairly.
Trump sometimes pairs the unfair complaint with a trap door strategy that gives him a face-saving chance to escape humiliation if he spies an imminent defeat. In one such case, involving a golf course development in Scotland, he said that he would leave the project partially completed if the government approved an offshore wind power project. At the time, the world was in the midst of the recent recession and demand for luxury gold villas dried up. Trump got to stop building, though, without acknowledging that he was bested by conditions he did not anticipate. Instead he blamed the power project. Similarly, Trump’s current warnings that the presidential election could be rigged is a trap door he can use should be go down in defeat.
Why does he do it?
For years, Trump’s critics and allies have been frustrated by his style. On Friday, supporter Newt Gingrich said his candidate doesn’t seem to understand that he must speak with care. “One of the things that’s frustrating about his candidacy is the imprecise language,” Gingrich said on “Fox and Friends.” “He sometimes uses three words when he needs 10.”
Gingrich cited the comments about Obama and ISIS as an example. “I know what Trump has in his mind, but that’s not what people hear,” said Gingrich. In a rare case of self-correction, Trump explained that he was practicing “sarcasm” when he linked Obama to the founding of ISIS. He offered the same explanation when he mused about how Russian hackers should muck around in Clinton’s email accounts.
Trump’s excuses, like his behavior, resemble what one might expect from a bullying child who is caught tormenting a sibling. Any adult who has ever interceded in this kind of conflict knows to expect to hear “I was only kidding” and “Can’t you take a joke?” from the kid who is doing the harm. In Trump’s case, of course, the childishness does harm to the country as a whole and, as the case of Tur suggests, poses a real threat to specific individuals.
Trump is the same person he was as a boy. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” Trump once told me. “The temperament is not that different.”
Having studied Trump intently over the last three years, I would agree that he’s the same person he was as a child, but I would peg the exact date to the summer between seventh and eighth grade. It was then that his parents, exasperated over his behavior, sent him away to a military academy because they couldn’t handle him. There he was plunged into a cruel and often violent environment where grown men trained young men by smacking them around. In the meantime, his four siblings were comforted in the luxury of the Trump mansion, peacefully attended by domestic help and educated at posh private schools.
Trump was, by his own admission, an out-of-control child, and he says that he needed the discipline he got at the military academy. I agree, but I don’t think the discipline took. This is what the more sober minded elders of the GOP, Gingrich included, are discovering now. Trump is still the unruly child who will not be tamed. The chances of him accepting discipline now, at age 70, after a lifetime of accumulating wealth, power and attention, are slim to none.