Why you should care
Because this is the road map by which a brash billionaire could become president.
In this special election series, OZY looks closely at how Donald J. Trump is reshaping the Republican Party. Later this week, we’ll explore what the world might look like as the billionaire continues his march to the GOP nomination and, perhaps, the Oval Office.
“Think of yourself as a gladiator,” Donald Trump advised as competition between two parties grew increasingly heated. “Confrontation is never really popular, but you know what, sometimes it’s needed. Do it — and do it with gusto.”
The Donald may be new to politics, but when it comes to reality TV, he might as well have a Ph.D. That particular piece of wisdom above was dispensed by Trump in an episode of The Apprentice. And it was in such moments that the straight-talkin’ CEO learned to master the art of delivering quippy slams. With narratives built and destroyed within seconds in front of the lens, Trump excelled in defining his candidates with one-sentence overtures, a skill that he’s discovered is just as useful in the Barnum & Bailey world of this election season (see: the “low-energy” fall of Jeb!).
Today, Trump could all but wrap it up, if he lives up to his polling potential, which has him as the favorite in almost all of the Super Tuesday primary states. Which is why it’s worth taking a look at how Trump has scripted his path to what could become an entirely new screen-worthy set: the Oval Office.
1. Get ahead of the news. Cognizant of the way narratives are crafted, he chose to get ahead of the game. “Trump very strategically said, ‘I am going to make a caricature of myself,’ ” says Surya Yalamanchili, a marketing expert, former Apprentice contestant and author of Decoding the Donald: Trump’s Apprenticeship in Politics. Almost a year of over-the-top debate jabs later, Trump has defined himself as the clear front-runner. And he’s done it while dominating through social media, with more Twitter followers than the rest of his fellow GOP candidates combined, and more than either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.
2. Keep it simple, stupid. In his first speech as a presidential candidate, Trump introduced an idea that seemed laughably simple, and yet it became the most enduring message of an insurgency built on the backs of blue-collar and unemployed Americans who feel like their opportunities have been usurped by foreigners: “I will build a great wall,” Trump said, “and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.” His slogan — “Make America Great Again” — also taps into that feeling that something intrinsic to the country has been lost.
Of course, there are risks to overly simplified messages. Drake University political scientist Anthony Gaughan notes that Trump uses the fewest words, and one of the shortest syllables, of any candidate, and that such language reflects how “simplistic” his plans are. Yet those who have worked within Trump’s campaign believe his plans are more substantial — something that may be better displayed in the coming weeks.
3. Revolt against “the media.” Trust in government is near an all-time low. Only slightly better than that? Those who still have faith that the mass media accurately reports the news — just 4 in 10 of Americans, a record low. And to rail against the press today is to be on the side of people — almost as much as taunting the established political class. Both of which Trump has taken a strong stance on.
Indeed, whereas past politicians tiptoed around the press, Trump regularly calls them “second-rate,” “dishonest” and “absolute scum.” Those attacks don’t sink him because, early on, he accused the press of being out to get him. Now, when he garners negative press, it only validates his charges, while supporters nod knowingly whether in a tiny town hall or at a humongous rally. Trump’s solution — himself, of course — has also ignited a certain amount of optimism, says Dennis Goldford, co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses. “ ‘We’re in deep trouble,’ [Trump] says, ‘but we’re going to fix it.’ ”
4. Stoke — then ease — fears. In profile after profile during his decades-long business career, Trump has been described in different ways as “The People’s Billionaire.” It’s not that he was particularly relatable as a businessperson — he was, after all, an opulent moneyman who seemingly playacted the part of loudmouthed CEO, shouting for TV ratings. But he was willing to voice the inner anxieties of blue-collar workers and certain subgroups of Americans, whether it be by verbally attacking Mexican “rapists,” ISIS butchers or Chinese banks. Sure, for now he’s outside the political establishment when it comes to developing policies against any of those groups, but he’s “somebody who knows how to put deals together,” says University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “That’s, essentially, what presidents do.”