Politics & Policy

Trump, the Unhappy Warrior, Woos Angry Voters by Telling Them What They Want to Hear

Trump speaks at a rally in Phoenix on July 11, 2015. (Charlie Leight/Getty)

Las Vegas — It’s the height of political fashion to bash Donald Trump, and I’ve done my share. It’s harder to understand his appeal, but it’s absolutely necessary if we are to come to terms with the political times we live in.


Anyone who watched Trump’s speech to 2,000 attendees of FreedomFest in Las Vegas on Saturday could easily lampoon his bizarre, meandering, and egomaniacal delivery. But by the time he left the stage, a big chunk of the audience approved of him, and many expressed a willingness to vote for him.

“Trump was upbeat, and, unlike other candidates, he’s a man of action,” Barbara Carter, of Las Vegas, told me after the speech. She is considering voting for Trump. A former resident of Wasilla, Alaska, she was a fan of Sarah Palin’s when Palin was mayor there. She says that both Palin and Trump cut through the politically correct rhetoric of our day and speak plain truths. When I pointed out that Trump never presents any evidence for his charges that the Mexican government deliberately sends rapists and killers to the U.S., she agreed that both Palin and Trump “may have been pushed onto the national stage before they were ready.”

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Kate Wright, a writer from Los Angeles, isn’t a likely Trump voter. But she says that the GOP establishment has underestimated the depth of contempt that many conservatives have for the party’s leaders in Congress. “Trump scored big when he said the GOP in Congress complains about Benghazi and the IRS scandal but then seems to forget about them,” she told me. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina echoed that same theme today when she said on ABC’s This Week: “People are angry at a professional political class of both parties that talks a good game, gives good speeches, but somehow nothing ever really changes.” She has elsewhere noted that Trump benefits from conservative resentment of a media double standard that lets extremists such as Al Sharpton and socialist Bernie Sanders get away with inflammatory statements.

“Trump hits a nerve when he talks about crime by illegal immigrants in Arizona,” Don Edwards, a retired economics professor from Surprise, Ariz., tells me. “He demonstrates that the issue has been ignored because of political correctness, and so he is there to fill the vacuum.” Nonetheless, Edwards isn’t close to considering Trump for president. “He’s economically wrong and uninformed. . . . [He]answered a question on the Federal Reserve by swerving into one-liners about the debt.”

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But even some attendees who know enough to be wary of Trump’s Patent Medicine prescriptions are impressed by him. “He is forthright, clear speaking, and he shows leadership,” says Lloyd Nirenberg, a Californian who has a Ph.D. in science and runs a company specializing in rocketry. “I’ve been so disillusioned by other candidates. He is refreshing to listen to.”

Other people I spoke with in Las Vegas said that while Trump is a very entertaining speaker — “He’s like watching a train wreck; you know you shouldn’t look, but you do anyway” — he will probably hit a natural ceiling on his support. They noted the mean streak that lies just under the surface of every speech he makes. He opened his speech by emphasizing that the FreedomFest hosts had to apologize for a scheduling misunderstanding, which made them “semi-honorable” in his view. He then alternated between insulting companies he’s done business with and proclaiming: “I’m a nice guy, really.”

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But he reached his low point during a truncated Q&A session with the audience. Roberto Salinas, a respected free-market economist from Mexico, told Trump he was insulted by his remarks about Mexico and asked if he would build walls around every state to prevent criminals from crossing those borders. “I was waiting for this,” Trump snapped. “Did the government of Mexico ask you to come up here and say this?” He then cut off Salinas’s response and called for a wall across the entire southern border. A happy warrior Trump is not.

#related#Donald Trump is not the “rodeo clown” depicted by columnist Charles Krauthammer and others. He is the P. T. Barnum of American politics, a brilliant self-promoter who knows exactly what he’s doing and who changes his opinions constantly to match what he thinks audiences want to hear, much as Barnum used to switch out circus acts between towns on his tour. Barnum, incidentally, entered politics late in life and served as a state legislator and mayor of Bridgeport, Conn.

But even the great showman who was able to fool so many people sometimes went so far out on the edge that he fell off. In the 1850s, Barnum inserted into his shows an elaborate hoax in which he fooled audiences with a weed that would supposedly turn black people white. Some said he even came to half-believe such a thing was possible. Angry customers eventually forced him to drop the hoax, after costing him much business.

Like P. T. Barnum, Donald Trump might well believe everything he is saying in the moment. But, with his Las Vegas speech, Trump showed that while he can attract an audience, he, like P. T. Barnum, lacks the discipline and charm to pull off the Big Sting.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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