Politics & Policy

Trump’s Communication Problem

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
What he says and how he says it matter. Last night’s debate was not encouraging.

Donald Trump could learn a lesson from Pope Francis.

The current pope, unlike his predecessor, has the gift of gab. But he has discovered, in his new role, that there is such a thing as talking too much. The secular media’s knowledge of the Catholic Church being what it is (read: nonexistent), the pope’s offhand comments are regularly interpreted as enunciations of doctrine.

But what is not true of the papacy is true, to a degree, of the presidency. The line between policy and pontification is fuzzy. When President Obama speculates about tax hikes, the markets dip. When he sympathizes with Black Lives Matter, beat cops retreat. When he talks about “commonsense gun reforms,” people in flyover country buy firearms. When he talks about U.S. foreign policy, leaders abroad take notice.

Given that reality, Donald Trump’s filibustering performance at Monday night’s presidential debate should be a source of alarm. In the first 30 minutes of last night’s debate, Trump succeeded — if that is the word — largely by being so pugnacious that he made it difficult for Hillary Clinton to get a word in edgewise. But that strategy was not built to last, and it didn’t. After the forum’s first half hour, Trump was at his near-worst: thoughtless, rambling, self-contradictory, and hostile — not only to his opponent but to moderator Lester Holt, President Obama, and any number of other enemies real and imagined, up to and including Rosie O’Donnell and a former Miss Universe contestant. It was obvious by the 45-minute mark that Clinton had managed to get under Trump’s skin, particularly on the subject of his personal finances. He spent the second half of the debate alternately snarling and flailing, completely devoid of the swagger and insouciance that he used to great effect during the primary debates.

When you’re a major-party presidential candidate, snarling and flailing are not just stylistic defects; they affect substance. So while Trump has spent his campaign flogging NAFTA, as every populist is wont to do, last night he reached a particularly feverish pitch, going so far as to call it “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere,” ignoring that, post-NAFTA, both U.S. manufacturing output (in inflation-adjusted terms) and employment have increased. Trump claimed that NATO, about which he’s been generally skeptical, “could be obsolete” because “they do not focus on terror,” apparently unaware that NATO identified terrorism as a risk to its security in 1999 and has had a full-scale counterterrorism plan in place since 2002. When asked about America’s nuclear first-use policy, Trump said, “I would certainly not do first strike,” and then, seconds later, “I can’t take anything off the table.”

#related#In the primaries, this lack of preparedness was troubling, but arguably forgivable. (He could catch up!) Now, it is a cause for genuine alarm. Trump is a major-party nominee whose odds of winning the presidency are about as good as any Republican’s in the past two decades. People are watching and listening —and among those people are our allies and enemies, keen to see what a post-Obama White House will look like. When Trump hedges on keeping our commitments to our military allies, our enemies perk up. When he suggests that we may renegotiate trade deals, our trade partners start looking toward other markets. Trump’s combination of aggressive ignorance, knee-jerk indignation, and lack of discipline is not just a problem for any future administration he might lead; it’s a problem now.

There’s a reason that statesmanship has always been associated with modest speech. Hillary Clinton made at least one true claim last night: “Words matter.” When their potential effects are so great, they ought to be employed judiciously. So while there’s plenty of talk, and rightly so, about Donald Trump’s policies, there should be just as much talk about Donald Trump’s talk. Because even if Trump encircled himself with the sharpest, most stouthearted conservative thinkers and policymakers, he would be the one articulating the resulting policies to millions of people on 60 Minutes and Fox News Sunday and in the pages of Vanity Fair and Time. What Trump says and how he says it matter — and his performance last night was just one more indication that he really does not care about either.

— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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