Everybody knew Donald Trump was a joke.
In June of last year, Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight said that Trump had a better chance of “cameoing in another ‘Home Alone’ movie with Macaulay Culkin” than winning the nomination. His colleague Nate Silver called Trump’s behavior “imbecilic” and predicted a quick flameout. In July the Huffington Post declared that Trump’s campaign would be covered in the site’s Entertainment section on the grounds that “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” Robert Schlesigner, managing editor of U.S. News & World Report, wrote that he “burst out in giggles of delight” upon seeing Trump atop the GOP polls. At the Washington Post, Dana Milbank promised to eat his own column if Trump was nominated. At the National Review, Kevin Williamson dismissed Trump as a “second-rate” mind who was “made out of cookie dough.”
In the wake of Trump’s subsequent blitz through the GOP primary to claim the Republican nomination, these same pundits have been busy penning think pieces exploring their predictive failure. The explanation for Trump's success, however, is simple, and it’s the same factor that will help bolster Trump’s chances going into the general election: clown armor.
What is "clown armor"? Simply put, it's the aura of buffoonish stupidity that Trump has managed to cultivate through a lifetime of Trump Steaks, WWE appearances, childish Twitter insults, vindictive pettiness, over-the-top tackiness, deep insecurity, terrible combovers, and the endless stream of bullshit percolating out of his orange, leathery maw. How can you take this person seriously? You can’t. He’s Dr. Oz, Kim Kardashian, and Leona Helmsley wrapped into one. And that's the clown armor - because it's impossible to take the man seriously, nothing he says or does is treated seriously.
Trump gets a few crucial benefits from his clown armor. First, it leaves the press (deliberately or not) following the 2015 Huffington Post model and covering Trump through the more forgiving lens of entertainment and not politics. When Trump says something outrageous about whatever, like his stream-of-consciousness idea to “make a deal” and “buy back [the national] debt at a discount” (i.e., devalue U.S. Savings bonds, the world’s safest and most widely held debt security), the story isn't "Holy shit this dude's proposals would cause an economic meltdown," it's "LOL crazy ol' Donnie did it again."
A few people might knock out a few explainers outlining why exactly his ideas are ridiculous, but for the most part the media chooses the story about the statement and the reaction, not the underlying idea. Soon thereafter, Trump will either double down on his initial statement, sparking a new round of statement/reaction stories, or the campaign will walk it all back - pretending that Trump really meant some other more reasonable thing, and acting slightly offended that anyone twisted his words to mean the exact thing that he explicitly said - and everyone moves on.
Take a look at this exchange from Trump’s interview with George Stephanopoulos regarding the debt buyback issue (apologies for the long excerpt):
STEPHANOPOULOS: You've raised a lot of eyebrows with your position on debt and Treasury bills in an interview the other day. You said you might try to repurchase it at a discount. Won't that undermine the full faith and credit of the United States?
TRUMP: No. If we can buy at a discount, that's a great thing. We have to lower debt. We have $9 trillion in debt. It's going to be $21 trillion, because frankly, the budget was horrible that was made six months ago, the omnibus budget, it was a disaster, what it does, what it represents. It's going to bring us up to $21 trillion.
Look, we have to do two things. I'm a low interest rate person. I believe now if you have vint -- if you have inflation, we're going to have to change that theory, because you're going to have to stoop things -- slow things down.
But right now, we have low interest rates. We have to rebuild the whole infrastructure of our country. I know the infrastructure. I've really gotten to know it even better now. You go to airports, they're falling down. If you go right -- I mean look at LaGuardia. You land at LaGuardia, it's an embarrassment. Look at Kennedy. Look at -- look at lax and Newark.
STEPHANOPOULOS: If you try to buy debt back (INAUDIBLE) interest rates are going to go up.
TRUMP: No, you can buy debt back (INAUDIBLE)...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you have to borrow to pay for it.
TRUMP: No, you buy debt back and you take advantage of certain things. You can -- as an example, there are people with large homes. Do you know China right now has $1.8 trillion of our debt, OK? And they're cheating us. And they're friends of mine.
STEPHANOPOULOS: They're not going to (INAUDIBLE)...
TRUMP: Well, you never know. You never know. All of a sudden they have to sell at a discount. You don't -- you don't know that. At some point, they might want to get out. Maybe they need their money. They might want to get out.
When you can do it, when you can take advantage, you do that. But you might want to issue new long-term debt and very low interest rates and you may want a -- a combination of buying back some debt and rebuild our infrastructure.
George, we've spent more than $4 trillion in the Middle East and our country is going to hell.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk more about the Middle East.
Fucking what?! Stephanopoulos is wholly unequipped and/or unmotivated to challenge Trump on his ludicrously stupid idea. (In case you're wondering, it's an idiotic idea because nobody is going to voluntarily sell Treasury bonds, the world’s most liquid and widely held debt asset, to the government at a discount when they can get full value on the open market, and a unilateral devaluing of Treasury bonds would be cataclysmic to the global economy given how widely held they are – a simultaneous and global hit to balance sheets is what brought on the last economic crisis.)
And that’s the clown armor. Trump's comment about devaluing Treasuries is so completely idiotic, such ignorant nonsense, that it’s hard for a person to think that Trump actually believes it, and so why spend time on an obviously ridiculous idea nobody believes? Stephanopoulos has problems even addressing it – he half-heartedly approaches it as if it were a real position (in which the speaker accounted for the basic nature of the national debt and the global economy), but that doesn’t map because the idea is gibberish, and so he gives up. The single dumbest economic proposal offered by any candidate in the 2016 cycle, and all it does is give Trump a chance to repeat some non sequitur talking points about infrastructure spending and move on.
To an extent, each candidate has some policy proposals that skate by without scrutiny. But if Clinton or Sanders said something this nonsensical it would dog them for the remainder of their campaign. Sanders' far milder display of ignorance in an interview with the New York Daily News was a story for weeks. With Trump, though, it takes only days for people to forget his dangerously ignorant statements, because they're not taken seriously and because he’ll have quickly said/tweeted a half-dozen new ridiculous things to focus on.
The sheer prolificness of Trump's bullshittery is the second pillar of the clown armor. Trump is a reality show host whose business revolves largely around licensing his own brand. His campaign chief claimed that Trump was playing a character in the primaries. We all know that Trump is a salesman at heart, and we all sense that some portion of Trump's persona has to be a deliberate act of showmanship. Trump says a lot of shit, all the time, without really caring about facts or consistency, and it's impossible that he really believes all the crap he says.
This inconsistent, scattershot approach lets him leave his policy positions in a quantum fog of uncertainty; it's easy for someone that takes an initial liking to him to key onto the statements he agrees with and convince himself that everything he doesn’t agree with is just part of the act. We’re probably primed to do this, as we all inherently think our own opinions are the most reasonable and have a tendency to overestimate the number of people that agree with us. Combine this with Trump's rhetoric about being a master negotiator, and it's easy for people to rationalize Trump's worst statements as a ploy to capture the rubes. (While your political opposites look at the things you believe in and reach the same conclusion.)
You can see this effect play out in the primaries. Different voters charmed by Trump's outsider persona variously see him as an America First nationalist, or as a pragmatic deal-maker, or as "more liberal than Clinton," or as a devout churchgoer. Hop into an Internet comment string and you might see someone proudly support Trump because he "is pro-life, and has moral clarity on this issue," or state that he's "pro-choice, has always been pro-choice, but is running in a hard fought GOP nomination process."
No other candidate is such a chameleon to his or her supporters. If you have a positive opinion of Clinton, for example, it’s probably based on the notion that she’s experienced, competent, and a longtime liberal Democrat. If you support Sanders, it’s probably because you believe he’s a uniquely honest and progressive candidate free from the moneyed interests that have captured other politicians. No moderate Democrat believes, for instance, that Sanders really agrees with Paul Krugman on the nature of Keynesian economics and the role of the Federal Reserve, but is throwing out socialist rhetoric to capture the far left rubes. Our understanding that some percentage of Trump's persona is deliberately fake lets supporters pick and choose among his inconsistent rhetoric to create a model candidate in their own image.
The final benefit from Trump's clown armor is that he is able to deflect scrutiny by chumming the media waters with an endless stream of new material for reporters. Journalists aren't necessarily lazy, but they are in a media environment in which the news cycle can last hours or minutes and in which there is constant demand for new content.
Intelligently probing a policy position or a person's history takes time to research and write, time that seems especially wasted if the policy might just be repudiated or walked back the next day. A hot take on the optics of a tweet, however, takes minutes to write, and afterwards you can turn around and push out another story about everyone else's hot takes. Trump's constant stream of provocative bullshit gives the media plenty of material to produce a steady output of eyeball catching content, while serving his interests by keeping reporters busy with low-hanging fruit instead of probing into his life or business too deeply.
Of course, the natural rejoinder to all of this is that, yes, few people take him seriously, but that just means there’s no chance he’ll actually become president. Trump has extremely high unfavorables; even though he is presently running unopposed, he just had 46% of the vote go against him in Indiana. And it’s true, only a small number of Americans have actually voted for him this primary. Trump has received about 11 million votes so far, and lets give him another, say, two million for upcoming primaries. There were 61 million Republican voters in the 2012 election and 129 million votes cast. So Trump’s monumental barnstorm through the GOP has been powered by only a tenth of American voters; he’s historically disliked, and it’s fair to expect that the other 90% of voters are going to come to their senses by November.
Which all seems reasonable.
Except that November is still six months away, giving us all time to acclimate to the idea of a Donald Trump candidacy, particularly a Republican electorate that still hates Hillary Clinton. Right now, as on the left with disgruntled Sanders supporters, Republicans are working out their frustration at an unwanted nominee. But I’d expect a lot of that to fade moving forward. For the most part, modern voters are loyally partisan, and largely come around to their party’s candidate. Unless a third party runs, around 45% of the vote is baked in for either side. Come November, we’re talking about maybe 10% of the vote actually being up for grabs. This 10%, by the way, is relatively uninformed and unlikely to be paying close attention to the primaries.
Moving forward, expect the head-to-head to close up between Trump and Clinton. Recent polls are already showing a tightened race, a trend that will only be played up by a media eager for continued horse-race coverage.
As we move past the conventions, The Donald will continue to reap the benefits of his clown armor. The press will casually cover the policy proposals they don't take seriously and focus on the surface layer of "tone" and "momentum" where Trump thrives. He'll continue to occupy the field with his smokescreen of inane bullshit. And he'll continue to be a Rorschach test for voters charmed by his bluntness or otherwise frustrated by Clinton and the political system, morphing in their eyes into whatever they hope the man to be.
Don't be fooled. America likes to see a horse race, and deliberately or not, we're going to give ourselves one.
Tobias G. Snyder is a lawyer based in San Francisco who can't figure out how to casually slip in that he got his B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. Since 2009 he's practiced general commercial litigation in New York and San Francisco, starting in Biglaw before jumping ship to a smaller shop. He likes writing and/or ranting about the law, the news, and politics, but -- uh -- not like the 10,000 other bloggers doing the exact same thing. Those guys are all chumps. Please follow him on Twitter @tgsnyder.