It’s easy to be dismissive of Trump. But is it safe to think he’ll get his in the end?
No, he’s not a genius like Stephen Hawking or David Foster Wallace or Prince. Nor is he even Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. Rather, Trump is a genius in the same way as the raccoon which continues to get into the bungeed garbage can in my garage that holds the cat food is a genius. He is an intuitive genius.
Donald Trump is a genius at using people. Ask Chris Christie. Many observers point to the turnover in Trump’s campaign leadership as bad management. It’s anything but. Corey Lewandowski did his job, getting Trump through a crowded field of candidates. But by June, despite his primary success, there was still a chance the GOP Establishment would the rules process to deny him the nomination. Lewandowski was an outsider who couldn’t help with that. So Trump discarded him. (Check out Ernst Rohm on Wikipedia. But I digress.) In Cleveland, Trump needed a fixer, a back room guy, someone who knew how to manipulate the manipulators, so he hired Paul Manafort—who with his dyed hair, plump manicured fingers and oily side dealing was so right for the role that he was almost a caricature of himself. And it worked. Manafort maneuvered Trump through the convention and nominating process and trapped the leaders of the party into supporting him. (Reince Priebus should legally change his middle name to “Tool.”) For the general, Trump needs someone who can keep his personal base in the fold as he softens his message to reach Republican women voters turned off by the hyper-masculinity of his primary campaign. No single person could do that, so he hired two people. If that doesn’t work, look for him to toss them over the side and bring someone else onboard.
He’s a genius at using words. Trump is to words as Escher was to perspective. His words seem to go somewhere, but they end up right back where they started. He flips positions effortlessly, going up when the occasion calls for it and down when it doesn’t, through it all insisting confidently that “No, no, this is still up.” Up is up, except when it’s down. His gyrations have been so numerous and so egregious that they no longer have any impact. It’s just Donny being Donny. Radio host Glenn Beck claims he’s had three successive callers who supported Trump call into his show with three wildly different interpretations of something Trump just said, each interpreting it to support their viewpoint. His interpretation is that Trump has become an “empty vessel into which people pour their anger.” That sells it short. Trump’s words, however incoherent, reach people on an emotional level. He has a real knack for the telling phrase. “Little Mario” captures a fundamental truth about Rubio, that he is small not only in stature but in ideas and in accomplishment. His “wall” metaphor, and his stubborn and ridiculous insistence that it’s not a metaphor, is the best example. It’s a patently impossible and silly idea, but one that has visceral appeal that his supporters cling to even as they tell pollsters they know it will never happen.
He’s a genius at using the media. He’s taken trolling to an art form. Yes, the media does have a liberal bias, but it still has to make a pretense at fairness. (Pretense is also in their self-interest, since controversy drives ratings.) So they have to report what he says. Trump uses that to “Swift Boat” on an industrial scale. Yesterday, in the gym, the giant headline on the CNN screen said, “Trump says Clinton is a bigot.” It’s ridiculous, especially coming from a man with both a familial and personal history of outright discrimination. But he’s also labeled her a “grifter,” when of course it’s him that has the track record of conning people and cheating. He’s accused everyone of everything, usually something that he is, because he knows the media feels obliged to report it, and that it will get reported without depth or nuance (welcome to the modern media world, folks.) Most people will see nothing but that bright red headline across the bottom of the screen, “Clinton is a bigot.” At least some of them will be too uninformed to know just how silly it is. It takes talent to troll. It takes genius to get CNN to do your trolling for you.
It is very easy to be dismissive of Trump, especially now that he’s down in the polls, and to think that after this he will go back to reality TV where he belongs. Maybe, but maybe not. In my life I’ve only met one other Trump, a former consulting partner of mine. He too was a ruthless egomaniac who used people and lied without compunction or shame. We all shook our heads and said, “Well, he’ll get his on day.”
But he didn’t. He ended up as a very rich CEO.