Donald Trump’s Authenticity Politics

In his 2012 book on assholes,” Ascent of the A-Word, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg identified Donald Trump as coming “closer than anyone else to being the archetype of the species.” And as Trump continues to dominate both Republican primary polls and many consecutive news cycles, a sentiment from Nunberg’s book may be more true today than when he wrote it: “If you have to be a flaming asshole, this is a good age to be born in.”

Still, although Nunberg sees a link between “asshole¨ as a late-twentieth century term of abuse and our contemporary obsession with authenticity as a moral ideal, being inauthentic seems to be the least of The Donald’s problems. Will Burns, writing at Forbes, goes so far as to say that the quintessence of Trump’s appeal and advantage comes down to his authenticity. If Trump is the apotheosis of assholism, it may be due to his genuine, shameless disregard for people’s feelings, the rules of political campaigning, and even the standards of English grammar.

Whatever criticisms might be made about Trump, and there are many valid ones, one has to admit that he comes of as authentic, and authenticity is something that we prize in our politicians and public figures. It’s worth pointing out, however, that there’s something paradoxical in the very idea of liking someone for being authentic. Being authentic is supposed to mean acting out your genuine identity, presumably as opposed to doing things in order to get people to like you or to think certain things about you. But we never see how people really are; we can only see how they present themselves to us. So to judge someone as being authentic means to judge that the image we see of them squares with some kind of truth about their identity which we have never seen.  It may be possible to make a real evaluation of authenticity or inauthenticity if you follow someone’s statements and behavior over time, observing that they present themselves one way to one audience and a different way to another. Consistency might be a sign that a candidate’s positions stem from some kind of deep personal identity, rather than from calculations of political expediency. But I don’t think this is what most of Trump’s supporters are doing. If they were, Megyn Kelly’s attempts to point out how he has changed his positions over time might have actually gained some traction at the August 6th debate.

Trump’s air of authenticity doesn’t stem from evaluations of his character. Instead, viewers read it directly from his affect. Trump comes off as authentic because he’s confident and loud, because he expresses his negative opinions about people and doesn’t apologize when confronted about them. He responds to questions without taking time to think about them, and, perhaps more importantly, he manages to seem like he hasn’t ever taken time to think about them beforehand. This lack of deliberation gives the appearance that what he says is coming straight from the heart (or more appropriately, perhaps, from the gut). It’s a close cousin of truthiness, but in this case the absence of deliberation behind a statement isn’t necessarily evidence that the statement is true, so much as it’s evidence that the speaker is Real. Trump supporters may not even agree with everything he says, but every apparently unconsidered opinion he expresses is evidence that Trump is a “straight shooter,” someone who “calls ’em as he sees ’em.”

It’s not news, of course, that voters like a politician who seems authentic and it’s easy to simply bemoan Trump’s style-over-substance approach to campaigning. (It’s worth pointing out, as well, that Trump’s authentic demeanor is likely not the only factor in his poll success. Some commentators have recently started pointing out the mix of issues that he champions actually have a substantial constituency which isn’t always well-served by mainstream candidates). What’s harder to come to grips with, however, is the way in which the demands that voters and the media make of politicians are responsible for creating an environment in which a candidate like Trump can flourish.

A lot of people blame Trump’s success on the Republican party’s cultivation of an angry fringe of xenophobic, racist voters. But I think there’s a more important way in which Republican leaders (and Democrats, to a lesser extent) are responsible for creating Trump-friendly election conditions: By promoting the myth that politics is easy and that all it takes to solve our nation’s problems is good intentions, a few big ideas, and the willingness to voice them in the face of powerful “special interests,” political elites encourage voters to put a premium on a candidate’s perceived authenticity and to downgrade anyone who takes a minute to think about a question or who acknowledges that no policy is a panacea for the problems that we face. Every candidate who rails against the “Washington establishment” sets up voters to take Trump seriously when he says that our national leaders are “stupid” and that our problems are due to their allowing foreign countries to rip us off. Trump sounds like he’s saying the same thing, but more straightforwardly and honestly.

All of this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if authenticity were a trait that actually made for better presidents. But in fact, “authentic” shouldn’t be the number one personality trait we look for in our politicians, and there are many ways in which it can actually be a detriment. When you’re president, you have a lot of power. But in order to get you legislative agenda accomplished, you have to work with members of congress, many of whom, even within your own party, will disagree with one another about various things. Who do you think will be better at finding legislative compromises that a majority of Congress can get on board with: A president who always tells it like it is and is insensitive to others’ reactions, or one who takes his or her audience into account and adjust his or her rhetoric to the circumstances? “I’m not here to make friends,” the mantra of the reality television universe where Trump is most at home, isn’t actually an effective tactic for governing.

Demanding authenticity from politicians above all else runs into two problems. First, since authenticity is about the congruence of someone’s real self and the self they present to us, it’s really hard to evaluate, and we end up relying on very poor proxies to measure it, like someone’s willingness to stick to their guns when challenged, or how loudly and vociferously they express their opinion. Second, by looking for authenticity first, we penalize candidates for traits that might really be political assets. There’s obviously something like authenticity that we should want from our leaders; no one wants to be lied to or misled. But I think it’s better to just call that trait “honesty,” which has the advantage of pointing us to what they say instead of how they seem.

I’m not a big booster of the “our political system is broken” meme, but to the extent that it is, our demands that our politicians be authentic straight-talkers are at least partly responsible. Politics is hard, and it requires nuance and even some dissimulation in order to do it right. There’s a reason that “impolitic” is a mild way of saying “rude.” And as long as we keep rewarding candidates more for being Real than for being good politicians, can we really be surprised when @realDonaldTrump sucks up so much of our political attention?

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