Donald Trump’s supporters all use the same words to describe his appeal: He’s real. He’s authentic. He tells it like it is.
That has never been true. Trump’s always been a performer: an actor playing a character who seems authentic. But that’s not the same as actually being authentic.
Now Trump’s chief adviser — and the Trumpster himself — have confirmed that essential fact. His campaign is all an act, a reality show, “The Apprentice 2.” Except the catch phrase is not “You’re fired!” It’s “I’m hired!”
That adviser, Paul Manafort, told a closed-door meeting of Republican officials: “The part he’s been playing is evolving into the part of that you’ve been expecting, but he wasn’t ready for it because he had the first phase. You’ll start to see more depth to the person, the real person. You’ll see him in a different way.”
Get past the garbled syntax, and Manafort’s meaning is clear. Trump has been playing a part. Now that the Republican nomination is within reach, he’ll be “evolving” — assuming a new role, a new identity, for a new season.
Coming soon to a football stadium, TV screen or digital platform near you! “The Apprentice 3”!
If you think we’re being unfair, listen to Trump himself speaking at a rally in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In a rare moment of candor, he admitted what his campaign is really all about. It’s entertainment. It’s showtime!
“Being presidential is easy,” he said. “It’s much easier than what I have to do. Up here, I have to rant and rave and keep you people going, or else you’re going to fall asleep on me, right?”
Manafort — perhaps unwittingly — reinforced Trump’s point that as performer, as entertainer, only one goal matters: Keep ’em amused. Keep ’em awake. Keep ’em wanting more.
“When he’s out on the stage,” Manafort said of Trump, “when he’s talking about the kinds of things he’s talking about on the stump, he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose.”
Keeping folks amused and awake is a legitimate goal for a performer, but not for a president. For a president — or presidential candidate — Trumpism reeks of cynicism and deceit.
Let’s be clear. Acting and performance skills are an essential part of the modern presidency. If presidents cannot communicate their ideas and energize their supporters, they cannot lead and cannot succeed.
Ronald Reagan was once asked what it was like to be an actor in the White House, and he replied, “How can a president not be an actor?”
He was right about that. But Reagan used his immense experience as a performer to advance a core set of ideas that could be reduced to six words: smaller government, lower taxes, stronger defense. Whether you agreed with him or not, you knew what Reagan believed and where he stood.
Trump is very different. He has no core principles except for one: to glorify himself. Trump the Star! Trump the Brand! If he’s selling steaks or slogans, if he’s wooing voters or customers, it’s all the same. Rant and rave if you have to. Just keep ’em buying — whatever you’re selling.
Trump is very good at what he does. He’s a successful salesman because he senses what people want, and gives it to them.
“Donald Trump is a performer,” says David Axelrod, who advised Barack Obama. “That doesn’t take away from the fact that he has incredible instincts about where people’s vulnerabilities are — but at the end of the day, he’s a performer.”
Henry Briggs, writing for the website Mainline Media News, said of Trump: “His ‘shtick’ as performer is not singing or acting or stand-up comedy. It’s understanding an audience’s emotions and reflecting them back. And he is superb at that. Unfortunately he reflects their anger and hate, not aspiration and hope.”
This is the dilemma now facing Team Trump. The role he played on “The Apprentice 2” was to reflect and articulate the “anger and hate” expressed by a plurality — but not a majority — of Republican primary voters. And it worked, in part because his Republican foes were so feeble and feckless.
In the new season of “The Apprentice 3,” he will take on a new role — “being presidential” — while ranting and raving enough to keep his core followers happy. It may work again, although with two-thirds of all voters disliking him, the odds are not good.
But the New Trump is just like the Old Trump. An actor playing a part. There’s nothing real about him.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org