jump to navigation

Trump: Another Blank Slate On Which Voters Project Their Views (Forbes.com) March 23, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump is breaking all the political molds this year.  But he does fit one recent and disturbing trend quite well:  On issues, he is essentially a blank screen on which people are projecting their own views and preferences.

Barack Obama was the pioneer of this trail in 2008.  As he wrote in his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  Part of Obama’s blank screen was that he was a relative newcomer to national politics, serving in only his first term as a U.S. Senator.  He was no Hillary Clinton, with a long record of speeches, votes and position papers on major issues.  And, let’s face it, his primary campaign theme—“hope and change”—was hardly the stuff of detailed policy briefings.  Obama was seen more as a fresh, new figure who might bring people together in a post-racial society.

Hiding behind an opaque screen has also become the path to success for Supreme Court nominations.  Ever since legal expert Robert Bork was defeated over his clearly developed views from years of court opinions, articles and speeches, the premium has been on nominating young candidates with very little record to attack.  Elena Kagan was the classic example of this, a young law school dean who had never been a judge and had argued only 6 court cases in her career, she had no substantive record to examine or attack.

Now comes Donald Trump, a kind of Wizard of Oz figure hiding behind his throne-room screen of marketing campaigns and reality television.  If Obama and Cruz had thin national political records as first-term senators, Trump has none.  From behind the screen come very few thoughtful position papers but, instead, one-liners.  He is fine with affirmative action for now.  Gay marriage is a reality.  Common core is a disaster.  Climate change is a hoax.  Cut the EPA, what they do is a disgrace.  Like Obama’s broad “hope and change” theme, Trump has his vague let’s “make America great again.”

With little from Trump to go on, important constituencies must therefore be projecting their own views onto his candidacy.  Take evangelical Christians, one very important Republican constituency.  Why would they be supporting Donald Trump?  He said he is a member of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, but the congregation quickly released a statement saying he was not an active member.  He claimed the Bible was his favorite book, though he was unable or unwilling to name his favorite passage.  He’s been married three times, uses crude and insulting language and is historically pro-choice.  In short, there’s nothing in Trump’s actual record to appeal to evangelicals, yet he has won one-third of evangelical voters, more than Southern Baptist Ted Cruz.  That takes a lot of projecting by evangelicals onto the Trump screen.

The economy is another area where voters project something that does not entirely make sense.  A recent Fortune-Morning Consult poll said Trump would be the best presidential candidate for the stock market (27% versus 6%-7% for the other Republican candidates).  But the reality is that Trump’s relatively few stated positions on economic policy do not obviously lead to growth.  He is actively promoting trade wars, denigrating NAFTA and the TPP.  The Economist Intelligence Unit rated a Trump presidency the sixth largest threat to the global economy.  So again, some serious projecting is going on for voters to make him into an economic savior.

So far, Trump’s campaign is policy-lite, way less calories than your normal campaign but also less filling.  It appears that voters are not interested in holding him accountable for this, instead projecting onto him with a kind of Rorschach test whatever they want to see.  And so the great marketing campaign—let’s face it, this is not really much of a political campaign—for brand Trump rolls on.  It can only be stopped now in Cleveland on a second ballot vote, or later.  Stay tuned!

To see the column at Forbes.com


%d bloggers like this: