Still, that’s pretty impressive company. The Occam’s razor explanation for Trump’s continued strength is that he’s a good politician, more so than is commonly recognized.
There’s much that’s unique to Trump, for better and mostly worse — the taunts and nicknames, the drive to create his own reality immune to facts and rationality, the unwillingness to honor basic norms, the serial break-ups with and denunciations of his own officials, among other idiosyncrasies and flaws.
Most of this is a detriment to him, not to mention his party and country. If Trump could have managed to conduct himself a little more appropriately as president, he’d likely still be in office today. Alienating the middle of the electorate cost him in 2020, and it will be a major drag on his 2024 prospects should he win the GOP nomination again.
The attachment of a substantial portion of the GOP to Trump is usually attributed to its irrational bond to the former president. There’s no doubt that his base will countenance almost anything he does, and come up with sometimes-contradictory justifications for whatever needs to be justified at any given moment. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that Trump was the best politician in the 2016 field, and may well be the best one in the 2024 field, too.
Beneath all the Trumpian qualities, there’s a politician with many of the traditional attributes long cultivated and prized by candidates and officeholders.
Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, once dismissed a job candidate because, “Nothin’ clanks when he walks.” That sense of charisma and authority is even more important in politicians than journalists, and Trump, who has now starred in three different realms — business, TV and politics — has the ability to command a room that can’t be taught or learned.
Since time immemorial, and certainly since the rise of the era of mass media, it has mattered whether a politician has personal magnetism and can draw attention. It was no accident that Ronald Reagan was a movie star. Barack Obama was never in entertainment, but Republicans dismissively referred to him, an instant political star with an intensely devoted following, as a celebrity.
Compared to other politicians, Trump is a little like how Eddie Murphy described Elvis Presley, whom Murphy admires for his sheer “presence.” As Murphy put it, “When Elvis walked into a room, Elvis Presley was in the fucking room.”
On top of this, Trump is a people person, whose endless appetite for talk makes most extroverts seem reserved by comparison. For better or worse (paging Nick Fuentes), he’ll talk to anyone, and was famously reachable by phone in the White House.
Not only that, as a long-time club owner, hosting and entertaining people is a professional obligation; he’s perfectly capable of being gracious when he wants to. This means he has the good politician’s knack for putting someone at ease and making it seem they matter to him, before getting to the main event — Trump himself, of course, and whatever he might want.
One reason that he’s gotten so many endorsements relative to the rest of the GOP field is that he’s happy to ask for them and lobby for them.
A key to political branding is repetition. It sometimes can be difficult to get first-time candidates used to repeating themselves. This has never been an issue with Trump, who repeats himself constantly, sometimes multiple times within a couple of sentences, without even trying. They are saying it’s the biggest rally anyone ever saw. It was big. All that anyone is talking about is how big it was.
Though he goes off on tangents on his social media and attacks people for no real gain (Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany), he’s relentlessly on message overall. You only have to pay a little bit of attention to him to understand that, according to him, he is ahead in the polls, targeted unfairly by the deep state and an INNOCENT MAN.
Another quality of successful political leaders is optimism. Some grim realism can be called for in a crisis, but there has to be a vision of something better at the end of the tunnel. Trump’s harsh depiction of the present — during which we are being destroyed by very stupid people in his telling — can make it easy to miss his over-the-top boosterism for the country when he was president, when everything was the greatest and best ever, from the economy to the military, and will be once again.
As a businessman and celebrity, Trump always painted in superlatives, and he still does. If this leads to wild over-promising, that’s a feature rather than a bug in terms of his political appeal. As the great Zionist Theodor Herzl said, it is the simple and fantastic that leads men. Trump seems to understand this adage somewhere in his bones. We should build a wall — simple. Mexico is going to pay for it — fantastic. He’ll end the Ukraine war — simple. In 24 hours — fantastic.
Finally, authenticity is the coin of the realm in politics. Trump is canny, but not overtly calculating. Nearly unadvisable, which his lawyers have learned to their regret, Trump has a free and easy quality. He’ll say whatever he wants, especially about his opponents, who, in contrast, carefully think through everything they are going to say about him, and often just duck and cover.
In general, Trump’s approach is to believe that the worst might happen and, if it does, he’ll find some way around it or through it. This can lead to catastrophic outcomes — losing the 2020 election and denying it; fighting the feds over documents and getting indicted for it — but he never seems over-matched by any circumstance or to believe he can end up anywhere but on top.
None of this is to say that he’s a lock for the GOP nomination.
At the end of the day, Republicans may make a cold-eyed calculation that his baggage is simply too great, or someone else could catch fire. Nor is it to deny that he’d represent an enormous risk as a general election candidate, or as president of the United States once again. No, it’s simply to say that a reason Trump’s GOP opponents are having such trouble getting traction is that the frontrunner is good at politics and in a strangely standard way.