When a politician is accused of having a communications problem, it is generally due to their message not resonating with voters. The master of resonating with voters was President Ronald Reagan, who was known as “The Great Communicator” due to the simple fact that he understood how people took in and processed information and was able to adapt that understanding to speeches and debates. I believe that the worst communicator in recent memory was John Kerry, a man who ran against a very beatable George W. Bush in 2004 but had an incredibly boring delivery, and he often spoke over the heads of others, which only amplified his monotonous drudging.
President Trump has a different kind of communications problem. He obviously understands how to convey a message to people. He knows how to play off crowd reactions; he knows when to input humor and go off script. However, his problem is that he tends to be off in his perception of what his base wants to hear. Nothing proves this more than Yair Rosenberg’s article in Washington Post last month entitled “Trump keeps pushing anti-Semitic stereotypes. But he thinks he’s praising Jews.” In this piece, Rosenberg correctly asserts that the president believes the negative stereotypes about Jews to be true, but doesn’t really see them as negatives. Being wealthy and powerful, having the ability to buy politicians, and secretly controlling the world from the shadows are all generally thought to be the base of anti-Semitic culture. However, Trump sees all of these as his own goals. He likes these terrible labels and wants in on the action.
So when the president is speaking to a Jewish delegation and tells them that unlike other politicians he can’t be bought, he’s giving them one of the highest of compliments in his mind: that they know how to buy off politicians. At the same time, he’s complimenting himself even higher: that he’s onto the game. As Rosenberg asserts, Trump is not anti-Semitic, he’s philo-Semitic. In his mind, this kind of message is one that people – powerful people, Jewish people – want to hear. He thinks the Jews absolutely control the media, and should be – and are – proud of it. Trump either does not know about or does not understand the harm of these stereotypes, either historically or presently. However, the one point that needs to be added onto this is that Trump’s narrative isn’t exclusive to Jews.
Trump doesn’t understand this about a wide variety of topics. He himself lives in a bubble. In this bubble he is perceived publicly exactly how his mind believes he ought to be perceived, and this means that when he makes a comment, he expects that those listening or reading the comment have the understanding he has. Take for instance the incident during the 2016 campaign when CNN host Chris Cuomo asked him to disavow David Duke. I don’t believe Trump to be a racist, and he has since disavowed Duke repeatedly since the incident. But when faced with a situation where he wasn’t sure of the correct path, he went with what he thought his base would like to hear. In that spot I would imagine that his brain went “I don’t know who this Duke guy is. I know I don’t like Cuomo. This could be a trick question to get me to comment on someone I’m supposed to like. I bet my base would like me to smack Cuomo for even asking that. I’ll do that.” It obviously backfired. But I don’t believe it’s because Trump likes David Duke. I think at that point he was afraid that he was being asked a trick question, and wrongly assumed that this is how his base wanted him to respond.
This wasn’t the only time on the campaign trail that he had this type of misstep. When asked about the abortion, Trump responded that women who have abortions should be punished. He didn’t say this because that’s what he actually thought. I don’t believe President Trump actually understood his stance on abortion at the time. So what does he do when he doesn’t understand something? He guesses what his base wants to hear. In this particular case, he guessed that pro-lifers wanted women punished. He guessed wrong, and retracted it almost immediately. Just like he did with David Duke.
By the way, in no way is President Trump alone in this. Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris has flipped on her position on private health insurance four times already precisely because she doesn’t understand what her base wants to hear. It’s not a Trump-exclusive issue, but he seems to be more susceptible than others.
Trump’s communications problem isn’t from him to the people. His issue is that he tends to not understand what the people want. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was notorious for not prepping for debates, especially against Hillary Clinton. He kinda just winged it. Not being prepared is what gets you into trouble when you are asked something you don’t know about. And these aren’t very nuanced questions that he was having trouble with. He should know about general anti-Semitic tropes. He should know what his policy on abortion is. He has to be aware who David Duke is, especially right after the man publicly endorsed him on his radio show.
Now that we are moving into the next election cycle, and the president will have to go on TV and debate, and he’ll be asked all sorts of questions (including the “gotcha” questions), he must spend more time preparing. He can’t brush off his staff when they want him to study opponents or learn about interviewers’ and moderators’ styles. President Trump’s next opponent won’t be Hillary Clinton, and he won’t be able to fall back on the fact that his opponent is less likeable than he is. He must do better, and this starts with understanding his actual positions, and how not to perpetuate stereotypes even if he considers them positive.
Izzo Zwiren works in healthcare administration, constantly concerning himself with the state of healthcare politics. The topic of healthcare has led Izzo to become passionate about a variety of political issues affecting our country today. Aside from politics, Izzo is a fan of trivia, stand-up comedy, and the New York Giants. Izzo lives on Long Island with his wife and two adorable, hilarious daughters.