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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

What President Trump Would Want from a Political Brand

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Donald Trump knows how to win popularity. When it comes to his personal life, he dishes dirt.

But now when it comes to his politics, he doesn’t even feel like stirring up trouble.

The reason is his “wall.” Trump is in the habit of grabbing headlines by dishing dirt on people. Marco Rubio wanted to support a comprehensive immigration bill and saying a wall would make a better deal. Trump said it would be cheaper and smaller and better. Marco liked it.

Other Republicans want immigration reform, but Trump has said it’s “too easy” and it would be useless. He promises it would make Americans hate Mexicans and increase immigration by people with questionable backgrounds. He says talk of raising the minimum wage is a “waste of time.”

Trump made an intriguing kind of political calculation when he learned that his inaugural speech was lackluster, but didn’t want to say anything that might show how bland his speech had been. So he scrapped it.

What kind of politics would Trump want? One with backstabbing. One with skeevy behavior. One with tough-guy machismo.

I want a politics of spoofs, of demagoguery, of exaggeration, of brazen dishonesty. What would a Trump “brand” be about?

John Edwards thought voters liked his charm, his enthusiasm and his funny memoirs. His strategists thought his slogan, “a man who knows what he’s talking about,” might sway wavering independent women. But the opposite was true. And then his philandering became known, scuttling his reputation.

Trump must know his potential audience. A negative public-image campaign might work for Bill Clinton. Voters liked his coif and his husky voice.

But now his problem is that if you’re a Republican, you’re either smearing or aping Trump. And few are tempted to be the first one.

I think Trump could find success by making fun of himself. I thought it might work for Marco Rubio.

Trump has always struggled to project leadership qualities. He doesn’t have the all-American look — the farmer’s son, the boarding-school graduate, the college-exam prodigy. At large rallies he’s a caricatured, small-town caricature of the blue-collar Midwest. In TV interviews, he comes across as unnaturally overstressed and hyper-eager.

He knows he has a bad image. He can see when he overstates himself. But what bothers him is when people slam him for being himself. It would be interesting to see him as the self-effacing public servant that he so clearly isn’t.

For decades, the Republican Party has coveted the votes of Catholics, Hispanics and blue-collar whites. It has been trying to get them to the polls. The strategy has been rather predictable: Denounce immigration and embrace racism.

I can’t imagine Trump mounting an ugly attack on his gender. He has a partner. But if he starts trying to become a real president, the job will be pretty difficult — especially if Democrats coalesce around their solid economic message and turn out crowds of student- and older-looking voters in droves.

Trump could really mess up things. Republicans have been hoping that he will get overwhelmed by all his failures — be sued for racial discrimination, be investigated for tax evasion, be indicted for obstruction of justice.

Democrats could exploit all that damage to him, and Trump might feel like an amusing sideshow. And all that time he would be tiring himself out. At some point, the bored and exhausted candidate would declare that he was bored with running. He’d fade quickly from the race.

Much like other candidates, Trump knows how to raise and lower his self-esteem.

But now he seems confident that Democrats are intimidated by themselves and are too busy being progressive anti-racists to go after him. If Trump finds a way to mock himself, he could take it to a new level and get in a second wind.

See how much fun he is having! What fun he’s having!

— Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He blogs at nkristof.com.

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