Competence, With a Flaw

Brian Gongol

If you want to know how Donald Trump won the election -- and how Democrats lost in places the experts would never have expected -- then you need to understand Ben Sasse's teeth.

First, let us start with this assertion: Americans like and want competence, but we seem to insist that it be accompanied by a flaw.

We see this all the time on television: The title character in "House" is a brilliant physician, but he's also a narcissistic painkiller addict. The title character in "Bones" is a socially-inept genius. Even the idealized President Bartlet of "The West Wing" had to be held back by his stunted emotional development and short temper.

Projecting this into the real world of politics, we can start to see how the stars aligned for Donald Trump, contrary to the expectations of most of the expert forecasts. It all comes down to the gut instincts of voters who were undecided until the end -- a group that was three times bigger late in this race than it was in 2012.

Let's take a look at the last four major-party Presidential candidates:

Mitt Romney was expressly, demonstrably, and indisputably competent. We know now, for instance, that he was dead right about Russia and suffered inexcusable mockery for seeing what his opponents couldn't. He had a record of success in business, the non-profit sector, and government. It was a textbook resume demonstrating a lifetime of ideal preparation for the job of President. But Romney's undoing may have been that he was simply too polished. The movie "Mitt" came out too late to humanize him in the eyes of the electorate -- though it revealed an utterly decent and honorable human being behind the scenes. Romney was pilloried throughout the campaign over perceptions that he was out of touch with working people and too patrician to care. Unfair though that perception was, it hammered him at the ballot box.

Barack Obama has been a great character in office, but he's done grossly incompetent things as a manager. He had no prior experience as an elected executive (like a governor) prior to assuming the Presidency, so it should be no surprise that he developed a reputation for micro-management. His election was more about a cult of personality than proven competence -- witness how quickly he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after assuming office. And by centering on the Obama personality rather than grooming successors and laying the foundation for a future, the 44th Presidency turned even a Cabinet post into "the worst job in Washington". (Name recognition among the Obama Cabinet even now seems awfully low.) And with violence in Syria and elsewhere leading to an epic refugee crisis in Europe, high-profile violence in Chicago and attacks on police officers around the country, and massive price increases for health insurance taking hold practically everywhere, the touchstones give a lot of casual viewers the perception that America isn't doing very well right now. Many of the facts say otherwise -- objectively speaking, things are actually relatively good overall in the country. But most voters aren't driven by impersonal facts -- they're driven by the anecdotes that confirm what they're already inclined to believe.

Given the chance to demonstrate her capability on the world stage as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made some errors of judgment that turned out to be whoppers. The e-mail server scandal was the biggest, but she was also dogged by other criticisms of judgment, including accusations of pay-for-play behavior at the Clinton Foundation and her handling of the attack on our diplomatic installation at Benghazi. Her high point was, without a doubt, the moment when the photograph was taken of her on board an airplane in 2011, wearing sunglasses and checking her BlackBerry. In that moment, she looked -- and was perceived as being -- utterly competent, and a little bit cool. It was all to go downhill from there. There is plenty of reason to believe that she has always faced extraordinary criticism as a woman, but the plain fact is that she hadn't put a "win" in her own column for competence since leaving the State Department in 2013. And, late in the election, the FBI cast a tremendous shadow on her reputation.

Before we get to the fourth candidate, a brief diversion: To people who pay close attention to politics, 2016 was a long, complex affair. But "people who pay close attention to politics" aren't a majority. Far from it, as demonstrated by the massive share of American adults who didn't even bother to vote this year.

To people who don't pay much attention to politics, then perceptions dominate. Politicians aren't boxes of cereal or new cars, but they are branded like them -- whether intentionally or not.

Ben Sasse, the freshman United States Senator from Nebraska, gets that intuitively. He is extraordinarily intelligent. He has a first-class resume (including a Harvard undergraduate degree, a Ph.D. from Yale, consulting experience, and a college presidency). He communicates with an ease that seems so natural and instinctive that it is obviously the result of unrelenting practice.

He also has bad teeth.

He knows it. He even pokes fun at himself for it. And odds are good that he's never going to change it, because he knows it's a humanizing feature. He -- or, more accurately, his political brand -- seems more authentic because he has funny teeth and drove an Uber (for charity) and uses people he met at Walmart to round out his anecdotes.

Ben Sasse knows that for most Americans to tolerate his competence, they have to think he's a human. So he amplifies the signals of his flaws and his normalcy to help support his brand.

Donald Trump is something totally different: He has spent 35 or 40 years building a myth of competence around himself. His relentless publicity-seeking brought him attention first from the New York media, then national attention as he began to appear on magazine covers and in ghostwritten books. But the true culmination of this myth-building exercise was "The Apprentice", which gave him 14 seasons of prime-time self-promotion, with all of the accoutrements of power and wealth. It was television built on spectacle, and NBC bears almost total responsibility for cementing the myth of Trump's competence.

And it is a myth. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and he has made some extraordinary claims about his wealth -- without presenting a shred of evidence. But because his name is on the sides of buildings and golf courses and a single airplane, people don't look deeper. For whatever reason, Trump gets credit for ownership by putting his name on the side of a building he doesn't own -- even though most people know that Michael Jordan doesn't own Nike and neither does LeBron James. Trump also benefits from having been born into wealth. His business "success" shouldn't be judged by how much he has, but by whether he actually has more than he would have gotten by putting his money in the stock market and sitting quietly for the last three or four decades. (Again, the fact he hasn't been transparent about his finances makes this hard to prove or disprove, but there are reputable sources that say he should've just bought index funds.)

Would it matter if more people understood that Trump is predominantly a glorified endorsement artist, rather than a proven business owner? Maybe or maybe not. But that's not how he has been branded -- relentlessly -- and thus that's not the message that matters. We would know how successful he really is if he were to release tax returns and audited balance statements. But he's not going to do that; those would challenge the myth.

And as for his parallels with Ben Sasse's teeth? In Trump's case, everyone knows his obvious flaws: He craves attention, doesn't behave politely, and showers himself in gaudy glitz. Trump is rude, angry, and prone to picking fights. But all of these things make him seem scrappier than, say, Mitt Romney -- even if Romney was demonstrably more prepared to do the job well. And, to people looking to pick a fight against the status quo, a general air of itching for a fight may have been a feature, not a bug.

In the end, the shorthand take on the election was that Hillary Clinton didn't look competent, and Donald Trump did. And, to many voters, Trump's many character flaws simply made him look real. Among the extraordinary number of last-minute undecided voters in 2016, he almost certainly won on branding.

Here's what to look for in the weeks, months, and possibly years ahead: Trump has always swung from one branding scheme to another. Vodka. Wine. Steaks. Casinos. Airlines. (A non-trivial number of failures among them.) And, remember, most of his income today appears to be based on brand-licensing agreements, not actual operating businesses.

But in the White House, what will define him is what defines every President: The things that will take him by surprise. So while many people voted for him because he looks like he can "get the job done", he's made countless promises that he simply cannot keep. The backtracking has already begun, and the backlash from disappointed supporters has already started, too -- before he has even taken the Oath of Office.

Likely to be most frustrating to many of Trump's supporters are his promises of "jobs, jobs, jobs!" It's a promise virtually everyone wants to come true -- but if people believe that he is going to "create" lots of manufacturing jobs by imposing high tariffs and targeting American companies that "move jobs overseas" for punishment, then the reality is going to be surprising and painful.

First, it is evident to anyone who routinely interacts with America's manufacturing economy that automation does away with far more jobs than foreign labor. It's called technological unemployment. In pockets of the economy, yes, there have been clear job losses to foreign plants. But the broader effect across the economy has been that America's industrial sector has produced far more output with far fewer workers than in the past, and it will continue to move in that direction -- unless the government somehow interferes with the installation of new computers, machines, and robotics.

Another major problem that would emerge if Trump were to interfere in the manufacturing sector with new regulations or tariffs is that the United States actually does very well at high-end, high-sophistication manufacturing. But the assembly of high-end products often requires supply chains that draw from around the world. For America to produce high-value products for domestic use (and export!), then we need to be able to draw from competitive sources of raw materials and component goods from around the world.

This is important: Cutting off trade doesn't "create" new manufacturing jobs -- it only hurts the high-end manufacturing jobs we already have. Trump has talked nothing about the real need, which is for policies that help people who lose their jobs to trade or technology. We don't need trade barriers, nuisance regulations, and higher taxes (remember, after all, tariffs are taxes) -- we need thoughtfully-constructed systems for worker training and retraining, education, and community assistance when major employers close down, no matter what the cause.

Underline this last point. Highlight it. Mark it in bold. With a few important exceptions, the mainstream thinking in both major parties has gotten it all wrong for years. Lots of Democrats are viscerally opposed to opening up international trade. And lots of Republicans have failed to acknowledge that even as most of us benefit from trade and technology, there are concentrated pockets where people have been harmed and have seen little help coming their way. The solution isn't mushy government meddling in everything, but rather the focused use of government resources to help people to help themselves. It's no wonder that lots of people feel let down by the government and think that it has been incompetent: There has been a widespread failure to help individuals and communities adapt to economic change, and a lot of people quite understandably feel left behind because of it.

In the short run, Trump can do things to the economy that may look like they're working -- and he will parade those purported successes, like the wrangling over the Carrier plant in Indiana. But when the reality sets in that the government can't bribe, cajole, and strong-arm every manufacturer in the country without bankrupting both our Treasury and our souls, then Trumpism will have run out of steam.

So, having won the White House on the basis of promises he cannot fulfill, and facing surprises down the road for which he has no experience (and no interest in preparing), the long-run political question is this: Can he successfully pin the blame for what goes wrong on someone else? It may depend on how much his supporters want to continue to believe the myth, long after the incompetence has reared its ugly head. It's important to note that we're all in this together as a country: Good jobs and high incomes are in the best interests of all. But if it is plain to see that the effects of government policy are likely to produce precisely the opposite, then it is the duty of people who can see the potential for harm to speak up about it and put corrective ideas on the table.

It would be a big mistake for the Republican Party to think that Trump's win was a victory for the GOP. It will turn out to be pyrrhic. Trump was an independent candidate who hijacked the GOP and who will drive its brand into the ground upon the first signs that doing so might help him personally. Both major parties demonstrated appalling weakness in 2016: The Republican Party was too weak to resist him, and the Democratic Party was too weak to beat him.

When things go wrong, Trump may succeed in blaming the Republican-led Congress, at least in the short run. But it's a gambit that will expire eventually. He has every opportunity -- and reason -- to correct his course, considering it's barely underway. And if he does adopt a more thoughtful approach to lining up our economic future, it will be to his credit and we should collectively cheer. He doesn't have to choose a self-defeating path. He has the freedom to take good advice and, if he really wants, to do a great deal of good. But it will require taking a different course than the one he has laid out.

Trump himself -- way back in 1988 -- teased a bid for the Presidency by saying, "What I want is I want extreme competence. I want strength and extreme competence. And you need a combination of both, but I want strength and extreme competence at the helm of this country." It is imperative for the good of the country that he comes to see how a change in course would be a credit to his own competence. He built the edifice of tremendous expectations: Now he has to live in it.