Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 2, 2016
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
The rationality test
If Donald Trump is a rational person...then he should be working on an exit strategy.
There's no way to fulfill the promises he's made, and he'll be savaged for failing to live up to any of his promises should he somehow find himself in office. Losing the general election or being a failure as a President would each be harmful to his business interests. For a person who's built his entire career on inflating his record for "winning", there's no way for him to survive with that reputation intact, whether he were to lose the nomination, lose the general election, or somehow win and end up in the White House. Nobody would stay at the Hotel Nixon or the Hotel Dukakis, and Trump's entire equity is in his name.
The problem is, the farther in he gets, the harder it becomes to reverse course -- it's like going past the event horizon in a black hole. So he has to find an excuse to get out of the race, perhaps after gaining enough delegates to throw around his weight at the convention, but soon enough that he doesn't have to face the consequences of actually having to run or serve.
What could that out be?
- "My business needs my attention"
- "I have brought the issues forward and I trust that the nominee will act on them"
- "I'm too rich for this -- it's not worth my time"
- "I've proven what I need to prove"
But the real test now is whether that rationality is actually at play. I'm starting to lose faith that it is. He's one of the most gifted media manipulators of all time -- truly on a par with a PT Barnum. But skill at something like self-promotion doesn't imply intelligence, or wisdom, or judgment. Charisma is a different thing altogether. If you don't believe that, consider Kanye West. Whether you like rap or not, you have to admit that the linguistic and musical parts of his brain are special. But he's also half-bonkers.
I am convinced that Trump is much the same. He has a gift for capturing attention that surpasses anyone else I've seen -- but that doesn't mean he's equipped to succeed at the task of being the President.
It's easy to fall for the outward appearance of confidence, or of strength, or of success. We do it all the time. Consider this very radio show: If I had the exact same things to say but my voice sounded like I had been inhaling helium all afternoon, you couldn't possibly take me seriously. But thanks to anthropology and culture, I get away with saying things -- and with people thinking I'm authoritative -- just because I have a booming baritone voice.
I know that this effect benefits me, so I try to remind myself not to believe my own hype. It's hard -- especially because the act of wearing headphones has the funny effect of making you think you're hearing the voice of God when it's only you talking. But when you start to believe your own hype, that's the first step off the deep end.
And that brings us back around to the Trump situation. How big and loud is his echo chamber right now? And the more it feeds his behavior, the more outrageous the things he says. And that begets more attention, which amplifies the behavior. Marco Rubio -- a sitting member of the United States Senate -- could only compete for attention with him the other day by making jokes about the size of his hands, which is the kind of thing I remember going on in the fifth grade.
But the bigger and louder the echo chamber, the less likely it is that a rational course of action will ensue. Remember how Ross Perot played the "too rich to be bought" and "here's some straight talk" angles back in 1992? And then he started to go a little goofy and dropped out of the race...before re-entering and losing. He hit the peak of his public esteem partway through the election cycle.
Trump is the same way. If he pulls a George Costanza and leaves on what passes for a "high note" right now, he can leave his supporters begging for more and he never has to deliver on a thing. He can go on to live a life of shameless self-promotion and can always lean on telling people how much better things would have been if only they'd elected him by acclamation. Sticking around exposes him to (1) losing in the delegate race, (2) losing at a brokered convention, (3) losing in a general election, and (4) failing in office. It's not a rational gamble to go forward -- especially not if he actually has assets to lose.
But it's hard to believe that the rational thing to do is what's going to prevail this time around. It certainly hasn't so far. Should he get the nomination somehow, I think you're going to see a "Republican" Party (with the "Republican" part in air quotes), and a separate GOP-in-exile, composed of people from Nebraska's Senator Ben Sasse to House Speaker Paul Ryan to a whole slate of Republican governors across the country. These people may very well have to self-identify and say, "We'll be here to be the adults who re-assemble the Republican Party when this is all over."
Even assuming that Trump were to somehow get all the way to the Oval Office, I can't see him serving successfully as a two-term President. The act ultimately wears thin. The people punish failure to deliver on promises. The institutions of government might even act like there's an infection in the system and route decisions around it.
If nothing else, whether you're on the left, the right, or none of the above, there is almost certainly someone in the race right now who frightens you deeply. Whether you think everyone involved is rational or not, 2016 may be the best case we've ever had for separation of powers and limits to the authority of the executive branch. So, no matter what happens, we may just be better off after all.