Does Trump’s Honesty Explain his Popularity?
When honesty goes rogue
Trump’s appeal may not be immediately obvious to all but there’s no denying the man has charisma despite coming across as gauche, inarticulate, and buffoonish. He is first and foremost an entertainer, the guy you can always count on to deliver a great show.
What if the awkward bluntness that never fails to reveal his shortcomings were the secret of his success, what endears him to his fan base? In terms of personal brand, how different is he from British PM Boris Johnson, who knowingly ruffles up his hair before every interview to accentuate his unkempt charm?
Try as he might, Oxford-educated American-born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson will never sound like a man of the people but his soundbites do; he is a former journalist after all. “Get Brexit Done” is the local version of “Make American Great Again”, a formula that taps directly into people’s frustrations.
Back in the US, Trump’s conversational tone and frequent linguistic malapropisms both in speech and on social media may makes him sound like a man of the people but he’s a consummate self-marketer, fluent in hyperbole. Plainly put, he speaks the local language of a country steeped in American exceptionalism and bipartisanship since the Connecticut Compromise. There’s no nuance because there doesn’t need to be any: In America, you always take a side; you’re for something or against it.
That Trump is a wealthy heir is a fact that remains frequently overlooked as his self-made image endures, the myth itself seemingly part of his father’s legacy.
And yet, Trump didn’t get to be Trump without others who empowered his ascent because it served their interests. Or because they identified with him and found him aspirational out of ignorance. His honesty was enough for them to form a good opinion of him so that by the time evidence caught up with them, they dismissed it as fake news and a witch hunt.
This is the power of echo chambers, of consuming unfiltered content on social media without doing our due diligence, of relying on media outlets that tell you what you want to hear even if they play fast and loose with journalism ethics.
We the people elevate mediocrity to celebrity status every single day because it has no airs and graces. Many of us cannot help but identify with the underdog, someone not very self-assured who makes it up as they go along, just like we do. Simply put, we admire those who, unlike us, do not let their limitations or shortcomings hold them back and who also don’t even try to fit in.
Daring to be oneself in a world of copycats is a radical act, especially when you happen to embody greed. In the US, lusting openly after fame and fortune is enough to conjure them up if you keep at it hard enough; the richer you appear to be, the more famous you get. But before you can parlay that fame into hard cash, you need to build the most boastful and bumptious origin story you can think of.
The bigger, the better when it comes to personal narratives; go big or go home. Trump is a master storyteller; it doesn’t matter that he never gets to the point because he knows how to capture an audience’s attention.
Because it is raw and unfiltered, we often equate honesty with vulnerability when the two aren’t always synonyms.
If anything, bluntness is a strength, not a weakness, and it has the added benefit of throwing your interlocutor off balance. When fame and fortune are accepted as the measure of a human whose value is quantifiable in dollars, many are those who look up to anyone with the gumption to go after them with as much fanfare as possible. If only we trusted ourselves we could do the same but we don’t. So we settle for living vicariously by enabling the likes of Trump instead.
When your self-messiah complex has you talking about yourself in the third person singular, trust that everyone will look at you and they likely won’t be able to look away. When you’re louder than everyone else, you become de facto un-ignorable; your perceived honesty continues to captivate the assembled multitudes even if it’s only a front, a sham. The very best thing you can do to command constant attention is stay on message with a pithy slogan, a tagline, a motto.
Anything referencing the glory of the country or honest work is guaranteed to do well and it does even better if you’re able to quantify it in dollars. As Trump himself is fond of saying, “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich”; flashing your cash isn’t just encouraged but de rigueur.
But is there really anything vulnerable about being insulated by wealth?
Colossal self-confidence from an anti-establishment candidate can make up for the absence of expertise, respect, and even credibility. Blundering fools who project a studied aura of incompetence know it is the quickest way to get their fan base to relate.
Trump proudly flaunts his shortcomings and crossed the digital Rubicon many years ago, emoting nonstop all over social media. After years as a reality TV show host, he spotted the opportunity for the validation grab and social media delivered.
He appointed himself the voice of the people, professing to look out for them so the masses wouldn’t notice he was turning the country into his personal showcase, with him always at the center. Meanwhile, his supporters keep praising his determination to “drain the swamp” and his risk-taking even when he plays them for fools.
When honesty becomes manipulative, can we still equate it with goodness if it takes advantage of us? When self-confidence becomes the drug that fuels an ego out of control constantly seeking reassurance, aren’t we likely to forget no human is ever above any other?
And in the particular case of the United States, that no one is above the law?
Our daily life is a Billy Joel song on a loop.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.