How does Donald Trump do it? How does he keep gaining on Hillary Clinton while saying things that are controversial, ill-informed, or demonstrably wrong?
Take Wednesday’s commander-in-chief forum with the presidential candidates on NBC.
Mr. Trump said again, contrary to hard evidence, that he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning.
He said United States generals had been reduced to “rubble” and suggested he would fire many of them, which is largely beyond the power of a president to do.
He defended Russia’s Vladimir Putin, saying he’s been a stronger leader than President Obama.
And he called for the military to set up an internal system of courts – something it’s had for hundreds of years.
Asked by a Marine veteran how he’d stabilize the Middle East, Trump said the Obama administration had done a terrible job there, then pivoted to talk about a favorite subject: that the US should have taken Iraq’s oil at some point since 2003.
“We would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil,” said Trump.
Leaving the morality and legality of such an action aside, this would involve a “supertanker-size set of problems,” notes an analysis in The Washington Post. Seizing Iraq’s oil would require substantial US forces to stay in the country for years to come.
Mrs. Clinton has her own problems. Most notably, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has documented that she lied about aspects of the personal email server she used while secretary of State.
But Donald Trump is something wholly new in US politics. His combination of false statements, non-answers, and inflammatory assertions would have sunk most contenders for American office. Instead, Trump is inching closer and closer to Clinton in the polls.
How does he do it?
Different candidates, different expectations
For one thing, he is perhaps running as a populist, in the sense that he has little interest in expert opinion and a lot of interest in validating the feelings of his followers.
Thus he often says he knows as much about the Islamic State as the generals. His rallies are intended to whip up emotions more than intellectually convince.
“It’s kind of a brilliant strategy in some senses. You can be fact-free if you are running on feelings and you are running on your sense of things. The facts are really less important,” says Shana Gadarian, an expert in political communication and psychology and professor at Syracuse University in New York.
Fact-checkers and liberal pundits are just the sort of people Trump is running against. His core followers may be attracted to him for just that reason. Their faith in the institutions that run America, from the government to corporations to the media, has been slumping for decades. Now they have a leader who simply defies these groups. They find that energizing.
In contrast, Clinton is running as someone qualified to be president due to traditional credentials of policy expertise. For a candidate like that, facts matter a lot. The perceived accuracy of her statements will have a large effect on whether she’s seen as credible.
Political neophyte Trump can float above that. Many of his voters may not expect him to know the sorts of details that in the past have been markers of preparation for the Oval Office.
“Trump’s strategy is to say that experts don’t know as much as they purport to know, and they don’t know as much as ‘we’ know collectively,” says Professor Gadarian.
Then there’s the media. As an institution, its credibility is low with all Americans, and lowest with Republicans and self-described conservatives. The fracturing of the media landscape and the rise of partisan news outlets lets voters choose the news they like the most.
Mainstream media fact-checkers? They’re liberal partisans, as far as many Trump supporters are concerned, no better than Rachel Maddow or Daily Kos.
“Trump’s percentage of the electorate doesn’t believe anything the media says,” says Brian Rosenwald, a political historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on the political impact of talk radio. “Fact-checking doesn’t stick to him because [Trump voters] don’t see those voices as credible.”
Then there is the fire-hose problem. Trump piles outrageous statement on top of questionable assertion so fast it is difficult for any interviewer, particularly broadcast interviewers or debate moderators, to keep up.
Some of Trump’s assertions get challenged, but others do not. They are quickly dispersed via social network sound bites to millions of viewers and supporters. The old media is overwhelmed.
“The system is just not set up for this kind of candidate,” says Professor Rosenwald.
Political polarization ensures Trump a large base of support whatever he says. The ideological sorting of parties into identifiable left and right groups during the past 40 years makes 30 to 40 percent of America likely to back Trump (or Clinton) under virtually any foreseeable circumstance. They’re on the GOP (or Democratic) team. That’s the most important part of their political identity.
This means neither candidate is likely to win in a landslide or be crushed as badly as Barry Goldwater was in 1964 and George McGovern was in 1972.
The next big test for Trump’s unique approach to political rhetoric will come with the first presidential debate on Monday, Sept. 26. He’ll face directly with Hillary Clinton for the first time.
“I think you’ll see a very interesting clash of styles,” says Rosenwald.