Watching Donald Trump try to evade Chuck Todd’s cross examination on the recent Sunday’s “Meet the Press” supports the growing conclusion that the presumptive Republican pretender is nothing more than an unreconstructed huckster of snake oil in modern clothes, totally without portfolio or credential, whose sole ambition is really to become the richest man in the world.
Facts are immaterial, truth is relative, policy is fluid, and consistency has four syllables. Words are but tools to convince the listener that Trump’s snake oil will cure anything, anywhere, anytime, and for anybody. He will say anything that he thinks will operate to enhance his position.
But wait – there is not a single detail in there, anywhere to be found. The labels on the bottles are all blank, the handouts are unintelligible, and his web site makes no sense. No matter how hard one looks, nothing adds up. This huge hole in the structure will not work for the general election. Trump cannot continue this charade, and he will be found out. Won’t he?
Perhaps not. To the huckster, the lack of detail does not matter a whit; the actual contents of the elixir he is peddling is completely irrelevant. It is the illusion he is pushing, not the reality. If any direct question is posed that would penetrate to the actual core of any of his declarations, Trump’s standard tactic is to (a) change the subject, (b) immediately pivot the response to some other grandiose hyperbolic declaration, or (c) attack the motives, integrity or fairness of the inquirer. More recently, and especially with foreign policy topics, Trump has been admitting that he is providing no details and blatantly says he has no intention of doing so. He suggests that these details are part of the problem; that we should be less transparent in our dealings with foreign nations. He claims that we should keep our enemies and allies, and now apparently even ourselves, guessing about future intentions.
Up to now, all of these tactics have been more or less accepted without serious challenge. With multiple contenders in the mix, there simply was not time available to chase down all the inconsistencies, vagaries, omissions and just plain hogwash contained in the various contenders’ campaign materials. However, now that the campaign is moving into general election territory, all his may change.
The recent “Meet the Press” is an indication that things might not be so easy any more. Now that the focus of attention is on the general election, the press is going to expect much more than simple bumper-sticker sound bites. For example, when Trump contradicted a previously stated position on domestic policy, Chuck Todd immediately jumped him on it. Before Todd let up, Trump tried to change the subject twice, flip-flopped on his original answer, and then simply denied what he had originally said. It was typical of the double-talk and legerdemain that used to work where the opposition was a stringer in a press gaggle. This time, with Todd’s persistence, it left Trump looking foolish and provided grist for the media mill that was still grinding away on on Monday.
Everyone maintains that Trump will have to turn towards the center once the campaign shifts to general election mode, but his early machinations seemed to imply that he has no intentions of doing so. His personal slurs against the Clinton’s come on the heels of his promise to keep the campaign on policy unless Hillary attacks first. His battle with Speaker Ryan makes no sense if he is willing to work with the establishment Republicans in formulating policy. Picking a stepped-up fight with Elizabeth Warren is both unnecessary and just plain dumb politics. Warren isn’t running for anything, and has nothing to risk by taking Trump on full tilt. Trump has neither time nor capacity to take on a gutter fight with Warren; such is decidedly un-presidential, with no upside to gain from the fray. Trump is now only one week into the new general election mode, and he already has three open, un-presidential squabbles raging on gutter issues not relating to policy, with one being inside his own party.
An intriguing thought comes to mind. All of this may not matter at all. All good trial lawyers know the laws of primacy and recency in the art of persuasion. The law of primacy says that the proposition presented first will hold greater influence over a proposition presented later, regardless of merit or who says it. The law of recency says that the last proposition presented is more important that any propositions presented earlier, again, regardless of merit or who says it. These laws do not say anything about merit, fairness or truth. These so-called rules of persuasion simply talk about being first, and last, and loudest.
It occurred to me that Trump has been demonstrating his understanding of these rules in spades, over and over again. When he introduces a declaration against an opponent, it is a barrage. It will have any number of parts, some supported, some not, with no differentiation. When the reply comes, it will invariably hit only one or two of the key elements of the declaration. From the standpoint of logic, or from the actual evidence of what is true and important, defeating the key issues may appear to be sufficient to demonstrate the weakness of the entire declaration; but from the standpoint of the laws of primacy, addressing only the key issues leaves all of the unmet assertions still on the table.
This means from the sheer number of issues, Trump may be ahead, and he will then reiterate his declaration, ignoring the reply and referring to the entirety of his statement in shorthand versions. The reiterations come as often as necessary to assure Trump that he has made the first and last declaration on the topic, accomplished with the most frequency, thereby satisfying all the laws of primacy and recency.
The discerning examiners may not be fooled; they will have paid attention to the actual evidence, to the key issues, and to the proper weight to be attached, and will have reached their conclusions on actual policy, realistic assessment of resources, and feasible reaction. On virtually every one of Trump’s issues presented thus far, he will lose this kind of analysis resoundingly.
But the passing listeners among us who are just now beginning to look into the events of the day may well register only the volume of issues, the frequency of iterations, and the primacy and recency of the arguments advanced. To these ears, it may not matter that the arguments are not consistent, or that the facts are exaggerated, or that truth seems elusive. All of this might be passed off as the natural expectation of politics.
The only consideration that persists over the rumble of the ongoing arguments is that Trump is first and last and loudest on these matters, which may lead the undiscerning listener to believe that Trump will refuse to accept things as they are; to accept the assertion that box needs shaking; and to believe Trump’s claim that he truly intends to shake the box.
If this is how it is going to happen, and if Hillary, or the Democrats, or the establishment Republicans, or the media, or someone, cannot convince the majority out there to look past the colorful canvas and stripped awnings and the cases of unmarked elixir stashed away, and recognize the imbedded fallacy of first, last and loudest, and see instead the real issues at stake – we very well may deserve what we get.
That huckster may just carry the day.