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Why Trump's secret weapon works so well

If the comedian George Burns were alive today to witness the current state of politics, he might say, "Authe...

Posted: Nov 4, 2018 9:47 PM
Updated: Nov 4, 2018 9:47 PM

If the comedian George Burns were alive today to witness the current state of politics, he might say, "Authenticity is the key to winning elections. And if you can fake that, you've got it made."

In the workplace, the cliché has become, "bring your real self to work." For politicians, the imperative equivalent is "bring your authentic self to the campaign trail -- honesty is optional."

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It doesn't matter whether you're a political candidate or a breakfast cereal brand, everyone today is on a desperate quest to prove they're authentic. Perceived authenticity in politics has in many cases usurped qualifications and honesty.

There are two big problems this presents. Unlike a voting record or political platform, authenticity is like grabbing a fistful of mercury -- it can be pretty elusive, and hard to measure. Like former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity in 1964, "I know it when I see it." The other issue today is the increasingly blurry line between authenticity and honesty, a conflation that has paid enormous dividends for Donald Trump.

Historically, politicians have met their demise when caught in a lie. Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in 1974 after his persistent denials of involvement in Watergate were proven dishonest. In the wake of that, Jimmy Carter seized on the unparalleled importance (and opportunity) of honesty by making his successful 1976 campaign mantra, "I will never lie to you." It's a declaration Donald Trump repeated during his 2016 campaign. Ironically, according to The Washington Post's Fact Checker database, Trump made more than 5,000 false and misleading claims during his first 601 days in office, a fact that has not deterred his political base from sticking by his side.

So why hasn't dishonesty been Trump's Waterloo?

Because after decades of politicians turning insincerity into an art form, many Americans finally got fed up. They grew weary and even angry over their elected officials sounding scripted with every word.

In Texas, the senate race should be a slam-dunk, bloodbath of a win for Ted Cruz. On paper, the incumbent Republican, from a state as red as Trump's dangling neckties, should be mopping the floor with his Democratic challenger. And yet, the race is so close Cruz needed Trump, his once-bitter enemy, to come and stump for him. Why? There's that authenticity factor again.

When you juxtapose Beto O'Rourke's earnest answer to a question about NFL players protesting during the national anthem with Cruz's awkwardly long pause when asked to name one act he's done outside of politics that demonstrates who he is as a person, it's clear why the outcome is in question.

Playing not to lose now seems like a sure-fire way of sealing one's political doom. In trying to please everyone, a candidate is condemned to pleasing no one. Hillary Clinton discovered this the hard way. Donald Trump capitalized on it.

In the mind of many Americans, no one has been willing to "tell it like it is" for fear of political extinction. The basic communications axiom politicians have failed to grasp was that "the more Presidential a candidate behaves, the less authentic he or she may appear," according to Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

A candidate going off script has become like a canteen of cold water to someone marooned in the desert. Many Americans have been yearning for someone to step forward and throw all caution to the wind in a stream of unrehearsed, spontaneous, plain-talk messaging. Marco Rubio, who was criticized for repeating the same phrases during the 2016 presidential campaign, proved that you can't play it safe and script authenticity. Even his counter attacks on Trump seemed prepared, and his attempts to co-opt Trump's off-the-cuff strategy ended up being a colossal disaster.

Trump has perfected the art of unabashed, unapologetic and unrepentant conviction. In fact, if anything, he has doubled down on that strategy, realizing that it connects and resonates with voters who see him as one of their own. This is how he energizes his base. His genius lies in his shrewd instincts to not rely on others to micromanage and control his message.

Researchers have argued that people are willing to look the other way on truthfulness so long as that candidate appears to authentically channel their grievances against the establishment. Donald Trump scratches that itch. That is what is now defined as authenticity, even if the candidate is a "lying demagogue," according to a recent study in the American Sociological Review.

Perhaps that data was made available to Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh in the final days of the Supreme Court nominee's confirmation process. Their decision to change tactics and flash violent indignation was a page torn directly from the Trump playbook. Perhaps it was decided that the only reaction that could be perceived as authentic would be outrage. By the time it was all over, honesty had very little to do with it.

This new political reality may be on the minds of those running for office in the midterm elections. On November 7th, we will have a clear indication who followed the George Burns formula for success and learned to fake authenticity the most authentically.

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