Still Telling It Like It Is?

March 30, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

If Donald Trump’s star begins to fade or even plummets from the firmament, his statements today about abortion may be the turning point. Trump said abortion should be banned and that “there should be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. A few hours later he issued a statement saying that he would criminalize only the people who performed the abortion, not the women.

The political problem is not that he is offending women – he’s been offending them all through the successful months of his candidacy. It’s that he risks being seen as a politician. For most of Trump’s hard core constituency, his appeal has not been his stand on the issues, except perhaps immigration. What they like in Trump is his seeming indifference to what others think. Trump is the un-politician, he’s the guy who “tells it like it is.”

Exit pollsters at the South Carolina primary in February asked people about the qualities of the six candidates. On the question, “Which candidate shares my values?” Cruz was the winner. But on “Which candidate tells it like it is?” The difference between Trump and all the others was overwhelming. (source here.)

“Telling it like it is” is not the same thing as being factual. Accuracy does not seem to matter much to Trump voters. Instead, the phrase means speaking your mind without regard to political correctness or political impact. It’s the Trump supporters’ version of “speaking truth to power.” Even Trump’s denigrating what Republicans had been hailing as John McCain’s war heroism cost him no votes. Trump was saying what he thought even though it might violate conservative canons of political correctness.

The South Carolina sentiments are reflected in a  Gallup poll in January that asked Republicans what they thought would be the best thing about a Trump presidency. Nearly a quarter of the responses fit into the tell-it-like-it-is category. Trump “says what he feels” and “does not back down.”

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

Today Trump was different. He put forward a position whose purpose seemed to be its political appeal rather than the expression of what he feels. Then three hours later, he backed down.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump said just two months ago. He may have been right. But today by changing his position in order to win votes and then changing it back for the same reason he just might be shooting down his own campaign.*


* I realize that this guess about Trump voters directly contradicts what I said about a particular Trump supporter, Alex Chalgren, in an recent post (here). It’s possible that most of Trump’s backers will find similar ways to resolve the dissonance. But there’s a difference. First, what happened today concerns character, not policy. Second, unlike Alex Chalgren, most of Trump voters and potential voters have not made their support of him so public. 

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