Sometimes in politics the “message behind the message” is the one you really want to hear and understand. The real message is not in the words spoken, but what they reveal. Comes now the voice of a powerful, historically successful, potential Republican nominee, Mr. Trump. He seems perpetually unhappy, at least with his competitors. Not one has escaped his quixotic attacks, some blunt and crass, others inferential and insinuating, many harsh and quite personal. Some are followed by “clarifications,” back-pedaling. Over time, he has moved from brash to rash, and the shtick is getting old.
Apparently this is something Mr. Trump learned in business. He brings interesting habits to the table. They may reveal something about how he grew his father’s inheritance. One wonders if there are not untold stories, drawn from negotiating tables across New York. Beyond bravado, Mr. Trump seems an adherent of sharp practices, the roller-derby approach to human relations, bump, stomp and move on.
In any event, Mr. Trump’s political competitors have – to varying degrees – taken these incendiary, personal barbs and trash talk in stride. They have responded in different ways. Carly Fiorina did not shout “sexist” when Trump made comments about her “face, with “clarifications” he meant “persona.” Ben Carson did not become crass when his comments on Christianity and the importance of humility offended Mr. Trump.
Jeb Bush, listening to Mr. Trump savage his family, did not become less a gentleman. Senators Cruz and Rubio have risen to defend themselves and other conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, when hit with broadsides. Rubio is now told by Mr. Trump that he “sweats” too much (apparently Trump does not), while Cruz is (rather ironically) painted as insufficiently sensitive.
All this is novel. It also speaks to the quality of the Republican primary field. They still know how to listen and respond, even to prattle. Not surprisingly, they are all parents. Perhaps they have seen this sort of emotional behavior before, complete with switch-back revisions and refusals to apologize. Parents may recognize in Mr. Trump the un-governed behavior of a temper-testing juvenile.
So, what is happening here? This is a candidate for President of the United States. Is this sort of thing an act? Or really who Donald Trump is? Are we watching Trump on reality TV, or in reality? Follow me: Increasingly, it does not matter. If Trump’s antics are an elaborate act and he is, after all, calm and stable, self-effacing and earnest, a person of heart – then he is doing exactly what he accuses others of, acting out for votes. He is not authentic, but about self-promotion. Or, perhaps this is not an act. He really is rash and rude, almost adolescent in demeanor. Is this who we want managing nuclear weapons? You see the dilemma? Mr. Trump is becoming the ultimate lose-lose proposition. If he is not who he says he is, not how he behaves, he is just playing us. If he is impulsive, he would seem to disqualify himself from rational leadership.
Another layer of intrigue. If reports are true, Trump has threatened to sue one of his opponents, Mr. Cruz. Why? He wants to check on whether the son of an American mother can be President, if his father was Cuban and he was born in Canada. More tom-foolery. These are the tactics of the school yard bully, perhaps bare-knuckle business in non-public boardrooms. This is hardly how the world’s greatest democracy works, how we should pick a leader – suing each other until one is left standing. How would this work with Congress, Foreign leaders?
Swinging blindly in this way is both ineffective and off base. It is the epitome of a failed conversation, failed negotiation, and failed leadership. Just ask teachers, law enforcement officers who manage domestic altercations, teens who are threatened on line, or any Federal judge – left, right and center – who has ever adjudicated cases involving threats. This is not a quality we expect in a President. We do not insult and threaten our way to office on non-justiciable issues. Name-calling is not a strategy; it just looks like dodge and weave.
Think too on this. Book research shows that Mr. Trump’s mother was born in Scotland. What if his parents had been on vacation while he was born? Would he be unable to serve as president? No, of course not. So, how about common sense? Or is he acting again? Jester, angry or sue bird - who knows? But does it matter?
We the People are the arbiters. Americans – everyday people – will define what is reasonable, sober and real. We must. We must distinguish puffery and tom-foolery from leadership. We all know brash from rash – and there is a difference. How would our Founding Fathers see this race? Say, George Washington or John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, or our late giants, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan. Voting is not a game; the world is not a gameshow.
The big questions: Who is worthy of our trust? Who will honor our history on the world stage? Who will bring to the Oval Office resolve, dignity and depth? Who has the poise and peace needed to lead – without getting funky, fatuous, or flaming out? Who possesses a level temperament and strength of character, can maintain the bead, stay unswerving, and keep faith with people like …Justice Scalia? Nobility is not about ratings or commercial contracts. It runs deeper, involves honor. We are at an historic spot. Let’s make the right choice, and leave antics to TV land.
Footnote. This week, Senator Cruz gave a riveting speech on rebuilding the American military, standing up for veterans, delivering regulatory and tax relief to all Americans. Just a speech, but not a single insult. His swing was level and effective. He may not lock up the nomination early, but Cruz gets it: This is serious, not roller derby. America needs smart leadership with bearing, not swagger and antics.