7 July 2016

Hands off the wheel: Donald Trump and the self-steering political campaign


This past week we saw the first death caused by a self-driving car; the kind of avoidable tragedy we can expect to be repeated many more times in the coming months and years as we increasingly put our faith in our so-called ‘intelligent’ machines. From drones to public transport, the future of transportation will be self-driven as America’s bright young things open up new frontiers in human/robot interaction. It also poses some very modern dilemmas about when we should put our lives in the hands of an unthinking machine.

It is a problem, in a way, that Donald J Trump is currently having with his election campaign. Trump is speeding down the right-hand lane of the American political freeway. Every bit as independent and ground breaking as Elon Musk’s Tesla, Trump’s campaign is self-steering and has been for months. He can sit back, his hands off the wheel, knowing that he’ll safely reach Cleveland. It’s only when the campaign turns towards the general election that the doubts arise. Can Trump can really trust his autonomous campaign to find its way through the Washington Beltway?

The guidance system on Trump’s campaign has only rudimentary intelligence. It knows the white lines to the right and to the left. It guides him broadly between the median of Tea Party conservatism and the rumble strip of the moderate Republican shoulder over to the left. Should he veer too far one way, Trump’s campaign self-corrects. If he says something too liberal about abortion one day, he adjusts his position the next day with a more hard-line statement. This is the way it has been for months, allowing Trump’s campaign to achieve a straight if increasingly dull path. Speaking at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver last Thursday, Trump said little that he hadn’t said at every campaign stop in the past year. His rhetoric has hardly changed, sometimes shamelessly so. Trump has always been prone to repeat arguments that have long since passed their sell-by date. Months after the Paris attacks, he was still talking about victims succumbing to their injuries. It’s the same now with the Islamic State who he still believes are expanding the borders of their desert caliphate when the latest US intelligence suggests that they’ve lost 40% of the land they formerly occupied Iraq and 20% of that in Syria.

The result for Trump in the polls has been far from spectacular. According to Real Clear Politics, Trump’s challenge faded somewhat through June but has showed some signs of rebounding heading into July, narrowing Hillary Clinton’s 6.8% lead to 4.5%. The gap would be significant if all things were equal but, remember, the polls reflect Trump’s campaign on autopilot. His campaign team remains small and his finances limited. Trump can justifiably suggest that his position isn’t too bad. His campaign message might well be: ‘Just wait to see what I can do when I actually try’. Yet that would beg the question: so why isn’t he trying?

The answer might have much to do with Trump’s ongoing relationship with the Republican Party which remains fractious. Once the nomination was won, Trump was expected to turn to GOP donors and ask them to fund his campaign. This he had singularly failed to do with any conviction, leaving many Republicans concerned about the state of the party’s finances heading into the general election. What Trump should be doing stands at odds with what he is doing. In the last weeks of June, Trump sent out an email soliciting help from donors, as well as boasting about ‘personally matching every dollar that comes in WITHIN THE NEXT 48 HOURS, up to $2 million!’ Yet even here it is noticeable that when reaching out for help, Trump is incapable of humility. The email was as much about his wealth as it was about the wealth of the GOP’s traditional backers. The message was therefore mixed. ‘Please help fund me so I don’t have to fund myself,’ he seemed to say and to which the obvious reply was the sound of a wallet/purse snapping shut along with suggestions to ‘go fund yourself’.

This is, of course, Trump being Trump and for much of the campaign that has been his great strength. Now that he needs the help of the GOP, there seems to be a little too much Trump for the party’s tastes. Trump is finding it difficult transitioning from what he was to what he needs to be to satisfy the Republican establishment.

Whether it’s because of his dysfunctional relationship with the party or a paralysis that comes from his driving one route for too long at the same speed, Trump has failed to develop an obvious plan going forward. In the few days after he secured his nomination, Trump looked prepared to steer towards the middle lane of the political mainstream. In fact, so obvious was the change that I predicted that he would win in November. Unburdened by detailed policy, he was set up to moderate his message and his language; ready to ease himself into the public affections with a five month long charm offensive. In May he took to Twitter to publish a shot of himself eating a taco bowl and crassly boasting ‘I love Hispanics’. He invited Caitlyn Jenner to use the rest rooms in any of his facilities. In the past, he’s even supported gun legislation. He could claim to have been anti-War.

Then, for reasons still unclear, the old Trump returned. Gone were the conciliatory words. It was like somebody had whispered into his ear and told him that they liked ‘the old Donald better’. So the old Donald returned: uncompromising on the matter of immigration, expressing his love of guns, trade sanctions, and walls. He then made controversial comments about the Mexican lineage of the judge deciding his ‘Trump University’ lawsuit. Then, three weeks ago, he sacked campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, the man credited with Trump’s causal approach to the campaign. Rumours spoke about a power struggle with Trump’s new chief strategist, Paul Manafort.

If Lewandowski was best known for ‘letting Trump be Trump’, Manafort’s arrival heralded the push to turn Trump into a more traditional politician. Yet it is an attempted course correction that has not gone well. A vehicle that’s been locked into its self-drive program for months is proving hard to steer by hand. The problem is typified by Trump’s use of teleprompters. ‘I’m starting to love those teleprompters,’ he quipped in Denver. ‘You know, it’s much easier when you have a teleprompter. And I’m getting great reviews with the teleprompters.’ Admittedly, he said it all with a slight smile, to a smattering of laughter from the audience, so perhaps he and they know the truth that he’s not getting great reviews. In fact, teleprompters have produced one of the oddest phenomenon of this or any election.

For reasons that possibly require either a psychologist of an ENT doctor to explain, teleprompters make Donald Trump sniff and, when Trump sniffs, it’s the best sniff you’ve ever heard. These sniffs could empty the Hudson River. It’s a problem, I suspect, linked to the way Trump parses his sentences. Written speeches are very different to what Trump has been delivering so far. As Harrison Ford once memorably said to George Lucas on the set of the first Star Wars, ‘George, you can type this sh*t, but you can’t say it!’ In other words: a line written to be read is very different to a line written to be spoken. It’s one of the reasons why actors rehearse and why great Shakespearean actors understand the metrics of the verse. Part of their craft is knowing when to breathe. Trump doesn’t know when to breathe. His written speeches are unsuited to his punchy vocal rhythms. His speechwriters are writing traditional political speeches of a kind usually read by practiced politicians. The sentences are sometimes difficult to articulate and make no allowance for Trump being Trump. Trump flounders, rushing headlong into sentences and finding himself running out of breath. It means that when he does reach a natural pause, he sniffs a deep lungful of air to get him through the next lump of prose.

Trump’s failure to adapt to teleprompters exemplifies why his campaign feels like it’s stuck on cruise control. Trump’s troubled attempts to look presidential (his answer seems to be: if in doubt, add more glitz) highlight how little he knows about political life. Republican voters might, of course, reply: if we’d wanted a real politician, we’d have chosen Jebb Bush or Marco Rubio. Yet to succeed in November, the wild man of American politics has to recast himself as the very thing he managed so convincingly to trounce in the nomination process. Five months might, however, be simply too short a time to turn Trump into a Trudeau. It leaves us entering July with Trump’s campaign stuck in the slow right hand lane. The next stop is Cleveland. Trump’s hands aren’t on the wheel. He might well be sitting in the back seat reading Stanislavsky and inhaling nasal spray. But at some point, something has to change. Trump’s campaign won’t steer itself all the way to Washington. Hands will have to take the wheel before the inevitable accident happens.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.