Does Hillary Clinton really keep hot sauce in her purse? How can Bernie Sanders truly be a socialist if he’s a millionaire? Are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s humble roots, featured prominently in her campaign video, enough to prove her authenticity?
“Be authentic”—there may be no more ubiquitous piece of advice to candidates for office. Yet there’s little agreement on what authenticity actually means, perhaps because the concept is often applied in ways that seem contradictory. An authenticity deficit was widely seen as one of the reasons Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012. Four years later, it contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump. How can the same quality account for the success of two figures as different as Trump and Obama? How can Trump in particular—an inveterate fabricator born to fabulous wealth who poses as the self-made tribune of the working class—come across as so authentic to so many?
The answer is that, when we talk about authenticity in politics, it turns out we’re usually describing something specific: Candidates from Obama to Trump to the Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg seem authentic to the extent that they seem to be saying what they’re really thinking, rather than what they’re “supposed” to say. The key word here is seem.
In a paper published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the academics Rachel Gershon and Rosanna K. Smith described the results of a variety of tests showing that listeners perceived speakers to be less authentic when they were told that the speakers were repeating themselves. Self-repetition, they argue, “confronts observers with the performative nature of the interaction” and challenges our assumption that “social interactions, even those that are typically performed and repeated, are assumed to be unique.”
In other words, we’re wired to assume that all speech is extemporaneous. When that assumption is revealed to be false, we penalize the speaker. This is true, the authors found, even in contexts where it makes no sense to expect speakers not to repeat themselves, such as listening to a tour guide or a stand-up comic.
This finding helps make sense of the Obama-Trump paradox. Authenticity is not about being honest; it’s about seeming unscripted. If you sound rehearsed, then you can’t possibly be saying whatever you’re thinking right now; you’re saying something you decided to say at some moment in the past. Obama and Trump both have an uncommon ability to avoid that pitfall—even if they do so in very different ways.
As a candidate and as president, Obama had the gift of seeming unrehearsed. He could deliver scripted speeches with the emotion, humor, energy, and surprise of someone articulating his ideas for the first time. Recall that one of the ways Republicans tried to bring him down was to point out that he was reading from teleprompters: They sought to undermine his authenticity by puncturing the illusion that he was speaking off the top of his head. (Indeed, a major thread of the conservative reaction to Obama, including Trump’s birther conspiracy theory, was to avoid engaging with him on substance and instead insinuate that he was not what he seemed—that he was inauthentic.)
At the other end of the spectrum we find Hillary Clinton. Despite her obvious qualifications, she was hamstrung as a presidential candidate by an inability to sound like a normal person when addressing large audiences. Her performances in the major televised contexts in which most Americans saw her in 2016 were generally robotic and awkward—filled with strange pauses and painfully delivered jokes, drained of spontaneity. That, as much as anything, explains why voters were so primed to entertain questions about her authenticity and trustworthiness. (Clinton, to be sure, was also held to unfair standards because of her sex. But her problem was a variation of the same one that male candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry faced before her.)
Trump achieves authenticity in a more unusual way. First, of course, he brazenly violates all kinds of taboos—against racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and so on. This scans as authentic because, even if it’s a calculated play to his supporters’ worst instincts, it’s clearly not what any political consultant would tell a candidate to do. Second, even more uniquely, Trump really does speak extemporaneously. In his rallies and TV appearances, he ad-libs and rambles wildly off topic. (Ditto his Twitter feed.) This is why, as so many others have noted, Trump is at his least Trump-like when he’s reading a scripted speech like the State of the Union address. It also may be why aspiring mini-Trumps haven’t been particularly successful at the ballot box: When standard Republicans try to rebrand as MAGA diehards without re-creating Trump’s gonzo showmanship, voters don’t buy it.
So the paradox of a serial liar such as Trump coming across as authentic isn’t much of a paradox at all. Trump lies authentically. He is so committed to saying whatever he feels like that he doesn’t let the truth get in the way.
Of course, authenticity isn’t exclusively about public speaking. A candidate’s biography, political positions, and track record all play a role. But public speaking has outsize importance, at least at the national level, simply because voters overwhelmingly get their input about a candidate’s personality by seeing them give a speech or interview or participate in a televised debate.
What does that tell us about the 2020 race? Among the current crop of presidential hopefuls, several have the knack for authenticity. Bernie Sanders paces the field with his ragged self-presentation and his blunt criticism of the wealthy and capitalism itself. Kamala Harris has an effective natural style. But the candidate who most fully embodies the Obama brand of authenticity-as-effective-performance—and whose surprising prominence is utterly inexplicable without it—is Buttigieg. If you’ve heard anything about the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, it’s probably that he’s awfully smart. But there are plenty of highly intelligent people in the race, and it’s not clear that Buttigieg is truly smarter than any of them. For all his stated commitment to “bringing forward good ideas,” he has yet to make an original policy argument, unlike many of his rivals; he recently proposed a tax credit for child care, something he could literally have pulled from Clinton’s 2016 campaign site.
What sets Buttigieg apart as a political talent, then, is not really his intellect. It’s his ability to give a speech, or answer questions onstage, in a way that makes it seem as though he’s earnestly thinking through his beliefs in real time. “Like Obama before him, like [Bill] Clinton before that, he ruminates in public,” said the journalist Ezra Klein by way of introducing Buttigieg to his podcast audience. “Unlike a lot of politicians, he’s willing to say quite a bit.” Klein probably understands, on some level, that these men aren’t really ruminating; Clinton and Obama were deeply calculating politicians, and all indications are that Buttigieg—a former Rhodes Scholar and McKinsey consultant who took seven months away from his mayoral duties to serve in the Navy Reserve in Afghanistan—is one too. But just as Trump’s most loyal voters can’t help but be taken in by the billionaire president’s man-of-the-people routine, well-educated liberals can’t help being drawn to someone who plays the part of the thoughtful intellectual.
This raises an obvious question: If the art of authenticity resides in making the scripted seem spontaneous, doesn’t that make it fundamentally inauthentic?
Short answer: yes. Great orators such as Obama—or Ronald Reagan, literally an actor—have the gift of obscuring the artificiality of political communication. Most normal people, ironically, would come across as spectacularly inauthentic if forced to give a campaign speech, because they would be stiff and rehearsed. “In reality, all politicians are strategic about the image and behaviors they present to voters,” wrote the political scientist Brendan Nyhan in 2015. “Some just hide the artifice better than others.”
That doesn’t mean we should ignore authenticity entirely, however. Convincing illusions have real-world effects. When a magician makes a card vanish and reappear, you know deep down that your eyes have been fooled; still, your brain can’t help but perceive the illusion as real. Authenticity is like political magic. The best you can do is remind yourself it’s a trick.