After the ‘Nice’ Debate: Trump's Shape-Shifting Power

Donald Trump is by far the most gifted performer in the presidential field, and by far the least-informed.

"Little Marco"? That was last week. It's the nice Donald Trump now, from the candidate with a greater dramatic range than anyone else in the race. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Two points about the state of the race on the day after the “nice” debate in Miami. This was the one in which Donald Trump, nominee-presumptive, once again shook things up with a polite, no-name-calling presentation that once again left the other contenders disoriented about where and how to attack.

1) Trump has a dramatic range no other candidate can begin to match. Everyone else in the race, regardless of party, has a single dominant tone and style of presentation, or at best a range of two to choose from. Ted Cruz is always angry/smarmy. John Kasich has his recurring “can’t we just stop the nuttiness!” sitcom-dad approach. No matter the question, Bernie Sanders brings the answer back to economic injustice. Ben Carson …  I can think of two distinct modes from Marco Rubio (earnest-scripted, and playful-jokey) and Hillary Clinton (earnest-exhortative, and “I’m not a natural at this like my husband”).

With Trump, you never have the sense that it’s a one-or-the-other binary choice. Instead he is working a dial, which he can turn to whatever setting he wants. You’re looking for George Wallace-style demagogic hate-anger at a rally? You got it! You want someone who can chat affably with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight show or seem to enjoy the joke as host on SNL? Coming right up. You have one debate where Tump looks right at an incumbent U.S. Senator and repeatedly, mockingly insults him as “Little Marco.”And then another a week later with friendly sounding, respectful references.

Trump talks up his background as a business executive, but the background that really matters is his years as a reality TV star. All politicians need to be actors. But by nature or by experience, Trump is just far better at it than anyone else in the field. The magic is that every one of these roles and tones seems “authentic” to him. That is a large part of why he’s gotten this far, and why the Democrats have to take him seriously. Ronald Reagan, as an actor-presidential candidate, had nothing in the dramatic-skills range over Trump.

2) He may be the most ignorant person, about public policy, who has ever gotten this far in a presidential race. Note “ignorant,” or “uninformed,” rather than “unintelligent.” I’m sure that Trump would outdo Sarah Palin or Rick Perry on most tests of aptitude or general knowledge. But on knowledge of what a government does, or the issues a president really deals with, I think Perry and even Palin would come out well ahead.

In last night’s debate, Trump revealed that he still has no idea what Common Core is or how it works. At no point through the campaign has he evinced even the most basic knowledge of how the U.S. military is organized, what it does, how it stacks up against adversaries, or what its real problems are. (This started in an early debate with his obvious unfamiliarity with the term “nuclear triad.” That’s something most voters wouldn’t know but that anyone in government is supposed to. It’s the three-part delivery system for U.S. nuclear weapons: bombers, land-based missiles, and missile-equipped nuclear submarines.) He continues to complain about the Chinese government lowering the value of its currency, when in fact they’re trying hard to push the value up.

Here was his answer last night on long-term funding plans for Social Security. This is a contender for the least-informed comment any national-level candidate has ever made on the topic:

I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant….

We've lost our jobs. We've lost everything. We're losing everything. Our jobs are gone, our businesses are being taken out of the country. I want to make America great again and I want to leave Social Security as is. We're going to get rid of waste, fraud, abuse and bring back business.

Social Security may have problems, but to list “waste, fraud, and abuse” among them is to show you have no idea what the real problems are. This was the exchange when CNN’s Dana Bash pushed him for details of how exactly he would change President Obama’s understanding with Cuba:

BASH: Just to be clear, Mr. Trump, are you saying that if you were president, you would continue the diplomatic relations or would you reverse them?

TRUMP: I would want to make a good deal, I would want to make a strong, solid, good deal because right now, everything is in Cuba's favor. Right now, everything, every single aspect of this deal is in Cuba's favor. It the same way as the Iran deal.

We never walked -- we never -- all we do is keep giving. We give and give and give.

To their credit, audience members in Miami, sophisticated on this topic, began hooting at the vacuity of Trump’s insistence on a “good deal” with no backup on what that meant. And then Marco Rubio dived in with an informed riff on the exact things he’d change in the Cuba arrangement.


But that hooting was the exception. Even I barely have the heart to point out the simple fact that the most probable GOP nominee for the presidency does not know anything about government or policy. Everyone in America understands that point #1 in today’s round-up — that Trump is so supple and shape-shifting a TV performer — outweighs #2, which is that he has less preparation than any nominee in U.S. history for the subject matter and responsibilities of the job.

But we know that his administration will be great, and that we’ll win again, and that soon our only problem is that we win so much that we’re bored with winning.

And so #1 and #2 together make #3, which is the point of this post: That the most talented performer left in the field is also the least knowledgeable about the position he seeks  — and the least concerned about the ugly passions he is stirring up on the way there. The “nice” debate leaves a very nasty aftertaste.