Trump as Pander Bear

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Bill Clinton as “Pander Bear”

In an item this weekend in the “Daily Trump” thread, I noted Donald Trump’s claim that illegal immigrants are treated better than military veterans. The line got a big cheer from the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally listening to Trump, but it doesn’t pass the common-sense test.

(My friend Mickey Kaus, who sees the immigration issue pretty much the way Trump does—and thus not at all the way I do—argues that I am wrong and Trump actually is right. See if you’re convinced.)

Reader Stephen Gilbert makes what I think is an underappreciated point about the common theme in many of Trump’s over-the-top claims. He starts quoting something I said about immigrants-vs-vets:

“It was a pure statement of grievance, fitting Trump’s skillful-but-dangerous pattern of expertly reading, and then pandering to, the audience in his immediate range and in position to cheer in response.”

As was his claim that there is no drought in California. No doubt egged on by people such as Trump, many Central Valley farmers believe that the solution to their unmet water needs is not rain, but stopping those rascally liberals from dumping water into the Pacific to save some little fish. Too bad the media feels a (financial) need to treat Trump’s fact-free proclamations as worth equal credit as opposing truths.

What’s interesting and underappreciated here? It is that Donald Trump, rewriter of rules and transcender of limits, is actually practicing one of the crudest forms of politics from the pre-mass-communications age. That is, he is telling the audience immediately in front of him whatever it wants to hear, and worrying later about how this will look or sound to people elsewhere. [Cont.]

This sensitivity to the audience in immediate view helps explain one of many seeming contradictions of Trump: that he can go so easily from yelling and ranting on the platform to being charming and pussycat-like in other settings, as with the recent smarmy interview with Megyn Kelly. In each case he read the audience shrewdly and then smoothly re-calibrated. And sometimes, of course, he can use part of the crowd as a foil for attacks, when protestors are present (“get ‘em out of here!”) or reporters are questioning him (“you’re a sleaze!”)

Don’t all politicians do this? The good ones all have this ability; it’s what we call EQ. But part of running a modern, internet-age national campaign is recognizing that the audience is never just the people in front of you. Everything is always on the record; the whole world is watching, and then Tweeting and scrutinizing.

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The contrast between Trump and Bill (not Hillary) Clinton illustrates the point. The reason Bill Clinton has been considered the Secretariat or Usain Bolt of politics is his unmatchable ability to talk with people from any walk of life — clean-up staff at a restaurant, physicists at a research center, black parishioners at a southern gospel church, white millworkers in the northeast — and find a natural rapport. So Clinton’s tone and wording change venue by venue, but his message doesn’t really. He is using a range of skills to advance a more-or-less consistent theme.

Trump is (sort of) similar in instinctively changing his tone and affect. But he’s (obviously) much less controlled about the message. The only continuity is the anger. Whatever he thinks the local crowd is angry about, he’ll say — even if that meant, earlier this year, frightening talk about roughing up or punching protestors, even if it means he picks fights he obviously doesn’t need. Some farmers in central California will cheer a line saying “There is no drought!” Most people in the state will say, WTF?? It’s a fight that made no strategic sense for him to get in the middle of, but it must have sounded good at the time.

Back during the 1992 campaign, Paul Tsongas, former Senator from Massachusetts, labelled Bill Clinton the “Pander Bear” for what Tsongas thought was Clinton’s willingness to “say anything, do anything to get votes.” The term has been applied, in turn, to Hillary Clinton. But I bet if you mapped variability of message, but audience, the pander-bear pattern would be strongest this cycle for Trump. That is odd given his oft-declared independence from special interests and willingness to speak the blunt truth. But it may help explain his looseness in making outsized claims crowd-by-crowd.

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Speaking of that 1992 campaign, this SNL cold open from 24 years ago is an amazing time capsule of what is different, and what is surprisingly continuous, in American politics. It has three main figures: Dana Carvey as Jerry Brown, Al Franken as Paul Tsongas, and Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton.

Of course Tsongas and Hartman are both prematurely gone (and Carvey is still in business). But Jerry Brown, then a candidate and ex-governor, is a governor again and is right in the middle of California and national politics, having endorsed Hillary Clinton today; Al Franken, then a sublime comedian, is right in the middle of Democratic politics as a Senator; and as for that guy Bill Clinton ....