The 2016 presidential campaign has been an unusual one to say the least. Politics does not seem to be governed by the typical rules. Perhaps the clearest theme that has emerged in this election season is the appeal of perceived authenticity. The candidates with the greatest energy behind them, Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, appear to be less scripted, less managed and more direct than traditional politicians. This campaign may simply be an unusual outlier, but something is different in American politics.
Traditional politicians have carefully scripted speeches and talking points. They avoid gaffes like the plague. In fact, the very concept of the “gaffe” appears to have no place in the novel campaign season. When censored for some inappropriate behavior, they immediately come groveling with public apologies of doubtful sincerity. Traditional politics may be described as the “art of seeming.” Candidates must manufacture a spotless image they believe will succeed with voters.
Donald Trump defies all these traditional expectations. He has made several outrageous statements, declined to offer any policy suggestions (save for his “Great Wall” of dubious plausibility or effectiveness) and has generally deported himself in a manner that is not traditionally “presidential” to put it mildly. He is unapologetic and appears to speak off the cuff. None of these factors, any one of which would savage a traditional campaign, have been able to bring down Donald Trump. In fact, they may be his greatest attraction. Voters may have seen through the dissembling and dishonest practices they perceive to be common in traditional campaigns. Grown so disgusted of traditional insincere politicking, voters seem eager to latch onto anything that appears fresh, frank and genuine.
These characteristics are also evident in Bernie Sanders, who is attracting a great deal of excitement, especially among younger voters. Though without Trump’s level of sheer outrageousness, Sanders is also an untraditional candidate. He may charitably be described as an elderly curmudgeon and he does not care to hide it. While most politicians, including democrats, might shun the label “socialist” as they would a leper, Sanders proudly adopts it and frankly asserts his desire to bring Western European-style social democracy to America. Like Trump, he proclaims his support for bold initiatives of questionable plausibility, such as single-payer healthcare, that excite his base. These two candidates break the mold of typical politicians.
Marco Rubio, predicted by many to rise as the “establishment” alternative before the recent Republican debate, suffered in no small part for appearing too scripted. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie repeatedly called Rubio out on his relentless repetition of a rehearsed speech on President Obama’s record. Of course, Rubio’s bizarre and desperate comparison of himself to Vice President Joe Biden and the unresponsive and irrelevant nature of his repeated Obama speech given Christie’s unyielding attacks played no small role in Rubio’s embarrassingly poor debate performance. Yet, he also suffered from appearing too scripted, rehearsed, and robotic. In an election where authenticity matters so much more than usual, the perception of these traits in a candidate may be mortally damaging.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is another example of a traditional political campaign. She is immaculately managed, prepped to a fault, with every talking point extensively considered and reconsidered. Whatever may be said about Clinton, she is no poster child for unflinching authenticity. Her image and speeches have been so carefully managed many may believe they cannot discern the “real” Clinton. She might be a strong candidate in a traditional campaign, but this is anything but. Likely to Clinton’s great frustration, she has proved in both 2008 and 2016 to be a traditional candidate in untraditional campaigns. Like Trump and Sanders, Barack Obama in 2008 attracted an unusual level of excitement and celebrity uncommon for politicians. Clinton has simply failed to attract the pure interest and energy her opponents have been able to gather.
Whether these apparent trends in American electoral politics represent an important long-term development or not, they are certain to guarantee an unusually interesting election in 2016. While more authenticity, in itself, should be regarded as a positive development, we should not throw ourselves into the arms of frank talk for frankness itself. We must consider the substance of a candidate’s genuine appeals and determine whether the policies are truly desirable, no matter how attractive the delivery.
Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.