Anyone who watched the second Republican primary debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, Ohio, will admit that presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who currently leads polls, had a lot to say. By which I mean, quantity-wise. He surely produced a lot of words, but they weren’t necessarily in relation to any of the questions being asked by Fox News moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, or Chris Wallace. Or really any of his prior thoughts.
When Bret Baier asked Trump to clarify a 15-year-old statement praising Canada for it’s single-payer healthcare system, for example, the real estate mogul-turned-reality television star launched into a bizarre speech on political instability in the Middle East. When asked to explain previous financial support given to liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn’t have a choice, because I gave. I gave to a foundation that, frankly, that foundation is supposed to do good. I didn’t know her money would be used on private jets going all over the world. It was.”
It was a fabulous non-answer barbed with a well-placed jab at the Democratic frontrunner. There’s some substance, but it’s in all the wrong places. Trump, evidently, hasn’t the vaguest idea how to answer a direct question.
Since then, a number of media personalities have accused “the Donald” of chronic evasiveness, if not a full-on in-one-ear-out-the-other syndrome. “He gets asked the right questions, he responds with a generality, and then he goes off on a tangent,” said Sirius XM radio host Michael Smerconish on his Aug. 14 show, in which he interviewed Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd. “Nobody ever calls him in, or reigns him in.”
One such instance, during an airing of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-host Mika Brzezinski asked Trump how, as president, he might address income inequality and lack of access to capital among American women. His response? A stream of babble about women’s reproductive health. And Jeb Bush’s poll numbers.
But “it’s the public that grades Trump on a curve,” Chris Todd told Smerconish. “I’ve talked to Trump supporters … they know all of the negative arguments against him. And they’re still for him.”
So what gives?
The answer, I think, lies in these very generalities and tangents. Trump is tabula rasa. He’s a build-your-own-conservative; a fount of loosely defined demagoguery, riddled with blanks for followers to fill with their own homespun prejudices and orthodoxies. He’ll spout a stream of generally agreeable talking points to a rabidly conservative audience—something about a wall between the US and Mexico, or the scourge of political correctness—but these are rhetorical blobs of clay; raw material they can poke and pinch to their liking. One moment he’s resting on his big-business laurels, the next he’s reading Wall Street the riot act.
And, in this way, he’s kind of the genius conservative candidate. Nothing he says can be all that offensive to the much-sought after “base,” because he’s not saying much of anything at all. Anything that offends likely offends liberals exclusively, which, of course, only makes him all the more appealing to the base. He’s the Miracle Whip of GOP contenders: gross to some, delicious to others, addable to pretty much any Heartland food product you can think of. His aren’t so much glittering generalities as fatty ones—but no electorate loves empty calories more than the American.