With Donald Trump’s shocking resilience in national and state polls despite his myriad blunders and rhetorical vulgarities, commentators struggle for verbiage with which to disqualify him. There’s one adjective that seems to appear with particular regularity among a certain subset of Trump critics: unserious.
Charles Krauthammer of Fox News labeled Trump a “rodeo clown,” and characterized his campaign as “not serious politics.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has labeled Trump unserious: “We need leaders who offer serious solutions to secure our border and fix our broken immigration system…” According to a July 2015 Gallup poll, three-quarters of Americans agree with Krauthammer and Rubio.
Is Trump a serious candidate?
In order to answer the question, we first have to define terms. Political seriousness seems to be a combination of factors for most people: valuable experience, raw intelligence, familiarity with issues, a weltanschauung about political values, and a non-bloviating temperament. And political seriousness is clearly in the eye of the beholder – back in 2000, the leftist media routinely suggested that Governor George W. Bush of Texas lacked “gravitas.” As Thomas Sowell pointed out at the time, “Neither Bush nor Cheney matches the picture that the intelligentsia has of smartness. But that may just indicate what is wrong with the picture.”
With that in mind, here’s the short answer on Trump: he’s a serious candidate because a large number of people are taking him seriously. And a large number of people are taking him seriously for two reasons: first, because Trump checks at least some of the definitional boxes when it comes to seriousness; second, because other candidates in the race granted the “serious candidate” label don’t check some of those definitional boxes. Recent politicians have changed the definition of seriousness for everyone.
Let’s run down the various elements of seriousness.
Experience. Some suggest that Trump’s lack of political experience makes him unserious from the get-go. That’s become a tougher road to hoe in light of the fact that our current president spent a grand total of two years in the Senate before Americans elevated him to the White House. It’s also a difficult argument for many within the Republican Party who are uncomfortable with Trump but seem fine with Carly Fiorina (a far less successful businessperson in pure dollar amounts) and Dr. Ben Carson (an expert in an industry largely unrelated to non-Obamacare politics). Trump’s strongest pitch for seriousness is his massive wealth, which he constantly and effectively pumps in his campaign speeches. His second strongest pitch is his highly popular television show, which demonstrates a fluency with media other candidates lack. Trump’s celebrity isn’t just great for him in terms of name recognition: it’s valuable experience, since the media and the American public treat presidential candidates as celebrities.
Intelligence. Some think Trump is dumb; some think he’s dumb like a fox. Is he playing a personality, or is he that personality? Is he playing us or lucking into his popularity? Nine billion dollars seems to many like a solid referendum in favor of intelligence; for others, Trump has blustered his way from his father’s fortune to his even larger fortune, bribing government officials to get what he wants. The problem with the native intelligence measure is that we have no IQ tests, and that IQ tests are generally a poor proxy for ability to govern. There’s little question that in raw IQ numbers, Jimmy Carter outclassed Ronald Reagan, but Carter was an awful president while Reagan was a tremendous one.
Political Knowledge. Many of Trump’s critics charge that he’s unserious because he’s unfamiliar with political issues. That unfamiliarity is reflected in his shifting answers on Planned Parenthood, for example: this week, he said he’d fund Planned Parenthood but not abortion, a nonsensical answer for those familiar with the federal and state laws governing Planned Parenthood. This would be a fair evaluation, except for the fact that other candidates in the field have similar problems: Carson, for example, stumbles routinely on policy issues. Furthermore, political knowledge is not a substitute for wisdom, as supposed policy wonk Hillary Clinton can tell you – or, more importantly, as Ambassador Chris Stevens isn’t available to tell you about Hillary Clinton.
Worldview. This is where Trump’s credentials are weakest. Trump is no consistent conservative, and constantly shifts positions based on what his intestinal flora tell him that day. He seems solid on solidifying the Mexican border, but it’s your guess as to where he’ll fall on all the other issues, from abortion to gun control, from tax rates to free trade. As I noted yesterday, if worldview is your key criterion when it comes to candidate selection or “seriousness” evaluation, Trump takes a hit here – but so should other favored Republican candidates, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has been feted by both Krauthammer (“Jack Kemp on steroids, a bleeding-heart-conservative, articulate and voluble”) and George Will (“His spirit would add spice and his policies would add substance to the Republican presidential contest…exhilarating”).
Personality. This is the charge that Trump’s critics find most damaging, and Trump’s advocates find least important. Trump’s critics rightly state that Trump is a blowhard, a man with no brain-mouth filter, a fellow who will say anything; they hilariously mock his nonstop insult stream, his vulgar ostentatiousness, his drunk uncle mannerisms. Trump’s advocates say: so the hell what? Better to have someone with the personality of a puncher than a cordial fellow who gets stomped (see Republican Congressional leadership, 2010-2015, McCain, John, and Romney, Mitt). Trump’s critics say that presidential temperament matters: do you want this guy to have his hand on the nuclear button? Trump’s advocates say that Trump is just President Obama after a couple of cosmopolitans: are we really going to disqualify presidential candidates based on crazed egotism? That would shorten the field considerably. Perhaps seventy years ago, Trump’s critics would have the upper hand. Today, Trump’s advocates clearly win this argument. It’s difficult to say Trump isn’t serious when the current president of the United States tweets out his summer playlist; when that same president sets up a Twitter account pushing a diplomatic surrender to Iran utilizing memes from “Straight Outta Compton”; when that same president begs Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to stay on the air; when the last Democratic president utilized the Oval Office the same way Barack Obama utilized Jon Stewart; and when the leading Democratic candidate wipes her server clean, then asks adult college students how student loans make them feel, and whether they can describe those feelings in “3 emojis or less”. If Trump is unserious on this score, so are most of our other major political figures.
Donald Trump is either serious, or he’s as serious as a heart attack (and prompts the same results). But all the questions about Donald Trump’s seriousness don’t matter much, in the end: as Sowell wrote regarding Bush and Dick Cheney, “Both Bush and Cheney remind me of something that a sports writer said long ago about heavyweight champion Gene Tunney: ‘There was nothing special about Tunney. He just always won.’ That’s pretty special in itself.” The only real question about Trump’s seriousness is how seriously he takes this race. So far, he’s taking it a lot more seriously than anyone expected.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.