There is something about Donald Trump that I have noticed lately — and I hope this doesn’t come off as political because, as you well know, I try to avoid overtly talking politics here. And I don’t want to talk politics this time.
No, here’s what I noticed: Donald Trump constantly breaks the fourth wall. And that, I’m thinking, is a bizarrely effective strategy.
Politicians, in general, are actors on a grand stage, right? They memorize their lines. They will ad-lib but only to a point. They try to present themselves as, well, whatever: Presidential, competent, intelligent, angry, compassionate, friendly, determined. They try to stay on message and, as such, they are, in a sense, playing some version of themselves.
This isn’t just true of politicians. It’s true of all people who do things in public. Phil Mickelson doesn’t go around smiling and waving to people when he’s shopping at Costco. I speak at a lot of events (for some reason) and when I’m speaking, I try to be funny, positive, even inspirational if I can get there. I’m not exactly acting — I hope that, in my better moments, I am those things. But, of course, I’m not like that all the time. Just today, after dealing with yet another hassle with my car rental company (reminder to self: switch car rental companies) I was certainly not funny, positive or inspirational in the least. But if I had a speaking engagement minutes after that, I would have, of course, have reached for my own better angels.
Politicians, especially those running for President, must be their public selves more of less every minute of every day. This is acting. If they are foul-mouthed and scatter-tongued behind closed doors, they still must try to be graceful and to speak in complete sentences in public. If they are angry because some aide forgot to do something important or they are running behind schedule or whatever else, they still must seem authoritative and in control of their passions when they speak. They must repeat many of the same words every single day, and no that’s not a shot at Marco Rubio — ALL of them give more or less the same speech hundreds and hundreds of times in so many cities that, like Bruce Springsteen the other day (when he called Cleveland “Pittsburgh) they don’t really know where they are.
Debates are the very essence of this acting principle. We often like to talk about who won or who lost a debate, but what does that even mean? We know where these guys stand; how do you win or lose? Of course, it means: Who came across the best? Who landed the best shots? Who spoke their prepared lines most convincingly? The candidates know, more or less, what questions are coming. They know, more or less, what issues they want to get across. The overriding theme at Thursday night’s debate was pretty simple and it had nothing to do with immigration, North Korea, taxes or the Supreme Court. Donald Trump is winning. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wanted to cut into his popularity. John Kasich wanted to remind everyone of his campaign. Ben Carson just wanted to speak.
And they all went about their goals, dutifully playing their parts. Rubio attacked with a smile. Cruz attacked with a sneer. Kasich talked about how a real president would have locked Apple executives in a room until things were settled. Ben Carson begged someone to attack him so he could speak.
But not Donald Trump. It isn’t that he was ABOVE the fray; it’s like he was in a different play. To break the fourth wall, of course, means to push through the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. It is Eddie Murphy looking at the camera after the Dukes explain to him what “bacon” is. It’s Ferris Bueller talking about his parents buying his faux illness. It is Deadpool fully realizing that he’s a comic book character. It is Mel Brooks saying, “It’s good to be the king.” And so on.
Donald Trump breaks the fourth wall so effortlessly, so easily, that it’s easy to miss. He constantly and happily refers to poll numbers, for instance. Any time a positive new poll comes along, he tells people about it. But he more than tells people — he luxuriates in his poll numbers. “The new polls came out and they’re very, very good for us,” he says over and over in every possible setting. Think about it: When was the last time you heard anyone running for president talk so lovingly about poll numbers? You’ve never heard it before because to talk polls is basically to get out of character, to admit that the speech you are giving, the positions you are stating, the line you are drawing in the sand is not authentic but instead part of a big game. It’s the opposite of method acting. This is like Marlon Brando, in the middle of the orange scene, turning to the camera and saying, “I’m getting great reviews for this, great reviews, I’m thinking Oscar.”
Trump does this sort of thing again and again. And it makes him stand out. Cruz and Rubio smashed away at Trump during the debate, hitting all the political topics and potential scandals and all that. Maybe these hits landed. Maybe they didn’t. That’s politics. What I’m saying is that it seems to me, Trump didn’t counterpunch the way you might expect a presidential candidate would. Instead, he basically looked into the camera and, speaking directly to the audience, said: “Aren’t these guys jerks? I mean, really, they’re jerks, am I right?”
It’s a pretty amazing act to pull off, if you think about it. I can’t think of another political candidate who seemed to have one big inside joke going with the America. You’ve seen the show “Chopped,” right? They will be showing someone struggling to find a way to make an edible dish out of gefilte fish, Trix cereal and Robitussin cough syrup. Then, suddenly, they will show that person in an interview setting saying something like, “When the ice cream maker didn’t work, I began to panic.” Trump is constantly doing that middle-of-the-contest interview, only he does it live, even while the game goes on around him.
I don’t believe any of this is planned out, by the way. I think that’s just Trump. He is playing a part too, of course he is, but he’s in a different play from everyone else, a play that allows the actors to interrupt the narrative at any time and go wherever the actor wants. Again, I’m not talking politics here — I try not to talk politics publicly. I do enough of that with friends and family to annoy. But I will say that when I was interviewing Trump for The Secret of Golf, we were both playing our part, author and subject, but every now and again he would just blurt out, “Joe, this is going to be a great book, Joe, a great book. We’re going to sell a lot of books together, Joe, a lot of books.” I appreciated him for that and have not quite forgiven him for deciding to run for president rather than working tirelessly to sell my book to the world.