A one-on-one connection is an art of the trade that most practiced politicians hone over years of courting voters in living rooms and VFW halls, shaking hands at state fairs and Veterans Day parades. The best of them can manage, in a human interaction, to convey a certain magic: the impression that a moment of campaigning is all about them. Bill Clinton could famously make a stranger at a political event feel like the only other person in the room. Lindsey Graham has talked about the joys of a retail presidential campaign (“It’s almost like running for sheriff!”) and gleefully taken donors to a skeet-shooting range. Joe Biden’s urge to make connections is, by all accounts, a driving force of his personality—his compulsive need to hug people he’s just met has gotten him into trouble in the #MeToo era.
But Trump has very little of this skill, and he has gotten very little practice at it over the course of the past four years. In part, that’s because, as a noted germaphobe, he has seldom seemed to want to engage in close-contact politics. And in part, it’s because his fans never expected that of him in the first place—his image was fully formed from the start as a brawler, not a touchy-feely friend.
Trump swooped into the 2016 race as a celebrity, which meant that in the retail-politics-heavy early primary states—where appearances at small gatherings can make up for lack of money or name recognition—he was mostly able to skip the kinds of intimate events where candidates and voters engage in lengthy back-and-forths. Christopher Galdieri, a political science professor at Saint Anselm College and author of the book Donald Trump and New Hampshire Politics, kept track of the candidates’ New Hampshire events leading up to 2016. By his count, Trump made 42 appearances in the state before the primary, only 13 of which were retail-style events: six town halls, three house parties, two meet-and-greets, two roundtables. By comparison, Lindsey Graham did 95 retail events, Marco Rubio did 54, Jeb Bush did 81, Chris Christie did 113. Instead, Trump moved straight to big rallies and his always-handy Twitter account, both venues where he was the only one talking, tossing out insults and braggadocio as the audience egged him on.
Now, 2020 appears to be a repeat of the same playbook. In 2016, Trump’s lack of talent for retail politics clearly didn’t matter much; he’s still here to run for reelection, after all. But Biden, whose campaign said will make his own trip to Kenosha on Thursday “to bring together Americans to heal and address the challenges we face,” is a different opponent than Hillary Clinton was. If retail politics still has any purchase in 2020, this matchup might be the one that proves it.
If it doesn’t, that might be because 2020 is even more suited than 2016 was to Trump’s secret weapon: At a moment of maximum crisis and disorder, he hopes to convince voters that he’s a figure who stands apart from the crowd, positioned to swoop in and take command. “I alone can fix it,” he declared at the Republican National Convention in 2016. It doesn’t appear to be working yet: In a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, 50 percent of likely voters said Trump as president makes them feel less safe, compared with 40 percent who said that having Biden as president would make them feel less safe. But as 2020 spirals further and further out of control, Trump is betting that—despite his campaign’s attempts to accentuate his soft touch—the image of the distant warrior will be the one that works.
At the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s empathy and fellowship were front and center. There were personal testimonials about how he helped a young stutterer and befriended an elevator operator. The message was that hardships in his own life had prepared Biden to understand the hardships of others, and his emotional connections with everyday Americans would bleed into his policies and his actions.
This kind of understanding has never been part of Trump’s story; he traffics in boasts and cheap insults, not expressions of vulnerability. Trump “never tried to suggest that he feels people’s personal pain, so to speak,” says Elliott Fullmer, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College. Instead, his implicit argument has been that if the country has problems, “somebody with his success can fix it.” And when Trump evokes an emotional response from a crowd, Fullmer says, “It’s not based on feeling the pain of their personal circumstances, but rather expressing and validating their anger.”
The intimacy of retail politics, Fullmer notes, draws out a different political skill set. During the past two election cycles, Fullmer has taken students on an extended trip to witness the New Hampshire primary campaign, dropping in on candidate visits at libraries and schools, churches and bars. The most effective retail politicians, he notes, employ a range of tactics to forge an emotional connection. They make eye contact. They remember the particulars in a voter’s question: a relative’s name, a medical condition. (“Sometimes a questioner is really telling a story on the way to their question,” Fullmer says, and a candidate who repeats back the details offers validation.) Sometimes, they engage in a charming bit of theater: At a Tulsi Gabbard event in a bar last January, one of his students had an exchange with the candidate that culminated in a pushup contest—which Gabbard won.
Trump didn’t mingle with the people much during the 2016 campaign—expected behavior, perhaps, for someone who has called handshaking “one of the curses of American society.” Galdieri was struck by photos from Trump’s 2015 appearance at the go-to breakfast series Politics and Eggs: Well before social distancing was a public health imperative, Trump was mostly offering a thumbs-up, not a hug, to voters who came up to greet him. At political events, “he’s not doing the handshake or the arm around the shoulder,” Galdieri says. It was “Stand close to me, I’ll put my thumbs up, but we don’t actually have to touch.”
And fear of germs can’t be the only explanation. In a 2016 article in The Atlantic, Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, judged Trump against five standard personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness and agreeableness, that last one defined as “warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty.”
McAdams has continued to study Trump’s behavior, writing the 2020 book The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning. Among the things that sets Trump apart, McAdams told me by phone, is his seeming inability to conform to different situations. In life, most of us play multiple roles—spouse, parent, child, colleague, friend—and change our actions according to expectations. But Trump, McAdams contends, is incapable of playing anyone but Donald Trump, a pugilistic dealmaker of his own imagination, engaged in constant combat that he has to win. That’s why, as president, he never adapted his persona to match the dignity of the office, McAdams posits—and why he comes across so awkwardly in situations when he’s forced to appear empathetic.
“You get these ceremonies at the White House every once in awhile. Maybe he needs to meet with a group to console them … He reads from a script, quite literally,” McAdams said. “In general, that’s when he’s not playing Donald Trump, and so he’s just no good at that. He doesn’t have any skill playing any other role.” When he met with survivors and victims’ families after the Parkland school shooting massacre in 2018, Trump held a talking-points card, apparently handwritten by trusted staffer Hope Hicks, that included a basic script for empathy: “I hear you.”
At the GOP convention, speaker after speaker took pains to insist that the behavior McAdams talks about does happen, just behind closed doors. “I have seen firsthand many times the president comforting and encouraging a child who has lost a parent, a parent who has lost a child, a worker who lost his job, an adolescent who lost her way to drugs,” presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recalled a personal phone call from Trump as she recovered from a mastectomy.
And Ivanka Trump acknowledged, with gilded euphemisms, the chasm between her father’s persona and some voters’ expectations of kindness. “I recognize that my dad’s communication style is not to everyone’s taste and I know that his tweets can feel a bit unfiltered,” she said, before proceeding to outline “the moments that I wish every American could see:” the fact that he keeps her son’s Lego White House in the Oval Office and “shows it to world leaders, just so they know he has the greatest grandchildren on earth;” the “pain in his eyes” when he receives updates about deaths from Covid-19; the “emotion on his face” after he commuted a nonviolent drug offender’s prison sentence and watched her reunite with her family.
But she ended with an argument that felt much closer to Trump’s actual relationship with his loyal base: “Dad, people attack you for being unconventional, but I love you for being real, and I respect you for being effective.”
Trump looks a lot happier when he’s able to lean into that version of the “real” him, brandishing words as bullets, not valentines. The night after the convention, he delivered a marathon speech to a crowd of 1,400 in New Hampshire, standing before a hangar at an aircraft maintenance company, with Air Force One looming in the background. As he draped himself over the lectern, listing a stream of insults and accomplishments that wouldn’t be fact-checked in real time, Trump looked like he was having a ball. He was back to familiar form, mocking Kamala Harris for her failed presidential bid, referring to Democrats as “a bunch of nut jobs,” displaying what might be the dark genius of his public persona: If there’s no expectation that he’s supposed to be nice, that gives him a lot of latitude to be mean.
His supporters lapped it up, and Trump offered his appreciation back. “I want to thank New Hampshire for all you’ve done for me,” he said at the end. But he also reminded the crowd that, on some level, he did take the relationship personally. If Biden wins, he declared, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ll be so angry at New Hampshire I’ll never speak to you again.”