Let’s review why Donald Trump’s personal shortcomings are also his political strengths.
Weakness: Thin-skinned. Never has a presidential candidate lashed out so publicly and so often at critics. He has repeatedly attacked not just his opponents for daring to criticize him, but also journalists, party leaders, public officials, church leaders, et al.
Strength: Staffers deflect. Because he’s so intolerant of criticism, his staff and surrogates try to stick to the “message discipline” of saying whatever Trump says, even when they have to defend him for clear flip-flopping and falsehoods. On Trump’s behalf, they will deflect, distort or feign ignorance; but they will rarely acknowledge that he has said or done anything wrong.
Weakness: Bullying. Trump is often called a bully. His curt, dismissive statement that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. seemed to fit the profile of a bully: After promoting the conspiratorial lie of birtherism for five years, he backed down under pressure and then, rather than man-up and apologize, he ran from reporters’ questions.
Strength: Intimidation. Many Republican “leaders” were fearful of Trump and his fans, so they capitulated to him. For example, Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and presidential candidate, went from saying Trump was “a cancer on conservatism” to praising him and even defending his attacks on the Khans, the Gold Star family of a fallen soldier. While it’s hard to prove the media have also been intimidated by Trump, it was clear that during the GOP primaries many reporters and talk show hosts were reluctant to press Trump with follow-up questions that would displease him.
Weakness: Conspiratorialist. Trump has promoted more conspiracy theories than probably all past presidential candidates combined. Some of his “theories” seem insane – like his suggesting repeatedly that Ted Cruz’s father might have been an ally of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Strength: Entertaining. In the past, if a presidential candidate seriously suggested that conspiracy theories seem credible because they were reported in the National Enquirer or because “many people are saying” they might be true, the media would have turned that candidate into a laughingstock. But in this election cycle, many in the media have found Trump’s nuttiness so entertaining, and so helpful to ratings and clicks, they didn’t effectively expose how ignorant, paranoid and/or irresponsible he was to push such crazy theories. And many Trump fans actually believe those theories.
Weakness: Flip-floppery. No other presidential candidate has taken both sides of so many issues – certainly not within the same year. He often changes positions within hours; probably after his staff or advisers point out the political downside of his ad-libbed position.
Strength: All things to all people. Because Trump has no consistent ideology, supporters can project onto him whatever they want to believe. Some conservatives argue he’s conservative, while others think he would govern as the earlier version of Trump, a New York Democrat who donated to liberal Democratic candidates and to the Clinton Foundation.
Weakness: Boastful. Trump brags about himself more than any presidential candidate in history – and probably more than anyone you have ever encountered. His fans say he’s just promoting his brand as a showman, and doesn’t have megalomania.
Strength: Many want a strongman. Trump played a bold leader on his TV reality show, “The Apprentice.” Apparently many voters want the brash, bold billionaire that the show’s editors portrayed in that slick program. His fans are eager to believe his claims that he alone can fix the nation’s problems. After a long period of gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, D.C., many buy his message: “what the hell do you have to lose?”
Weakness: Narcissism. Trump’s self-love seems excessive. Some think he’s afflicted with Narcissist Personality Disorder.
Strength: Loves being on TV. Trump was able to prevail over many GOP rivals during the primaries partly due to the fact that he received far more free TV exposure – worth as much as $2 billion by one estimate. He reportedly loves to watch himself on TV, so his eagerness to do interviews gave him a huge advantage. Sometimes he didn’t seem to do all that well in an interview, yet in his mind, he came out a winner – so he kept doing them.
Weakness: Short attention span. Trump doesn’t seem interested in learning about issues, and he has trouble staying focused on an issue for longer than a sentence or two.
Strength: Speaks in sound-bites. TV news shows usually only feature one- or two-sentence sound-bites, so Trump is a natural. He can’t talk coherently about any issue in-depth, so there is usually no third sentence he has to worry about remembering.
Weakness: Insults. Trump is known for insults and name-calling. Other presidential campaigns also devolved into insults and name-calling, but this candidate does it himself — not surrogates and staff. And he’s kept it up for over a year.
Strength: Diverts attention from issues. Trump’s insults are often reported as a news story, distracting attention from his lack of interest in, and lack of knowledge about, major policy issues.
Weakness: Unfiltered. Trump will often say things that seem outrageous and unpresidential. In past campaigns, they’d be called gaffes. In this one, they’re just considered typical Trump talk.
Strength: Politically incorrect. Trump’s provocative statements made him stand out from the crowd of conventional GOP candidates. And to his fans, the offensive comments prove that he’s not afraid to speak the blunt truth, even if he’s not factually or morally correct. His fans argue that his unfiltered style proves he is “authentic,” and that Clinton is packaged, by contrast.
Sadly, those shortcomings have also helped him politically. That’s why in the future, when historians try to make sense of Trump’s popularity, they will not just analyze Trump. They will also analyze those who made it possible for him to rise: GOP “leaders” who wouldn’t lead, angry followers who rationalized his flaws and an incredulous press that failed to press him early.