I was just reading an essay about Hillary Clinton's defensive approach to politics, which has partly been forced on her by 25 years of attacks and partly seems to be natural to her. Hillary is tough, but criticism gets to her. She lashes back, or tries to limit access to her actions and thoughts by tricks like using a private email account while Secretary of State. Her basic platform is defensive: she is defending women's rights, worker's rights, Social Security.
Now compare Donald Trump. Trump's public record contains a hundred times more scandal, slander, and skullduggery than Hillary's. Does he care? No. Does he have any interest in defending his past actions, say, when he pulled the plug on the struggling Atlantic City casino he launched with so much fanfare and taxpayer support? No. Does he apologize? No. Has he made any effort to limit the public's access to his life, or his decision-making process? No. "Here I am," he says. "Take me or leave me, but don't ask me to change."
I wonder if this is not the future of politics. The 24-hour glare of modern public life has driven many politicians into a shell, afraid to do or say anything that might later be held against them. Trump understands that this is self-defeating. Yes, everything that important politicians do is noted and may show up in an attack ad, but Trump is showing that to pay too much attention to such things only erodes your public standing. By paying attention to criticism, you only make yourself look weak. By concealment, you only make it look like you have something terrible to hide. All the other Republican Presidential candidates have hewed to the party line with grim rigor, and the tiniest deviations require profuse explanations or apologies. Trump's positions are all over the map, and some them (raising taxes on the rich, expanding Medicare) are supposed to be death for any Republican. Does he apologize, or explain? No. As a result, he looks strong and the rest of the field look like sheep.
Like Mitt Romney, Trump has changed positions on important issues. But unlike Romney, who went into a weird sort of denial about it, Trump just says "I changed my mind."
Trump is a bizarre messenger, but his message may be important. Politics has been for a long time -- centuries? -- the art of carefully crafting a public image. What the voters saw had to be micro-managed and polished to a shine, regardless of what was happening backstage. Marital problems had to be buried, outbursts of temper staged in back rooms. But the era when FDR could hide his polio, and Kennedy his affairs, is over. With every passing year, it becomes harder and harder to hide anything about our lives from the probing world. In twenty years we will have people running for president whose entire lives are documented somewhere online, from their sorority stunts to their exaggerated resumes to everything they said in their first campaigns for city council. At some point they will be faced with awkward stuff dragged out of their pasts. Maybe emails will be hacked, twitter accounts probed, sins exposed. The winners will be the ones who wave all this away and push brazenly onward. To be defensive about past baggage will be a sure recipe for defeat.
Trump's bizarre, narcissistic campaign is showing how this is done.