Are you not entertained?

Photographer: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

A Crowd-Pleaser's Theory of Donald Trump

Harlan Coben is the author of the international bestsellers "Tell No One," "Fool Me Once," "Long Lost" and "Hold Tight." His latest novel, "Home," will be published in September.
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Think Donald Trump has some grand scheme behind his outbursts? Think his rhetoric is carefully thought out to produce a certain reaction? Think he meticulously plans each call for his followers to take up arms?

Sorry, no. There is no strategy here, folks. 

Sadly, this is the part of Trump I get too well. I do a lot of public speaking, and when I do, I try to gauge the audience because I love a reaction. Like any entertainer -- and that’s what an author tries to be on book tour -- I like to hear laughs or see that the audience is listening intently. I want them rapt and engaged. If I see too many people fiddling with their phones or looking bored, I’ll try on the fly to fix it. If the jokes aren’t going well, I’ll give them a more serious how-to-write-a-novel talk. And vice versa. It’s why I rarely prepare remarks.

Trump is this raised to the nth power. My guess is that this is why he detests the teleprompter and goes off it so often. With the teleprompter, you have to stick to the script. But sometimes speeches fail to stir a crowd. Outrageous claims, discursions and over-the-top jokes get them going. You can see Trump’s frustration when the audience grows too quiet. Where are my laughs? Where are my cheers and gasps and chants?   

Where is the love?

When I feel this way, I’ve been known to go too far or make an inappropriate joke. When Trump feels this way -- well, just watch the news.

Take his recent comments on the Second Amendment. I don’t think he had a master plan to call for an assassination. I think his inner monologue went something more like this: “Folks, if Hillary is elected, she’s going to get rid of the Second Amendment … that’s my talking point … Hmm, got a decent reaction … Where do we go from here and get that big laugh? ... Well, the only way to stop her after she’s elected would be if the guys with the guns (Good! Back to the Second Amendment!) do something about it.”

It has been this way for Trump since he glided down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy. His was a campaign soon to be dismissed, but for that first big improv, when he stumbled upon calling Mexicans rapists. That drew a reaction -- a big one -- and it turned out to be far more appealing than his negotiation skills or his take on trade. It was a throwaway line gone viral.  

And how often have you heard Trump excuse his conduct with some variation on the theme that it was a joke, that the crowd loved it? When the hosts of ABC's “Live With Kelly and Michael” raised his controversial comments about wanting to date his daughter Ivanka, Trump replied, “Everyone laughed.” This is paramount to him. 

If you buy my theory, then it becomes clear why Trump can’t stay on message. Policy discussions? Boring and low-energy. Polls to brag about? Well, right now he doesn’t have that. Most of all, you can only spend so much time on the golden oldies, like “BUILD THAT WALL.” You need something new to get that audience rocking. 

As with any addiction, it generally takes a little bit more to get the high each time. So first he says Hillary Clinton is a criminal (“Lock her up!”), then he raises the temperature by claiming that the election is rigged. Guns are a natural next step. You’ve got to keep upping the ante. Most recently, he said Barack Obama founded ISIS.

Does Trump not see the danger in his words? My guess is that he doesn’t care one way or the other. He’s getting the laughs, the gasps, the cheers from the crowd -- repercussions be damned. To him, that’s all that matters. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Harlan Coben at hc@harlancoben.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net