Politics

No, Trump Isn't 'Normal.' That's Sort Of the Point.

He created -- and conquered -- a brand-new category of politics.

All about image.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

This isn’t normal. It’s a statement we’ve been hearing a lot since Donald Trump was elected Nov. 8. We may hear it even more after he is inaugurated on Friday.

It happens to be true! An orange-haired Manhattan real estate tycoon turned reality TV star with no political experience becoming president of the U.S. is in fact not normal, and Trump’s behavior during and since the presidential campaign has been pretty anomalous, too.

Things also aren’t normal in the sense that Trump has regularly and quite consciously broken with long-established political norms. As my Bloomberg colleague Paula Dwyer wrote last month:

The term refers to unwritten rules saying that politicians in a democratic system should seek to win yet still engage in fair play. These guideposts tell political victors to practice self-restraint.

Norms aren't enforceable by law, yet they're spoken of in almost sacred tones because they are seen as buttressing American governance.

Trump’s clear disdain for many of these norms is unsettling, and I get why people keep saying over and over that we shouldn’t “normalize” his behavior. But they might want to be a little more cognizant of the fact that not being normal is basically Trump’s brand.

Think about it in terms of corporate strategy. If you’re entering a field with lots of competitors, you could try to beat them by being more efficient or working harder at customer service. Or you could define a new, wide-open field (ocean, if you prefer) and conquer that. The latter, Roger Martin wrote last week for the Harvard Business Review, is what Trump -- whether he initially intended to or not -- spent the campaign doing:

What he was doing was creating with precise and relentless consistency an entirely new category in the minds of voters: the politically incorrect candidate. He has since monopolized that new category.

To establish the legitimacy of the category, he made a consistent and devilishly tautological argument: In the category of traditional presidential candidates, the politicians are all politically correct. When they get in power, they fail you. Hence you don’t want a leader in that category -- you want one in a new category called politically incorrect presidential candidates. I have been a huge success in business by being politically incorrect. Therefore: political correctness = failure, and political incorrectness = success.

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “politically correct,” because its meaning can be so amorphous. In this case, though, it seems straightforward: Politically correct is the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from successful politicians. Trump hasn’t behaved like that, and it’s worked for him.

Martin is a veteran business strategy consultant (he’s currently director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and used to be the school’s dean), and that experience clearly shapes his analysis. It seems to do a better job of explaining Trump’s victory in the crowded marketplace of the Republican primaries than his narrow November win -- but of course the latter couldn’t have happened without the former.

Martin has several suggestions for those who wish to counter Trump’s appeal. They mainly have to do with developing new strategies to win over voters rather than criticizing Trump for being outrageous -- since that criticism only reinforces his brand. I’m not certain that last part is right: Trump lost the popular vote and is entering office with a historically low approval rating. The market for his “politically incorrect” politics has limits, and criticism may help shrink them.

Still, couching that criticism in the language of norms and normality doesn't seem like a winning strategy. There have been times and places when and where “normal” was no insult -- think the 1950s U.S., when “The Organization Man” was rampant, or the modern Netherlands, where “doe normaal” (pronounced “do normaal,” and it means what it sounds like) is something of a national slogan. But in the U.S., we have for decades been celebrating upstarts, rule breakers and those who “think different.” It may be that a Trump presidency will be enough to convince a large majority of Americans that normal is actually just fine. Until that return to normalcy, though, declaring that Trump isn’t normal seems like it’s mainly just free advertising for him.

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:
    Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments