If you want to understand politicians, don’t bother listening to what they say. They always say whatever they have to say.
Instead, listen to what their supporters say. Pay close attention to the crowd a politician attracts.
Twenty years ago I created a months-long special project on presidential politics called “Who Cares.” I spent a week following each candidate during the 1996 presidential primary season. Or rather, I spent a week with each candidate’s followers. In Iowa, Texas, Illinois, South Dakota, and other spots, I arrived in town a few days before a major candidate rally, and got as close as I could to rally organizers. Not the professional advance team from campaign headquarters; locals who were deeply involved.
I spent much more time with Republicans because they had a contested primary (won by Bob Dole), though I did go to Libertarian events, too.
It was an emotional project. People who organize campaign rallies work their butts off; they only do it because they believe deeply in a candidate and her or his platform.
The idea behind “Who Cares?” was this: At a time when people were lamenting indifference by the American electorate, who still cares? And what makes those people tick? Why are they different?
I ended up leaving Who Cares with a lot of hope for America, and a deep abiding respect for the “little people” who do all the heavy lifting in American politics. There’s lots of good Americans out there who make our Democracy work.
The organizers I got to know all tended to be people who believed firmly in the American system — Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians — and were willing to work through that system for changes. They made this believe real by investing a lot of their lives, their blood, and their money.
I also left the project with many dark insights into politics.
On rally days, I met many other kinds of people. I met casual, intellectually lazy throngs of people who self-selected their way to the candidate who best represented their secretly-kept beliefs. At rallies, feeling safe with their like-minded brethren, their truth came out. All I had to do is listen. It usually only took a few minutes and a few drinks.
There was the most racist candidate. The closet anarchist. The candidate who granted permission to say, “Shut up, white male.” The casual followers help caricatured views of what the candidates stood for, but then, the casual followers are what candidates elected. So, one way or another, the candidates somehow made such people feel welcome. For example: I liked Pat Buchannan as a person; I met him several times when working at NBC in Washington D.C. But I will tell you that his supporters I met in Dallas scared me the most.
Sure, sure, in the light of day, every candidates’ supporters might say and do the right things in civilized society. But put them all at a rally together, beckoned their by dog whistles, and you find out who they really are.
That’s the best way to find out who a politician really is. Listen to what his or her people say when the door is closed and the cameras are off.
So, yes, it does matter — a lot — that people like David Duke keep saying Donald Trump is their candidate. Duke seems to believe Trump will do his bidding, and clearly, Trump hasn’t done enough to dissuade him and others like him.
Yes, of course you can apply this technique to politicians on all sides of the spectrum, and I have. Trump, however, happens to be our most important politician right now. If you want to know who he is, listen to the people who are attracted to him. And ask why they keep feeling welcome.