WASHINGTON—Donald Trump once claimed to be publicity shy.
It’s right there in The New York Times of Nov. 1, 1976. In the same article, the 30-year-old real estate developer talks up his millions, showcases his penthouse apartment and Cadillac, and allows a reporter to tag along as he visits job sites and lunches at the “21” club before hopping an evening flight to California for more deal-making.
So much for that shy-guy claim.
Young and ambitious, Trump worked just as hard at building his image as he did at expanding his real estate empire.
Along the way, he honed the communications skills that would benefit him at the negotiating table, turn him into a reality TV star, and launch a presidential campaign.
He’ll put them to the ultimate test as he goes one-on-one with Hillary Clinton in three nationally televised debates over the next month that will help determine the next president.
Trump, who’d never participated in a debate before the presidential primaries, is keeping his preparations for Monday’s leadoff general-election debate low key—no mock face-offs or the like.
“Really, you’re preparing all of your life for these,” he told Fox Business Network recently. “You’re not preparing over a two-week period and cramming.”
Is he ready?
Experts on public speaking find all kinds of faults with Trump’s oratory: His vocabulary is juvenile, his syntax is jumbled, he’s casual about accuracy, he’s demeaning, his voice is thin and nasal, he’s weak on policy details and more.
And yet, Aaron Kall, who directs the University of Michigan’s Debate Institute and debate team, will venture to tell you this: “He performs like a maestro.”
“He’s a media natural,” says Kall, who edited a book about Trump’s primary debate performances. “He really understands audiences and tailors a message to what he thinks that they want to hear.”
Trump inherited a flair for promotion from his father.
Fred Trump, who built homes and apartments in Brooklyn and Queens, used all sorts of gimmicks to sell his properties: He filled the scoop of a bulldozer with women in bikinis. He released balloons on Coney Island containing $50 discount coupons. He dressed up apartment building lobbies with bird cages.
From the beginning, his son Donald never passed up an opportunity to be on camera.
Long before NBC’s “The Apprentice” turned Trump into a reality TV star in 2004, he was advancing his biz-whiz image in TV and movie cameos, chatting up Howard Stern on the radio and filming ads for Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and more. Then, over 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” he sharpened his ability to work the camera, think on his feet and promote the Trump brand.
As a presidential candidate, he’s drawn on those same skills to keep himself in the news, dishing out provocations and insults sure to guarantee the public’s attention.
“Across his history, he evolved from a builder to a brand,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “He would not be successful were it not for his ingenuity at securing publicity.”
A big question heading into Monday’s leadoff debate in Hempstead, New York, is which Trump will turn up on stage—the bombastic name-caller who dominated stages for most of the primary season or the more disciplined candidate of late who marveled during the final Republican debate, “I can’t believe how civil it’s been up here.”
Voters looking for a smackdown may be disappointed.
Kall says that because a key question for voters is whether Trump has the right temperament to be president, the Republican nominee needs to put the bluster on hold and offer a measured, thoughtful debate performance in which he shows a command of policy detail.
Trump faltered on policy questions at times during the primary debates. At one point he appeared unfamiliar with the concept of the nuclear triad, which includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and strategic bombers. On another occasion, he seemed unaware China was not part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Lillian Glass, an expert on speaking and body language, said Trump needs to be “completely focused on what is discussed and not talk about himself and how great his business was and what he did in the past. We know. We all know. Now, it’s time to focus on the issues.”
There’s also Trump’s voice to consider.
Ruth Sherman, a public speaking coach, says the public has grown so accustomed to Trump over the decades that people give him a pass on what she says is a poor speaking voice.
“He doesn’t get criticized for the quality of his speaking voice but he should,” she says. “It’s a thin voice. It’s not smooth. It’s somewhat nasal.”
Plenty of critics have highlighted the GOP nominee’s banal vocabulary—heavy on “great,” ”amazing,” ”stupid,” ”dumb,” ”bad” and “sad.”
“It almost sounds at times as if he’s working from a random word generator in which there are a limited number of adjectives that are repeatedly used,” says Jamieson.
But a big part of Trump’s appeal is his knack for simplification, skipping over the nuances of complex problems to dangle the promise of easy solutions.
Trump may find that it was easier to pull that off on a crowded debate stage than it will be facing just Clinton, who is sure to try zero in on missing elements and policy gaps.
Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s political institute and a veteran of John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, says of Trump: “For all his bombast, he must know that 90 minutes toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton doesn’t leave him much margin for error.”