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Donald Trump marches into the uncanny valley

Written By | Jun 17, 2015

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2015 — Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the White House today with a remarkable speech from New York’s Trump Tower.

“Remarkable” is a good word for both the speech and for Trump, but it is an inadequate description of either. “Bizarre” and “erratic” would also apply, but the word for now is “uncanny.”

Trump’s speech had clearly never been touched by a professional speechwriter, having a disjointed and extemporaneous quality that made it a refreshingly clear look into the candidate’s own thinking:

It’s great to be at Trump Tower. It’s great to be in a wonderful city, New York. And it’s an honor to have everybody here. This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this.

And, I can tell, some of the candidates, they went in. They didn’t know the air-conditioner didn’t work. They sweated like dogs. They didn’t know the room was too big, because they didn’t have anybody there. How are they going to beat ISIS? I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

“Uncanny” connotes an unsettling quality. The term “uncanny valley” refers to the effect of CGI and robotic copies of human beings that are very close to real, but not quite there. A cartoon of a man — Popeye, for instance — can be endearing, as can a doll. Make them more lifelike, and we can relate to them more easily. But make them very lifelike but not quite there, and they suddenly become unsettling, creepy or even disgusting.

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Thus the characters in the Robert Zemeckis film “Polar Express” are, in spite of any good qualities in the story, creepy. They are almost human, but alien. They are almost what we expect real people to be, but we know in our gut that there’s nothing real about them.

Donald Trump, like a prosthetic hand, a zombie or a corpse, falls somewhere between the cuddly parody of a cartoon or stuffed toy and a real-life candidate.

Real candidates give speeches, but do they ever say things like this?

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

You may share the sentiment, the concern that drug dealers and other predators are surging north across our border with Mexico, but the odd compliment, “some, I assume, are good people,” falls like the word of the raven across the stilled heart: human word, human voice, uncanny effect.

They just built a hotel in Syria. Can you believe this? They built a hotel. When I have to build a hotel, I pay interest. They don’t have to pay interest, because they took the oil that, when we left Iraq, I said we should’ve taken.

The image of transporting the oil fields of Iraq to Queens is an odd one.

Last quarter, it was just announced our gross domestic product — a sign of strength, right? But not for us. It was below zero. Whoever heard of this? It’s never below zero.

He meant GDP growth — his slip of the tongue is nothing compared to some made by other, more highly regarded, statesmen — but he was still wrong. GDP growth is fairly often less than zero; when it is less than zero two quarters in a row, we call it a “recession.”

The uncanny effect here is not due to Trump’s odd take on economics, but to his complete disregard for reality, a disregard that he displays fairly often in this speech — from the silly (you must be “literally” hit by a tractor to use your insurance) to the dangerous (“even our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work”).

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Trump’s speech was everything that makes the man himself so fascinating. It was erratic and unexpected, contrary to all expectations of a political speech. There was nothing smooth about it; it clearly sprang from the mind of Trump himself. It was unapologetic in its vainglory, and even if it wasn’t all strictly true, Trump seems to tell us that the force of his personality and wealth should be enough to kill doubt.

You doubt? You’re an idiot and a traitor. Trump doesn’t doubt.

Trump has little real chance of winning his party’s nomination, perhaps a bigger chance than Jindal or Sanders because his pockets are, as he reminded us several times, very deep. He can stay in for the long haul without raising a dime. But he’s not a stupid man; he must know he almost certainly won’t win. Why run?

Because he’s Trump. If you try, you might fail; if you don’t try, you can never succeed. He can afford to try and try again, and he isn’t a man who will let fear of failure stop him.

If you don’t take Trump seriously, he and his campaign are a cartoon. If you do take him seriously, he beckons you into the uncanny valley. But he’s not the only one. Hillary is there, too, and far more uncanny than The Donald.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.