COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 11, 2016 — In all the articles written about Donald Trump and his campaign, the odds are that no one has compared the political newcomer to a substitute teacher. That’s about to change.
A substitute school teacher is often roused from a sound sleep and given short notice on the day’s assignment. She showers, gets dressed and finds the school on a map before catapulting herself into her day’s job as professional outsider.
She’s often late to her first class. The absent teacher has left skimpy or no lesson plans, and the kids are off balance and loaded for bear. For powerless school kids, substitute teachers offer the rare opportunity to take charge. They know where the chalk is kept. They know there was homework due. And they know, and aren’t telling, where they left off yesterday in math.
Trump has entered the biggest election in the world. He is new at politics. He has a skeleton staff. He hasn’t yet honed quick responses to the media’s trick questions. He trips. He misspeaks. He’s the outsider. His chances of survival are slim to none, starting out.
Our teacher enters the school room as a nice person. She speaks calmly to deliver her instructions, like the professional that she is. And if she begins the day like that, the kids will run all over her. Soon paper airplanes will be launched over desks, and half the class will be out of their seats, chatting away as though there is no teacher within miles.
Like our teacher, Trump could have entered the race calmly, voicing his well-prepared policies to audiences, adopting the polished image of the candidate everyone says they want. He could listen carefully and mind his manners, maintain the patrician bearing befitting that high office.
We expect him to act “presidential,” as though he were acting in “The West Wing.” We want him to send the message, “I am in charge here. Look at me.” He isn’t president (yet,) but he can play one on TV.
By taking on polite, self-effacing, back-bench demeanors, the new candidate and our substitute teacher would both find themselves relegated to also-rans. The children would run rough shod over the teacher, and the nation’s snarky mainstream media would quickly dispense with the outsider candidate. The Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth, but before that day, the loud and brazen will get the attention.
The substitute knows she must enter the room prepared to do battle. She must be strong, forceful, even a bit mean-faced. She must signal from the outset that she is no one to mess with. She’s the alpha dog and her students will listen and obey. If she has no lesson plan, she announces her own for the day. If the lesson is new to her, she fakes it. She begins her day in the arena from a position of strength.
After she’s established her position, she can ease up a bit and be nice. But any substitute teacher can tell you, you must start out tough and demanding respect. If you begin self-effacingly, you’ve already lost. There is no re-do.
Compare “The Art of the Deal,” Trump’s best seller about the business deal, and his unusual behavior in the primaries. He started out strong, demanding all eyes on him. He got the air time—an estimated $2 billion in free media coverage—because they thought of him as a loose cannon. He was always a good story.
Trump needed to tame the lions in the media and among the political class. He had to take on his opponents early and forcefully. Only after he had their complete attention could he lighten up. Having taken them to the precipice, he slowly can bring us all back from the edge. He can be a more traditional candidate.
Trump entered the contest as an outsider. He had no idea where the chalk was kept or who had the keys to the media room. But he let no one see him sweat. He strode up to the podium like he owned it and made people take notice.
In a president, that behavior is called leadership.
For his opponents, Trump has been infuriatingly successful at prodding an aged Republican Party out of its lethargy. But he has their attention and even some grudging respect.
Trump reached this pinnacle of American politics by starting rough to gain our attention. Now that he has it, he has to keep it, and the brash, attention-grabbing tactics he started with will no longer do. That phase is over.
Now Trump must show that he can be a great leader. Whether he can reach that next stage of his journey to the White House is yet to be determined.