As Americans, we love the idea of authenticity. We place it above numerous other values such as experience, particularly when it comes to politicians. We want the person that stands in front of us on a stage, or on TV, to be relatable, an “everyday American,” and, above all else, authentic.
In 2016 this has presented itself in a big, (and very orange) way, with Donald Trump being the “authentic” candidate of the moment.
In December of 2015, a New York Times/CBS poll found a substantial majority of Republican primary voters, around 76 percent of them, thought Trump was the most “authentic” candidate of the GOP primary field. According to the poll, people believed Trump “says what he believes,” as opposed to “what people want to hear.”
This is telling for multiple reasons and points to the fact that we have somehow managed to turn the meaning of authenticity on its head when we use it to describe our political representatives.
In many ways, the idea that Trump says things that he believes rather than what people want to hear negates the fact that Trump, who has at times been a Democrat, at times a Republican, is saying exactly what people want to hear—just not everyone. Indeed, it’s his appeal to populist ideas in the niche of America he is courting that have driven him to be the presumptive nominee of the GOP. While many Americans were and are appalled at his statements about building a wall between Mexico and placing a ban on Muslims preventing them from entering the US it’s in many ways, exactly what this group wanted to hear, and what separated him in the primaries from 16 other candidates.
Another reason we hear Trumped talked about as authentic is because of his ability to seem at ease in front of large crowds, using a casual speaking cadence and tone with his audiences of supporters, the same way one might speak with another person while just sitting in their living room.
This stands in direct opposition to Hillary Clinton, who has been dogged by questions about her authenticity most of her political career.
As the New York Times reported in August of 2015, “During this campaign cycle, reporters and columnists have already questioned who the ‘Real Hillary’ is, said that she ‘wrestles with the authenticity issue,’ and described just being herself on the campaign trail as “a tricky proposition.”
All this led to Clinton having to point out the obvious on Face the Nation, telling John Dickerson, “I am a real person.”
The word authenticity means different things for different people. It is not a single unassailable characteristic, nor one that is intrinsically possessed by all. We are all an amalgamation of various experiences and beliefs, and those are constantly shifting. Yet we have come to see incredibly trained and practiced qualities as authentic when it comes to politicians. Sure, of course a politician can lie, or tell us half-truths, but in reality, that’s not usually what we mean when we say someone is authentic.
Let’s take, for example, the idea that Trump is a causal public speaker, and that makes him appear authentic to his supporters. The idea of speaking in front of thousands upon thousands of people is a thought that would terrify most Americans. Needless to say, it would make almost anyone nervous. If we had to get up on a stage and do that, we’d find it extremely difficult and stressful. So is that not the more “authentic” reaction? Is not looking somewhat stiff and awkward onstage not more in line with the majority of the American public would handle it?
Let’s also take a look at just how insane campaign schedules themselves are. The candidates are crisscrossing the country, on the move constantly, attending event after event, and speaking to thousands upon thousands of people, shaking their hands, hearing their concerns and doing their best to connect with every single one of them. This results in 60-80 hour work weeks for a period of almost 18 months, primaries included. That is a rigorous schedule that we wouldn’t expect of almost anyone else. Yet we expect a 70-year-old (Trump) and a 68-year-old (Clinton) to be bright eyed and bushy tailed wherever they might appear.
If they fail to live up to any of these standards, they are inauthentic, an idea that does not have data to back it up, can’t be quantified, and is really just a feeling.
People contain multitudes. That is undeniable. To try and hold our candidates to absurdly inverted ideas of characteristics is a disservice to them and ourselves. Candidates should be examined by their policies, their ideologies, and their actions, not how we want them to appear at speaking engagements or how much we can map ourselves onto them as “everyday Americans.”