Long before Trump, there was George Washington Plunkitt. Brash, garrulous, opportunistic, Plunkitt milked New York’s public projects in a time of intense immigration and economic growth. He despised civic reformers. He reveled in the intimate, all-consuming politics of his day. Unlike his cautious peers, Plunkitt held little back when talking about his views and methods.
Plunkitt summed up his approach to public life in the phrase, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”
Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.
Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.
Would Trump deny that he is an opportunist? Probably not. Like Plunkitt, he treats opportunism as a political virtue, to be used for the benefit of his country. As for taking personal advantage, my guess is that he would echo Plunkitt: “When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.”
How does a billionaire like Trump connect with a mass audience? Plunkitt would have warned him:
Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics. The people won’t stand for it. If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it till you have made your pile….
Trump tackled the problem head on. Remember the smirking reports about him eating fast food on his plane? Or the sneers at his red baseball caps? The message to his audience was “Deep down, I’m one of you.” His opponent’s slick, corporate-style logo looked disciplined, balanced, expensively-designed and, in hindsight, antiseptic. Trump, who clearly understands the value of professional design for his business interests, chose a deliberately “undesigned” look. The result? A potent mix of success-signals (the plane, the hotels, the bling) and plain-folk signals that reinforced his message.
Politicians live and die by their words. Plunkitt advised would-be politicians: “If you’re makin’ speeches in a campaign, talk the language the people talk. Don’t try to show how the situation is by quotin’ Shakespeare.” Can anyone doubt that Trump speaks in the simplest way possible? According to the Boston Globe, Trump delivered his campaign speeches at a Grade 4 level. A ten-year-old child could understand his words. (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton spoke at a Grade 8 level and Bernie Sanders at a Grade 10 level.)
On surviving in politics, Plunkitt had one piece of advice: “You must study human nature and act accordin’. You can’t study human nature in books.” Trump’s immersion in backroom politics and private deal-making has undoubtedly taught him a lot about the self-serving, treacherous side of human nature. His marketing experience in developing attractive brands and properties appeals to the aspirations of his customers. Developing a successful television program has kept him in touch with mass audience preferences. He could say, with Plunkitt:
I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approachin’ at the right side.
Plunkitt’s political career began before the Civil War and endured for nearly fifty years. Since his time, the population has exploded and the economy has grown more complex. Mass communication has changed the pace of politics. Yet the words of this machine politician speak across the years and shine a surprisingly bright light on the politics of our day.