Hillary Clinton was back in the news briefly last week when an excerpt from her upcoming book What Happened was released. I have mostly avoided talking about Clinton since the election, not just here on the blog, but in real life as well, because I find that almost any conversation about her quickly devolves into unproductive blame & fingerpointing about why she lost the election. Of course Democrats need to do some introspection and figure out what they weren’t better able to connect with voters, but most of the conversations that result when Hillary’s name is invoked don’t seem to me to be useful exercises for running better elections in the future.
In any case, I’m deviating from my usual rule and bringing her up now because the new excerpt from her book reminded me about something that had caught my eye many months ago, which I’d set on the back burner at the time and then never came back to. And yes, like everything else these days, it all ultimately comes back around to Trump.
For anyone who might have missed it, in the excerpt that was released last week (which was actually an audio clip read by her), Clinton talked about the second presidential debate, where Donald Trump lurked very closely behind her while she stood to answer questions. She described how that felt:
This is not OK. Two days before, the world heard him brag about groping women. Now, we were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.
And then she continues with a bit more description of her reaction to his lurking, which you can read in the link above, if you haven’t heard it already.
But, aside from all of the obvious reasons why this is both fascinating & disturbing, it interested me because it reminded me about a great Politico article I’d read just shortly before Trump took office. The article described the extraordinary debate prep process the Clinton campaign went through – or to be more precise, it described the extraordinary process of the man who played Donald Trump throughout Clinton’s debate prep.
That man, Philippe Reines, had been Clinton’s chief communications aide for years while she was a Senator and Secretary of State.* He’d become known for his very prickly interactions with the press. So Clinton actually kept him at a distance from most of her presidential campaign. But when it came time to think of someone who could embody Trump’s ornery, bullying personality for Clinton’s mock debates, Reines was clearly the man for the job.
If you’re not familiar with debate prep for presidential debates, it’s not about supplying the candidate with memorized answers to every potential question. While it is definitely about making sure they’re prepared to answer any question the moderators might ask them, it’s also about trying to simulate the actual debate experience as closely as possible, so that the candidate is ready for any and every circumstance that might arise.
So that includes practicing the hours of standing, getting used to the conditions of the room, and most importantly preparing to face the candidate who’ll be standing at the other podium (or in this case, lurking right behind you – one amazing tidbit Reines recently revealed is that they did indeed do mock debates with him “lurking” behind Hillary as the Trump figure).** So, before Hillary Clinton even began practicing against her Trump stand-in, Reines first immersed himself in becoming Trump:
He searched eBay for a 2005 Donald J. Trump signature collection watch, which he purchased for $175. He experimented with a self-tanning lotion on his face. Before prep sessions, Reines began suiting up with velcro knee pads (to keep his legs straight), a posture enhancer (to keep his arms back), and dress shoes with three-inch lifts (to match Trump’s 6-foot-1-inch frame). His longtime tailor fit him for a loose-fitting suit with large cuffs. His goal was not a “Saturday Night Live”-style caricature of Trump, so he didn’t try to replicate Trump’s famous mane. But he wanted to approximate his physicality so that Clinton would grow accustomed to Trump’s looming presence when she saw Reines in her peripheral vision.
He also sat down with Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter-turned-tell-all critic, to better understand the man’s psychology. Hoping to fully become the character he had been cast to play, Reines briefly went off his meds (he declined to say which, or if he has since resumed them) . . .
At home, or in his secret office, Reines watched all 12 Republican primary debates three times, while standing behind one of his podiums—practice for the physical feat of simply standing still for 90 minutes. During his first viewing, he would watch the debate all the way through, taking notes. The second time, he would watch just for Trump’s lines and reaction shots, and the third time he would watch with the sound off, studying Trump’s mannerisms and body language.
While the first portion of the above quote – about Reines taking on Trump’s physical traits – is probably the most entertaining, it’s the latter part that I find most interesting. We’ve all learned far, far too much by now about Trump’s unique psychological makeup. But Reines might have among the most detailed understanding of Trump’s personality quirks. He came to understand Trump so well that he could very often predict specific things Trump was going to say before he said them. In fact the lines between Reines and the character he was playing became so blurred that even after returning to “regular” life, Reines says that, “[t]here are times when he says something and I spend five minutes trying to figure out if I was copying him or if he was copying me.”
But there was one specific point Reines made about Trump that struck me back when I first read the article, an observation which I think is one of the keys to understanding Trump’s behavior. We all know he’s a bully and he doesn’t like to be controlled by anyone and he colors outside the lines, etc. But Reines made a very simple observation that, as simple as it is, very few other people have made. And it’s this:
Reines’ deeper takeaways about Trump, he says, give a hint of how the president-elect will govern. To try and anticipate where Trump might fall on an issue, or what he might do, the key is to think of him as innately contrarian, Reines advises.
A tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman just a couple months ago confirms this view of him:
Trump would do the opposite of what he was advised to do just because it was the opposite. This, I think, is a very important thing to know about our President. Sure, lots of powerful people don’t like to be controlled. It’s not surprising that someone who makes it to the office of the presidency wants to be the one calling the shots. But being contrary goes beyond that. A person who is contrary by nature can be one of the most difficult types of people to deal with.
By definition, they can’t be reasoned with, because the very act of reasoning with them pushes them further into their contrary position. This leads them to take many positions that are self-destructive. And, when someone like that is President, it leads them to take many positions that are destructive to the well-being of the country. And the more the destructive consequences of their actions are pointed out to them, the further their contrary nature leads them to dig in. (Of course, the idea of using reverse psychology seems like an obvious option, but when we’re talking about the President of the United States & the high stakes decisions he makes on a daily basis, is that really the way we would want his advisors to interact with him? (“Yes, Mr. President, please go ahead, launch the nuke.”))
Trump has an endless list of personality flaws that make him a terrible – and dangerous – President. But this is one that I think has gotten overlooked. This may be because on its own, contrarianism is an irritating, but not necessarily perilous quality. But combine Trump’s contrary streak with his numerous other flaws, such as his belligerence, his incuriousness, his thirst for vengeance and you see how the situation quickly becomes combustible. Anyway, the entire Politico article is full of compelling and entertaining details, so I recommend giving the whole thing a read if you have a few minutes.
*I’m not the only one who thought of Philippe Reines when Hillary’s book excerpt was released. He was in demand as an interview subject, and last Wednesday, Ari Melber of MSNBC had Reines on his show for the first interview Reines has given since the election. You can see the video here.
**During last week’s interview with Melber, Reines said that they practiced with him lurking as Trump during the mock debates, because “his lurking was something that we felt pretty confident he would do.”