Trump, Traficant and the Power of Pugnacious Language

By Katie Montgomery

It’s a common thought that in order for politicians to be successful in America, they must be likeable. They must diplomatically soothe the mob with words of understanding and intelligence, and become everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.

Donald Trump may be proving this belief wrong.

Despite being voted the least likeable and most dishonest Republican candidate in Fox News polls, Trump has jumped from a meager 3 percent in March 2015 to a 25 percent voter approval plurality this month.

The next closest Republican candidate is Ben Carson, who trails behind Trump with barely half of his points, at a 12 percent rating. Surprisingly, Carson is voted as the most likeable candidate in the Republican race.

All of this means that if the Republican Party held a primary election right now, Donald Trump would become the GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential race, and the most likeable politician would lose his candidacy to the least likeable.

This is not the first time a politician that many characterized as abrasive and dishonest has captured the votes of the working middle class.

James Traficant, who served as the Mahoning County sheriff and then as a member of the House of Representatives from 1985 to 2002, was famous for his vulgarity, arrogance, flamboyancy and very bad haircut.

Bertram de Souza, a columnist for the Vindicator who wrote about Traficant substantially during his political years, was one of the first people to make the comparison between the two politicians.

“Both have a strong base of support based on their personalities,” he pointed out. “Both are very bombastic and don’t sound like a scripted politician.”

Not sounding like a scripted politician helped Traficant and Trump rise quickly above the rest of their political competition. Voters were — and approval ratings suggest still are — tired of the mainstream political gamesmanship. Traficant, like Trump, appealed to the mainstream voters by acting in a way opposite mainstream politicians.

William Binning of the YSU political science department expounded on Traficant’s appeal to voters.

“[Traficant] expressed, at least for his constituents, the general discontent over the economic conditions . . . and he expressed it in the way they wanted it. He spoke it in their voice,” Binning said.

As a representative, Traficant did not shy away from being disliked for his views or actions. He was often characterized as an independent but brash senator and had an uncanny sense of how to work with the media and the people.

Trump, like Traficant, doesn’t rely on polls or speechwriters to work with the American public. He even refuses to use teleprompters, preferring instead to “speak from the heart,” as de Souza put it.

“Whether or not you believe he does that, that’s how it looks . . . People look at that and say, ‘Here’s someone who says it like it is,’” de Souza said. “There are a lot of undecided people who don’t like politicians, and those are the sort of people who Trump is attracting. [He’s] taking stands on issues that affect people personally. Jobs, international competition, unfair tax laws that hurt the middle class — Traficant stood up and fought the tax laws like that too.”

When asked how Trump was able to read the public’s concerns so well without conventional polls or advisors, de Souza pointed to the skills Trump developed long before his political career.

“I think Trump is a very, very good salesman. He got his start in real estate, so he had to be good at that anyway. But I think the most successful politicians are the ones who recognize where the crowd is going and charge to the front of the pack to lead them,” he said.

Like Traficant, Trump is working the American media system — and polls suggest he’s impressively good at it. Despite using divisive and — to some — offensive language regularly, Trump may be touching the same nerve in blue-collar voters that Traficant did years ago.