Hillary Clinton Should Ask Herself: What Would Donald Trump Do?

Instead of feeling embarrassed for celebrity-slumming at his wedding, Clinton should ponder why he’s being seen as ‘authentic’ and she’s considered ‘calculating’ and ‘untrustworthy.’

08.17.15 5:30 AM ET

Believe me, Congressman Trey Gowdy is a loser. This guy runs the committee that’s demanding all of my emails from when I was secretary of state and he won’t release any of his own emails from Congress. Why? He’s afraid they’ll show the whole thing is a huge political deal—a setup. Which it is. Disgusting.

Look, this is the same old double standard from when Bill and I were huge in the ’90s. Colin Powell is a nice guy. I like him, he likes me. All the blacks like me. They don’t like Bernie Sanders. But Colin Powell had a private email account the whole time he was secretary of state, and if you think nothing classified ever got there accidentally, I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell ya. By the way, a billion other Cabinet guys in both parties had private email accounts, and good for them. It’s like having a private cellphone number. Same deal. Nobody’s business. You know what? If those bureaucrats scrape my server and recover my personal deleted emails, I’m going to sue the government to keep ’em private. Watch me.”

Trump disgusts me and I’m sure he disgusts Clinton. He is hardly a model for her behavior or anyone else’s. But Hillary has a lot to learn from The Donald about how to handle herself in the circus that has become our politics. Trump could teach Clinton a thing or two about trust, risk-taking, and counter-punching. Instead of feeling embarrassed for celebrity-slumming at his wedding, she should ask herself every so often: WWDD. What Would Donald Do?

New polls show that large and growing numbers of voters don’t trust Clinton. For people like me who covered Bill Clinton in the 1990s, that seems like no big deal right now. In the spring of 1992—after revelations that he was a philanderer, a draft dodger, and a “Slick Willie” in Arkansas—Bill Clinton was running third in the polls behind incumbent President George H.W. Bush and independent billionaire Ross Perot. Four months later, Clinton was easily elected president, though voters still gave him low marks on trust. Six years after that, amid the Lewinsky scandal, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) famously said she wouldn’t trust the president to babysit her daughter. Clinton went on to leave office with sky-high approval ratings.

But Hillary is not a lovable rogue like her husband. She is cleaner than Bill but wears less Teflon. The pattern with her going back to her days as first lady is a cover-up—or at least suspicious damage control—without a crime. Recall her disastrous “Pretty in Pink” press conference on the largely phony Whitewater scandal (which made her seem dodgy and legalistic); her misplacing of the Rose law firm billing records (which made her appear as if she was hiding something when the records showed nothing); and her testimony before a grand jury (which made her look like a crook when she wasn’t).

In the end, Hillary survives because she only seems guilty of something without being so. Even with the coming drip, drip, drip of leaks about whether she mishandled classified emails (which is what happens when an FBI investigation starts), she is unlikely to be forced from the race by this story, Joe Biden’s wishful thinking notwithstanding.

But she is already being hurt by it. Those low trust numbers could lead to a few primary and caucus losses to Biden, if he runs, or Bernie Sanders, who leads in New Hampshire in a new poll. Even if Hillary wins the nomination—still likely—low trust ratings would weaken her against a Republican, especially one like Marco Rubio, who can claim to represent change. Bill Clinton won in 1992 because a change theme usually beats a trust theme in politics. But if you have neither trust nor change on your side—and seem like a candidate from the last century—you’re in a pickle.

Hillary’s problem is not the emails story itself, but her response to it, which has been halting and defensive. The reason so many voters don’t trust Hillary is she doesn’t trust them. Trust is reciprocal. If she trusted the public more, she would be mixing it up in the media more, like Trump, and betting that the public will eventually sort out the truth. Hillary is taking a 1990s control freak approach to a media environment that is fundamentally uncontrollable. She has aides and supporters defending her instead of vigorously making her case to all comers. Trump knows that you have to assert yourself every day and counter-attack to stay on top of the story.

Why is a charlatan like Trump seen as “authentic”? Because he is spontaneous and—in a reality show, non-financial way—transparent. His motive for being out there all the time (megalomania) isn’t relevant; it’s the effect of his spontaneity that is instructive. Trump is far sleazier than Hillary, as the documentary Trump: Whats the Deal? explains in detail. But even with all his lying, he seems open.

She’s cover-up with no crime; he’s crime (or at least reports of employing undocumented immigrants for building demolition and dealing with mobbed-up unions) with no cover-up. As we know from Watergate, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Why these self-inflicted wounds? Because Hillary and her communications team have an old-fashioned view of what constitutes “media.” She has 4 million Twitter followers, a few more than Trump, and a bunch of social media hipsters at work in her Brooklyn HQ. But no one there seems to get that old media and social media are converging into an immense wave that can only be surfed, not managed.

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They think she can go around old media to connect with new media. Bill Clinton did that in 1992, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall and appearing on MTV. Mainstream media were dinosaurs, his people thought. But after he was president they learned the hard way that dinosaurs bite.

They still do, only now the effect of bad press is greatly magnified by social media. Yes, Clinton supporters have more ways to fight back than in the 1990s, when conservatives dominated talk radio and progressives had no space to counter-attack. But reinforcements only help if the candidate is leading the charge.

To do that, Hillary needs to take more risks, as Trump learned from the business world. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School argues that by abstaining from certain risks, businesses actually invite greater risk. (For example, marketing plans without healthy uncertainty built in are destined to under-perform.) The same applies to Hillary going weeks on end this summer without answering questions. That defensive crouch put her at greater risk than being out there for constant scrutiny—a scrutiny that occurs whether she talks to the press or not.

Hillary doesn’t get the most basic fact of media relations: Reporters are easy lays. Recall how well John McCain did in 2000 by giving reporters full access aboard his campaign bus. Trump last week invited selected reporters (the highest paid, of course) to ride on his helicopter. Guess what? He got softball coverage. Same thing goes when he calls into TV shows.

“A lot of people build a brand and they study it very carefully, and every move is calculated. My moves are not calculated. My moves are totally uncalculated,” Trump says in TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald (2005). Hillary will never stop calculating. It’s not in her nature. But moving even a little in Trump’s spontaneous, risk-taking direction would help.

The same goes for emulating Trump the counter-puncher. When asked about his penchant for personal attacks, Trump says he’s just punching back. And it’s true: Almost everyone he calls a loser has insulted him first.

Hillary seems to be learning this lesson. At a banquet last Friday in Iowa, she told a cheering crowd, “It’s not about emails or servers. It’s about politics,” before adding a reference to Snapchat: “I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.”

Spoken like The Donald.