Sullivan Fortner, a gifted 29-year-old pianist I had never heard before, played a fiery, shape-shifting piece new to me as the first selection in his debut performance at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center last Friday. Fortner was brought on as a guest of the featured artist, pianist Fred Hersch. “That wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t rehearsed,” Fortner said at the completion of the piece, sounding proudly surprised by the quality of his own spontaneous composition. “I don’t know what that was!”
The audience oohed and aahed, clearly impressed by Fortner’s creative ingenuity, and the drama of the moment got me thinking about Donald Trump. I should make clear here that I am anything but a Trump supporter. In fact, I find his wild and volatile, xenophobic, hate-fueled rhetoric loathsome and terrifying. I have never understood any aspect of his appeal—until the night at the Appel Room, when it struck me that the very wildness and volatility of Trump’s performances in campaign rallies, debates, and television interviews do not look to everyone like liabilities. They come across as strengths to his admirers. Like Sullivan Fortner and every other musician skilled in the art of extemporaneous invention, Donald Trump is, in his way, an improviser—in a perverse sense, a jazz candidate.
Since the beginning of his campaign for the Republican nomination seven months ago, he has flaunted his contempt for the time-consuming conventions of study, preparation, and measured, well-considered opinion. He takes things as they come, never at a loss for something to say—often, something startling and groundless and headline grabbing, regardless of its possible incompatibility with something he has said before.
His critics in and out of the press, duly rankled by Trump’s smug unpreparedness, tend to see his impulse to ad lib as a shortcoming that is, in and of itself—apart from the problematic content of his blurtage—unbecoming to a serious contender for the presidency. Trump is “like a kid saying the first thing that pops into his head,” in the words of David Horsey, the political columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “Trump is just winging it; coming up with answers to questions without really taking much time to think.”
As Gail Collins proposed on The New York Times op-ed page, puzzling over the wondrous variety of figures Trump has suggested for a tariff on imports from China, “a possible answer would be that he just makes this stuff up as he goes along.”
The presumption underlying these comments is that Trump’s habit of “winging it” indicates a lack of intellectual discipline, a disconnect from reality, and a mercurial personality unsuitable to leadership. I think all this is true, and it troubles me profoundly. At the same time, I see now how the ease with which Trump makes stuff up as he goes along can be mistaken for an attribute.