Trump This!

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look better on her knees, he’d be sent back to Canada.

So why is that from the billionaire candidate Donald Trump, wide-open narcissism, sexism, and anti-Mexican racism are accepted, even applauded? Maybe because Trump fits so comfortably into a mood of malcontent skepticism. Think George Wallace and Curtis LeMay before him: crazy or cynical, maybe, but in a familiar, American way.

So this week we’re looking for the many meanings in the Donald’s for-now popularity, and asking what his long candidacy might mean a new understanding of what America’s looking forward after Obama. So with historians Rick Perlstein and Heather Cox Richardson, and a chorus of voices, let us count the ways. 

1. Trump’s a TV brand.

Trump has brought a certain televisual atmosphere with him — the look of entertainment news, The Apprentice and advertising, roasts and resort vacations — into an otherwise stale and overcrowded horse race. Our guest Jeet Heer says the Trump candidacy works like professional wrestling — it becomes scripted battle, and spectacularly vulgar. (We shouldn’t forget Trump himself has thrown a few punches at Wrestlemania.)

2. He’s a high-school archetype.

The novelist of Election and screenwriter Tom Perrotta told us that Trump’s a kind of callback to high school: the entitled-and-he-knows-it prom king who has the car, the girl and the grades (despite not working). And all he sees around him are losers. Look at Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times: at age 27, already with a monogram license plate on his Cadillac.

3. He’s an aspirational figure.

Through it all, says Mark Singer of The New Yorker (who’s gone ten rounds with Trump), Trump represents a hypercharged version of the American dream that appeals to blue-collar voters, what Rick Perlstein called “a poor person’s version of a rich person”: he bet on himself, against the odds, damned the doubters, and built what they call a “personal brand” long before that was mainstream. Now he flies a jet with his name on it, and he’s willing to lie or go bankrupt to keep the show going.


4. He’s a truth-teller in a corrupt country.

 Trump is leveraging Citizens United the way Stephen Colbert did before him: slamming our “broken” system and at the same time proving it’s broken by his mere presence. Trump donated to the Clinton Foundation, so the Clintons came to his wedding (see above). Before they were adversaries, Gov. Scott Walker gave him a thank-you plaque for his support — now Trump won’t let him forget it. 


5. He’s a populist clown — and some clowns are scary.

Trump’s not alone: he’s part of a global class of outré anti-political politicians. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, once the Senate’s hippie scold, has preached socialism to a hundred thousand Americans on the trail.  Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, remains a city councillorFor now Italy’s second-place pol is the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, and Geert Wilders, a xenophobe with almost Trumpian hair, is way up in the Netherlands.

But Buruma conjures prior clowns with a caution: Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin were all laughingstocks before they won power — on an aura of emotional connection with their people and a promise of national resurrection. All this, Buruma’s clear, is not to call Trump Hitler, but to remind us that outrageous demagogues can turn serious in a hurry. The dynamics of The Great Dictator are in play:

Guest List
Mark Singer
New Yorker staff writer, old Trump sparring partner, and author of Funny Money.
Jeet Heer
senior editor of The New Republic and Twitter essayist.
Ian Buruma
Anglo-Dutch historian of China and global politics and author of Year Zero, a history of 1945.
Pat Buchanan
conservative strategist, veteran of the Nixon administration, and former Reform Party candidate for president in 2000.
Ralph Nader
consumer advocate, lawyer, and five-time candidate for the presidency of the United States.
Heather Cox Richardson
Boston College historian of To Make Men Free, a history of the Republican Party.
Tom Perrotta
novelist of Election and screenwriter of HBO's The Leftovers.
Rick Perlstein
commentator and historian of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge.
Reading List
There's No Stopping the Trump Show
Molly Ball, The Atlantic
Ball kicks off her reporting on Trump's stop in Laredo, Tex., with our great theme this week — a kind of bet on the man's persistence: "You want the Trump show to be over. But it’s not over... You want to ignore Donald Trump. You think maybe if you ignore him long enough, he will go away. Well, guess what? He’s not going away." It's the story of a media-wise, selectively blind locomotive of a candidate getting going:
What about the people who have called Trump a racist? “Well, you know, we just landed, and there were a lot of people at the airport, and they were all waving American flags, and they were all in favor of Trump and what I’m doing, virtually everyone that we saw.” No, a reporter says. Those people were protesting against you! “Well, I didn’t see that,” he says.
Donald Trump: The perfect candidate for 2015
Chris Cilliza, The Washington Post
Another mainstream take on Trump's surprising viability as a candidate in an atmosphere of media saturation and hunger for political provocation:
But, it says something about our culture -- and the way we consume and cover politics -- that Trump's kinda, sorta campaign has, to date, worked incredibly well.  Trump is running a national campaign for a process that has always been built on cultivating each of the early-voting states like the most delicate of flowers. Sure, he goes to Iowa -- he'll be there for the state fair this weekend-- but he doesn't really cater to Iowans in any meaningful way.  Or promise them he will be back there every week from now until the election. That frankness -- or lack of pandering -- is, of course, what appeals to people (in Iowa and elsewhere) who are drawn to Trump. But can a candidate tweet and talk on cable all the way to the presidential nomination?
Trump: Candidate Of Truth
Jodi Dean, I Cite (blog)
A wonderful short essay about the emotional buttons Trump is impishly pushing in an era of big money, and accounting for what could be called, at the risk of a tongue-twister, the "Teflon Don Phenomenon" — he's seems fun and honest amid the xenophobia and sexism:
Liberals enjoy their outrage. Here Trump confirms for them their rightness in despising the Republican base, itself only seldom anything other than their own disgust with the working class. As they use Trump as a catalyst for their own good feeling, liberals repeat his practices of contempt in another register. Not only is he a candidate they can enjoy hating but he enables them to extend their hate to all the non-millionaires supporting Trump: they really must be idiots. In a plutocracy, the plutocrats rule. The Republicans don't like Trump because he doesn't hide this point under flag and fetus. For him, flag and fetus are present, but incidental to his politics of truth.  Those with money win. Those without it lose. Winners get to do whatever they want. Losers get done to. Trump unleashes the drives US electoral politics more typically attempts to channel along set scripts. This is his politics of enjoyment.
Trump Solo
Mark Singer, The New Yorker
Singer, in writing this long 1997 profile of Trump as his marriage to Marla Maples was collapsing, found that Trump's genius was for branding, prescient in the '90s. And yet that there was something missing in the man himself:
Every square inch belonged to Trump, who had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul. “Trump”—a fellow with universal recognition but with a suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable inconvenience, a creature everywhere and nowhere, uniquely capable of inhabiting it all at once, all alone.

Related Content

  • Potter

    Trump finally got to you eh? We ‘re laughing.

  • Potter

    “I’m a ratings machine.” …Donald Trump

    • juraj

      Donald got Hillary to say “After someone pulled out Vince Foster, I quit”

  • Pete Crangle

    “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done. ” — Honoré de Balzac

    The Donald. A mega hustler become demigod … a real-estate mogul and gambling pimp with a wannabe rapper sensibility … what is nauseating for me is not that The Donald takes his shadow/ID out for a stroll for his amusement and public displays of self-aggrandizing, rhetorical masturbation (I swear, some dude in this primary season may just whip out his genitals and start swinging them around for our shock-and-awe, it’s gotten burlesque, shallow, and will become ever more dangerous), but what is nauseating is the fascination/adulation/petty wonder among the attention-span challenged consumer herd (I’m looking at you media zombies).

    Chris Hedges nailed it with his book “Empire of Illusion.” I am glad it was mentioned in this show, even if obliquely. The wrestling theatricality aptly applies to the current ethos. I offer a minor correction to Mr. Hedges’ and Plato’s analysis: we are not chained to the cave any longer, we find ourselves hoping to become the cave and the chains by virtue of the illusion of neoliberalism, and thus, there are no more shadows to peer upon, because we are gradually becoming mere shadow. Perhaps we will add a big golden ‘T’ to the shadow before we’re through?

    What I am brooding upon here is not The Donald or its incarnation into the latest piece of spectacle. A lent-less carnival of mutual-exploitation. I am brooding upon the import it is having upon the idea of citizenship and citizenry. Which means that this ROS show is well twined to last week’s show on DFW. It is perhaps the perfect pendant show. So complete is this logic, that DFW disappears from the discussion, but not his observations on the zeitgeist. Of course, many others have done this too. If Dostoevsky were among us, he might well have to peel himself away from the tables of chance at a Trump casino to ponder upon the cultural train-wreck rolling our way. Yates might have a few choice observations. We know Cassandra’s tend to go mad, and that’s no accident. DFW is part of a tragic tradition.

  • Potter

    I’m grateful for Trump in this part of the campaign period.

    My attempt at punditry: I am not taking Trump as a threat.
    I don’t believe Trump really wants to be President. That would put him in a cage, a bubble. He does not want to be in such a prison nor take on such responsibility as would be handed to him. I think he knows he could not be elected either. He may even know he should not be President, though knowing that would make him advanced. So get real. Yes anything is possible in “America” and maybe we should be afraid or happy of that but Trump will not be the next president.

    Trump knows his audience though. And from them he has now the power but not the responsibility. This is what, I think, he really wants, – the leverage to play with until he is finished with this game, or it with him.

    How far can he get probably amuses him and will continue to do so. He’s after all playing this by ear. We’re (collectively, but especially Republicans) his plaything, something money could not buy for him. For all the bravado about being rich and not beholden, his money cannot buy the presidency for him. That’s why being a “ratings machine” (whatever that takes to be one) is how he gets at this far. The pundits say this will end. And I say this is all he wants. Ultimately though we are getting warmed up for the coming season in spite of our wishes ( some of us) to not tune in yet. With Trump it’s a show. Without Trump no. And maybe more folks will vote.

    So Trump is needed in this race, out-clowning the clowns, playing the jester and the trickster. He smokes us out. Let’s look in the mirror. But you can’t ignore him especially as he gains ground. It’s OMG!

    By the way: The Trump Wrestlemania video is a perfect metaphor for the general letting go of emotional inhibitions, getting adrenalin pumped that we are capable of during these seasons. This Wrestlemania show, the infectious mass adrenalin high is scary and maybe especially because it is scripted, choreographed so well. Bullies bully the weaker bullies. The most powerful bully (of course Trump) is victorious and he gets to humiliate this poor fellow to crowds gasping, cheering wildly. Hitler’s Germany I think. Trump is no Hitler, and I can’t imagine Hitler ever being taken as a clown, but the point well made and taken ( and brought up here). You can see how that happened. But no, not here. This is America! Thank goodness, for once, that we are so deeply divided.

  • Jackie

    There’s something appealing about a person in politics who has nothing to lose and owes no one anything. Who will say whatever he wants without regard to how it polls. I know I am tired of politicians who never say what they feel so they can get elected. I don’t think people are looking for a perfect candidate, anymore. I think people will settle for an honest one.

    • Thinkin5

      But wouldn’t it be nice if the blurting ‘honesty’ contained something helpful to the country? Solutions that we can all live with are what we need. “Honest” ranting and name calling is not a rare thing in the national discussion. Anger isn’t a rare emotion either. One side is pushing us back to the Archie Bunker era. We’re just more divided.

      • Jackie

        I think it is helpful to the country to refuse to engage in hypocrisy and expose the government election process for the farce that it is. I’m a Libertarian. Anything that messes with the status quo is good news for me!

  • Thinkin5

    “Plutocracy”, “Winners get to do whatever they want. Losers get done to.” The very things that this country likes to think that it’s founders were against. Add to that a religious test that the evangelical wing of the right is relentlessly pushing. Right back to old England! Apparently, they liked everything but the taxes.

  • rich4321

    Trump is no different from Hitler almost 100 years ago. Hitler provoked the hatred of Jews in the sad European sentiment. That was how Hitler was elected, and we all know what the outcome was.

    Trump plays on the minds of many Americans– the hatred of Mexician immigrants so that he can be elected. Trump is a danger to mankind!!

    • Cambridge Forecast


      You might modify this comment by saying that if you “walk the Trump phenomenon backwards” through
      history, you come to shock jocks and insult-comedians (Andrew Dice Clay) on a primitive level and to “fin de siècle” (1890-1910) Vienna with Schoenerer and Karl Lueger.

      Schoenerer and Lueger were belligerent ant-semitic “insult politicians” who modernized
      hate politics and were entrepreneurs in the hate industry. Hitler was a fervent
      and apt pupil who was in Vienna at the time before he moved to Munich in 1913.

      Trump also sounds like an upside-down Huey Long. Trump’s “bête noire” and targets are
      foreigners like Mexicans and this is a kind of antiforeign nativist demagoguery
      pose ie attack the weak and foreign.

      The 19th century “Know-Nothings” also come to mind in this backward walk through time.

      Richard Melson

    • Mike Tamillow

      wow, just wow. Straight to the hitler reference…

  • Potter

    Evan Osnos The Fearful and the Frustrated, Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape- for now in the New Yorker Magazine is worth reading.

  • Mike Tamillow

    This is nonsense