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 councillor. For 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: