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?
Donald Trump tells you all you need to know about American democracy.
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:
senior editor of The New Republic and Twitter essayist.
Anglo-Dutch historian of China and global politics and author of Year Zero, a history of 1945.
conservative strategist, veteran of the Nixon administration, and former Reform Party candidate for president in 2000.
consumer advocate, lawyer, and five-time candidate for the presidency of the United States.
Boston College historian of To Make Men Free, a history of the Republican Party.
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.
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:
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.
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.