If you haven’t heard that Donald Trump is near the top of the polls for the Republican presidential nomination, you haven’t listened to any Donald Trump interviews lately. He would have told you. As well as how rich and successful he is. And how well-rated his reality show is. By the way, did he mention that he went to Wharton? (“I am a really smart guy.”)
Trump takes vulgar self-promotion so far, it’s almost endearing. If he ever runs for president — flirting with a run is a perennial arrow in his self-promotional quiver — he’ll bring the business background of Ross Perot, the outsider combativeness of Jesse Ventura, and the marketing skills of P. T. Barnum. It’ll be just what the country needs, if what we’ve always been waiting for is a mash-up of C-SPAN’s Road to the White House and NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Trump is scoring in GOP polls because his name ID is so high and the rest of the field has yet to generate excitement. In a CNN survey, Mitt Romney, a serious contender last time who is sometimes referred to as the presumptive front-runner, is at 11 and Trump at 19. In other words, a former governor who has been running for president for years is losing to the guy who runs the Miss USA pageant and apparently doesn’t know how many members of Congress there are (when asked the number by Time magazine, he brushed off the question as overly academic).
It can’t be denied Trump has hit a kind of discordant chord. At a time when the media and political establishments are in disrepute, Trump’s I-won’t-play-by-your-rules outrageousness must strike many people as refreshing. Watch him flummox incredulous interviewers. Watch him stomp on pieties (not to mention good taste and facts). Watch him never back down.
Trump reflects the id of a certain segment of populist opinion. Republicans have unfounded doubts about Barack Obama’s birthplace. Trump absurdly promises to become a personal Scotland Yard for the birthers, sending a team to hunt down the real birth certificate in Hawaii. People think we’re losing too many jobs to China. Trump all but pledges a trade war. People worry about American decline. Trump says we’re getting laughed at around the world and it’ll end on his watch.
People doubt the war in Libya. Trump says he’d wage war there only to take the country’s oil. And he’d take Iraq’s oil, too. Obama is groping for a doctrine in the Middle East. Trump already has one: Steal its oil. In Trump, Noam Chomsky will finally have met a Western imperialist truly bent on expropriating the Third World’s wealth.
The chances are that this is all an elaborate put-on. Trump no doubt relishes getting people to talk about his favorite topic — Trump. In true Trump style, he’s said he’s going to use his TV show to make an announcement about an announcement. Even Narcissus would blush at the naked self-referentiality of it all.
Except there’s one nagging sign of Trump’s semi-seriousness. He says he had a conversion and has become pro-life. Perhaps this is a genuine change of mind. If not, it shows Trump already understands more about running for the Republican presidential nomination than Rudy Giuliani ever did: You can’t do it and have any hope of winning if you are pro-choice.
Trump wants to be the anti-Obama. Obama is too soft; Trump is tough. Obama knows nothing about business; Trump is God’s gift to American capitalism. Obama is painfully thoughtful in his affect; Trump is brash. They share much more important qualities in common, though. Like the Obama of 2008, Trump is an arrogant celebrity with a talent for branding who knows much less than he thinks and vastly overestimates his ability to fix the country’s problems.
We’ve been here before. Give me humble. Give me boring. Give me wonky. Give me anything but another celebrity apprentice.