Politics & Policy

The Art of the Con, by Donald Trump

(Scott Olson/Getty)
Showmanship isn’t statesmanship.

Conservatives love a faction. Among my friends here at National Review, we have conservatarians (Charles C. W. Cooke), reform conservatives (Ramesh Ponnuru), the secular Right (Andrew Stuttaford), etc. The distinctive features of those camps are, respectively, being comfortable with gay marriage, favoring tax credits for children, and favoring tax credits for the children of gay marriages so long as the money doesn’t end up in the offering plate.

The reaction to Donald Trump’s announcement of his presidential campaign suggests that there is room for one more: Grow the Hell Up Conservatism.

Trump brings out two of the Right’s worst tendencies: the inability to distinguish between entertainers and political leaders, and the habit of treating politics as an exercise in emotional vindication.

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Whatever Trump’s appeal is to the Right’s populist elements, it isn’t policy. He is a tax-happy crony capitalist who is hostile to free trade but very enthusiastic about using state violence to homejack private citizens — he backed the Kelo decision “100 percent” and has tried to use eminent domain in the service of his own empire of vulgarity — and generally has about as much command of the issues as the average sophomore at a not especially good college, which is what he was (sorry, Fordham) until his family connections got him into Penn.

The value of speaking one’s mind depends heavily on the mind in question, and Trump’s is second-rate.

If it’s not the issues, it’s certainly not the record of the man himself. Never mind that he’s a crony capitalist, he’s not even an especially good crony capitalist: The casino racket is protected from competition by a strict cartel-oriented licensing regime, but Trump, being the type of businessman who could bankrupt a mint, managed to be the biggest loser in Atlantic City, which is no small feat. He is a lifelong supporter of Democratic politicians, including Chuck Schumer and, awkwardly, the woman against whom he is pretending to run: Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is dishonest (“Oh, he lies a great deal,” said architect and collaborator Philip Johnson) and has shown himself to be a bad bet for bankers, business partners, and wives, among others.

“But he speaks his mind!” shout the Trumpkins. Indeed, he does, in a practically stream-of-consciousness fashion: His announcement speech was like Finnegans Wake as reimagined by an unlettered person with a short attention span. The value of speaking one’s mind depends heavily on the mind in question, and Trump’s is second-rate. “He’s the candidate who will take the fight to Hillary!” protest the Trumpkins. Maybe, maybe not: He is on record as a supporter of Herself, and he’s not on record as a presidential candidate, having not bothered to file the FEC paperwork making his candidacy official. “He’ll build a wall on the border and make the Mexicans pay for it!” Unlikely, but even if he did, half of illegal immigrants arrive not on the banks of the Rio Grande but in the airports. Trumpkins: “He’ll show the political elites who’s boss!” They already know, because they already own him: You don’t get into Trump’s game without being a creature of the ruling class. Neither casino licenses nor Manhattan building permits find their way into the hands of the unconnected, in this case the heir to — not the creator of — a New York City real-estate empire.

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Trump is a sort of action star for the sedentary, a boardroom gladiator, and that is what makes him so successful as a reality-television freak. One of the functions of popular entertainment is wish-fulfillment, a chance to imagine oneself in various satisfying situations, in this case scenarios involving the exercise of executive power. That aspect of drama extends well beyond reality television: George Will once described football as “violence punctuated by committee meetings,” and that also is a pretty good description of Sons of Anarchy, with its endless boardroom drama and exhortations to “take this to a vote,” as well as practically every police procedural in the history of television. And with the understanding that the violence is merely rhetorical, it is a pretty good description of talk radio — the conference call as entertainment — and of the electoral process itself.

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Trump may be made out of cookie dough — he has a lot more in common with Paris Hilton than with Henry Ford — but he plays an iron man on television, and a certain sort of man — forgive me for pointing this out — finds the theatrical preening of Trump’s alpha-male act erotically compelling. (Properly understood, The Apprentice and its ilk constitute a subgenre of pornography.) That is not entirely surprising: We live in an age of economic insecurity, and it is attractive to imagine having Trump’s wealth and confidence, even if neither of those rests on as sure a foundation as Trump would have us believe. It’s better to be the boss — to be the man who says, “You’re fired!” — than the man who has to go home emasculated and face his wife’s disappointment.

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Trump’s performance-art character is butch in the sense that certain gay icons are butch — bikers, cowboys, and the rest of the Village People — and appealing to certain men for similar reasons, one of which is overcompensation for threats against their virility. That often descends into outright camp — who could have guessed that Queer as Folk would have provided Charlie Hunnam with only his second-most-homoerotic role? — and Trump’s race, if it actually happens, will be as campy a campaign as can be imagined.

#related#Every age produces its reactionary fantasy: The overpowering domesticity of the 1950s, followed by the heaviness and drabness of the 1960s and 1970s, provoked American mass culture to a series of ever more frivolous and exotic retreats: Disneyland, Las Vegas, Playboy, Star Trek, Deep Throat. Trump’s act is a way of ritualizing certain insecurities — certain specifically male insecurities — in order to tame our terror of them.

But American culture is Janus-faced: In 1954, Marlon Brando’s leather motorcycle jacket became an icon of masculinity as Americans went gaga for The Wild One, and Liberace became the nation’s highest-paid entertainer, earning $138,000 for a single performance at Madison Square Garden and negotiating a $50,000-a-week residency at the Riviera. Liberace’s plumage was literal, and Trump’s is mainly rhetorical, but it is not coincidental that both men ended up with their names on buildings in Las Vegas.

There are important differences, too: Liberace was a conservative, and unlike some conservatives of our time, he understood the difference between showmanship and statesmanship.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.


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