Politics & Policy

What Makes Donald Run?

Trump greets the crowd in Mobile, Ala., August 21, 2015. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty)
He’s giving fed-up Republicans something other candidates are not.

Donald Trump has at least three things going for him.

One, the mood of the country remains foul and fed-up — and volatile to the point that conventional wisdom is hardly reliable. Two, Trump has turned invective and narcissism into an art form, and his simplistic putdowns seem to garner ever more attention even as they become more monotonous and banal — largely because they are directed at a despised media elite. Three, the Democratic party is in worse shape than the Republican party. Apparently Trump’s attacks can still safely be savored as long as the Democrats are imploding.

Trump’s successes have come about not because of a brilliant new Contract with America or because he is reassuringly conservative on the issues. His diehard supporters — and even those who would never confess that they derive a perverse and stealthy delight from watching him put down the New York/Washington political and journalistic elite — don’t care that just in the last decade he has flipped on all the issues. They apparently ignore the fact that Trump is often self-contradictory, as he wings his way through endless interviews and blustery press conferences.

What fuels his candidacy is attitude — in particular, disdain for those who undeservedly believe they warrant deference. Behind the bombast and the waving hands, he gives the impression of having contempt for the ruling class, of which he is so intimately a part. He winks at us as if to say, “I hang out with these people, and, trust me, they are even worse than you suspect.” His voice has the brash accents of the New York sidewalk, rather than a passive-aggressive Ivy League modulation. His narcissism is unlike Barack Obama’s serious sort (e.g., “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director”). Indeed, Trump’s egotism is a caricature of narcissism itself, in which the only adjectives are superlatives and the only measure of being “great” and “a winner” is net worth or celebrity. Yet somehow TRUMP plastered over everything does not bother people as much as Barack Obama’s faux-Greek columns, Latinate mottos, and promises to cool the cosmos.

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After nearly seven years of Obama, the public is worn out by sanctimoniousness — by all the Professor Gates/Trayvon Martin/Ferguson lectures on race by an abject racialist, by all the sermons on climate change by a global jet-setter, by all the community-organizing banality by one who always has preferred the private school and the tony neighborhood, by all the us-versus-the-1-percent warfare by one who feels at home on the golf course only with celebrities and stock hounds. Given all that, the Republican base, at least for a few more weeks, wants someone to be unapologetically unacceptable — both to the liberal establishment that Obama ushered in, and to the wink-and-nod elite Republican opposition.

It is said that Trump appeals most to the pissed-off white man of yesteryear. Perhaps. But in the age of a multiracial United States it is more proper to say than he appeals to the infuriated targets of elite disdain, people who are tired of Democratic slurs about “tired old white men” — as the exempt white and (most of them) old Sanders, Biden, O’Malley, and Webb wait for a mature white woman to fade, while hoping that other old white men like Kerry, Gore, and Brown don’t wade in.

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Trumpers are tired of a Republican establishment warning them — even if presciently so — that enforcement of federal immigration law is impossible because of the Latino vote, that even demanding a simple ID at the polling place may alienate the black vote, that stopping federal funding to the grotesque Planned Parenthood will lose the female vote, and that not rushing in to sanctify gay marriage will turn off gay voters. Rank-and-file Republicans are worn out from being lectured that no one can win without the Latino vote (10 percent of the electorate), the black vote (12 percent), and the Asian vote (5 percent ) — all on the premise that to speak in similar terms about getting a large chunk of the white vote (70 percent ) would be somehow racist. There is something Ajaxian, then — something of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the last scene in Breaker Morant — inherent in the Trump call to make America great again.

Telejournalists recycle the trite wisdom that with today’s electorate Trump must lose because he will not garner x percentages of y racial-block voters. They don’t have a clue that the Democratic party — in its worst shape since the 1920s — is in danger of nullifying such racial calculations by creating a white voting block not seen in the modern era. If it is true that Trump probably cannot win unless he takes somewhere around 62 percent of the white vote (depending on the particular state), it is also true that the next Democrat probably cannot win without 40 percent of it. Any of the Democrats is just as much in danger of not reaching 40 percent as Trump is of not reaching 62 percent.

#share#Trump’s trademark is venom directed against the “elite.” But is not Trump a member of the elite himself? Yes, but that is the point. The public has less problem with the brash, take-no-prisoners plutocrat than with the current feuding Hatfields and McCoys of the Ivy League–trained stable, the Medici-like intermarriages between D.C./New York politicians and journalists, and the hip world of the metrosexual that serves up our entertainment and news.

So a public far larger than just the Tea Party was ready for a populist grandstander. And Trump so far has managed to make real outliers — non-establishment political mavericks like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie, who were the choices of the Tea Party movements just a fortnight ago — look like Eric Cantor/Mitch McConnell company men. That such gifted conservative politicos are considered functionaries is abjectly unfair, but it is nonetheless the jaded perception so far of much of the Republican electorate.

A public far larger than just the Tea Party was ready for a populist grandstander.

Trump sized up a favorable landscape in 2015–16, and he grasped that the dissatisfaction arose from more than Obama’s profligate borrowing, amnesties, no-growth economic policies, lead-from-behind and reset foreign policies, and hands-up-don’t-shoot racial posturing. The populist furor was also fueled by style. Voters are tired of the DNA of professional politicians, the 24/7 politically correct equivocation, the “I take full responsibility” media pseudo-apology, and the Pajama Boy nasal snarkiness.

Trump has had the skills to turn the primary campaign so far into a war of raw emotion. He channels General George S. Patton — who practiced his facial expressions in front of the mirror and whose line about preferring to kill rather than die for your country Trump recalibrated in his tasteless attack on John McCain. Trump understands that an army really does not march just on its stomach, but is fueled by its emotions.

Recently I asked three quite different Americans — who, on ordinary calculations, should not like Trump — what they thought of him. The first s a local Mexican-American barber. He could offer no logical rationale for his enjoyment of the Trump candidacy other than that Trump is a “jefe” — a big man who gets things done by any means necessary, a crew boss to the world. I sensed that there was also an embarrassed weariness with illegal immigration.

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We talk of Latino voters as hating Trump, and some may. But some Latinos are at Ground Zero of illegal immigration. Whereas their elite leaders see profit in millions of Mexicans trekking into the United States, the less well connected see only their local emergency rooms overwhelmed, their jails full, their social services breaking under the influx, and their schools turned into remediation in both English and Spanish.

Another person I quizzed about Trump is a seasoned, though cynical, PhD. His take? Trump is Maximus, and the primary campaign is his arena: We are all thumbs-up/thumbs-down spectators who enjoy the blood sport. 

This man plans to jump ship, but not until Trump’s ship is capsizing and there is a nice raft alongside.

For a few weeks longer, Republicans can safely enjoy Trump even as pundits and politicos gnash their teeth in terror.

The third is a middle-aged professional woman, nominally a Democrat, whose attitude can be summed up as “touché.” The reactive Trump is quite savvy in his selected feuds with supposed untouchables, whom the public occasionally would like to see touched. John McCain started that attacks on Trump, and previously had waved the bloody shirt a bit too much; Megyn Kelly is a bit more than a fine professional journalist and capable legal scholar, at least in the way she dresses and preps for the camera; and Jorge Ramos is a hipper version of an obnoxious Howard Dean, snickering and bloviating ad nauseam. Trump, then, is leveling the playing field for the exhausted TV viewer. His welcome attacks turn our attention away from his own considerable liabilities — as long as he can continue to select objects and methodologies of attack that entertain.

All the above is no reason to become enthusiastic about Trump, but no reason to turn him off quite yet either.

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Then there is Trump himself. Any businessman who can become or even remain a billionaire in today’s climate in any field other than banking, trading, or insuring is necessarily talented. Most stars cannot sustain a TV reality show for more than a year or two, much less 14 — proof that Trump has both acting talent and entertainment savvy. It is easy to mock Trump’s hair and sprayed-on tan, but at 69 he seems healthier and more robust to the eye than many who are ten years younger. We forget his age: If he were elected in 2016, he would be the oldest president to be inaugurated and the first since Dwight Eisenhower (whose prior politics likewise were murky) to be elected to the presidency without having held political office before. The supposedly far more seasoned, and slightly younger, Hillary Clinton in comparison comes across as inept, crabby, sarcastic, and a decade older. In other words, in terms of the political assets of our wired age — money, media savvy, celebrity, showmanship, looks, and vigor — Trump is a fit for the times.

#related#For a few weeks longer, Republicans can safely enjoy Trump even as pundits and politicos gnash their teeth in terror that his no-brakes locomotive has too much momentum to be sidetracked. But remember that, so far, the front-running Trump is not fearing an indictment, avoiding reporters, calling his political rivals terrorists, or evoking the Holocaust through references to boxcars — and the alternatives, like Rubio, Walker, Carson, Fiorina, and Kasich, are not socialists unregistered in the Republican party. Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Bob Dole are not waiting in the wings. So Trump can snort and rampage through the china shop, because much of the merchandise is still tottering on the shelf. In the Democrats’ case, the shards are already on the floor.

If Trump brings catharsis for the smoldering anger of the base, if the other candidates appropriate some of Trump’s slash-and-burn style but accompany it with a coherent agenda, if Trump gratuitously slurs yet another race/class/gender icon and confirms he is more a bully than a truth-teller, and if Hillary’s legal problems disappear, then Trump may go back to The Apprentice. But for a while longer that still seems a lot of ifs.


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