Politics & Policy

How Trump Happened

(Ben Brewer/Reuters)

So for now it looks as if America will face a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the fall.

Doug McIntire, a popular KABC Los Angeles talk-show host, tells me that “there has never ever been an election in which the major candidates represented such a loathsome choice.” Indeed, only about one-third of voters think either candidate is honest and trustworthy. “The overwhelming majority of Americans think both the D and R frontrunners are dishonest,” tweeted Nebraska senator Ben Sasse (R.) this week. “The people are right.”

I’ll deal with Hillary Clinton in a future column, but for now the question is, How did Donald Trump happen? Looking backwards with perfect hindsight to explain the Donald Trump triumph has become the new sport of the political community. Everyone has a theory:

‐Republican elites lost touch with their base, on issues from illegal immigration to trade to confronting Obama.

‐Many voters are influenced more by cultural-identity issues than by a candidate’s precise position on a conservative–liberal spectrum. Ted Cruz failed to broaden his appeal and made himself an even less palatable choice than Trump for many populist voters.

‐The media allowed Trump’s entertaining shtick to dominate news coverage of the race and swamp any other candidate’s attempt to establish momentum.

‐Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University, believes that “no powerful Republican coalition emerged to stop him [because] the GOP believed all the analysts (including me) who said Trump had no chance.”

RELATED: Three Realities That Made Donald Trump’s Rise Possible

I think all of these theories have some validity, but I’d like to add another. Donald Trump may not know much about policy, but he is a genius at brand extension, marketing, and the intimidation and bullying of opponents. He is the political equivalent of a shark. He swims in waters that he makes turbulent, and in which he is the chief predator: He eats and he survives. He knows that deep in the American psyche people love a winner, and as Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to say “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.” Machiavelli, seen as the master of the dark arts of politics, put it more elegantly in The Prince, when he wrote that if you triumph, “men will always judge the means you used to have been appropriate.”

The wealthy and winning image that Donald Trump projected for 14 years on his reality show The Apprentice laid the groundwork for him to be viewed as a winner. His exposure also gave him an extraordinary 93 percent name ID with voters before he announced. The next-best-known GOP candidate was Jeb Bush, who, despite his famous family name, was known only to 77 percent of the American people, and quickly fell into the trap of becoming the first of Trump’s foils.

RELATED: Trump: Something New under the Political Sun

Everything else is incidental to that prime directive of “winning.” Business journalist Michael D’Antonio interviewed Trump for his book Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. Trump admitted, “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.” D’Antonio’s conclusion in the book was that “Trump was willing to say and do almost anything to satisfy his craving for attention. But he also possessed a sixth sense that kept him from going too far.”

#share#Trump has long had presidential ambitions, but he was careful to conceal and confuse people about them in the run-up to his decision to announce his candidacy last June. It now turns out that he had been planning his effort for years. The Washington Post reports that “just six days after GOP nominee Mitt Romney conceded defeat to President Obama, Trump quietly filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office for rights to the phrase that has become the signature line of his campaign: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

When Trump would win a primary, many voters would feel they had finally struck a blow against a corrupt system.

That optimistic slogan, combined with a suppliant media and withering shorthand insults of his opponents (“low energy” Jeb, “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted”) won Trump the lion’s share of attention in the race, leaving his opponents as also-rans for much of the campaign. His ability to stare down the mainstream media, to savage protesters, and to rail against a “rigged” system convinced many that a candidate as steeped in political influence as Trump was something of an underdog fighting for the little guy. Soon, when Trump would win a primary, many voters would feel they had finally struck a blow against a corrupt system they felt didn’t represent them.

But now Trump faces a shark at least as hungry and ruthless as he is –- Hillary Clinton. Hollywood mogul David Geffen, who isn’t endorsing anyone this year, famously told columnist Maureen Dowd years ago of his old pals the Clintons: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”

#related#In the lying department, Hillary and the Donald are as evenly matched as any two major-party candidates in American history. Susan Mulcahy, a former columnist for the New York Post who helped build up Trump as a media figure, writes that “he could not control his pathological lying,” even on mundane matters. She writes in the latest issue of Politico magazine that “if Trump said, ‘Good morning,’ you could be pretty sure it was five o’clock in the afternoon. . . . Denying facts was almost a sport for Trump.”

The race in November may come down to which political shark — Clinton or Trump — voters are most scared of, and which tells slightly fewer lies.

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