WASHINGTON – In person, Donald Trump is a bit larger than life. He is tall, and his shelf of tangerine hair makes him appear taller. He exudes a calm aura that doesn’t seem to have stemmed from a gym workout, but rather a sauna, and perhaps a manicure. In conversation (I have had a couple with him over the years), he wears the indulgent smile of a man who knows the exact hierarchy of power in the room. He’s atop it. You’re not.
In sum, he is insufferable -- and fascinating.
Now, of course, he is the most reviled man in American politics, even as (or because) he leads in many (mostly meaningless) polls. Trump is widely dismissed as a fraudulent, egomaniacal clown; a cynical showman and racist, spewing invective and fear for the sole purpose of advancing his personal “brand.” As a real estate mogul and reality television star, he behaves as though adherence to facts is the habit of weaklings. Strong men lie.
Like an engine running too hot -- whining constantly that he is being “misquoted,” spewing accusations in all directions -- Trump could well break down after providing a few month’s worth of annoyingly cheeky entertainment.
In the meantime, though, it’s worth facing this truth: In many ways, Trump is the all too-logical result of corrosive currents that have been gathering force for decades in public life. To a degree greater than we want to admit, we have created the conditions that allow him to flourish.
Trump, sad to say, is us. Here is a list of trends that have enabled him:
Distrust of government is a bred-in-the-bone feature of American politics. But a paralyzing sense of disgust is something else, and has been growing since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. In 1973, for example, 42 percent of voters in a Gallup poll said that they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of faith in Congress. Today, that number is a pathetic 8 percent -- the lowest on record.
It’s the same story with popular culture. The popular and much-praised Netflix show “House of Cards” centers on a murderous president who urinates on his father’s grave and spits on a statue of Jesus.
Enter Donald Trump. No, he is not a politician. No, he doesn’t have intimate knowledge about or experience in government. That would ruin him! He ridicules politicians in every direction: Sen. John McCain for being captured in the Vietnam War; the former governor of Texas for being dumb. Trump is the cleansing, can-do Deus ex machine.
One reason why voters hate Congress and the federal bureaucracy is that both have failed for decades to deal comprehensively with immigration. This is everyone’s fault. President Barack Obama didn’t want to spend political capital on a comprehensive deal in his first term; besides, he was happy to let Republicans trap themselves in a demographic corner of Hispanic enmity. Republicans, for their part, can’t resist playing to their nativist, anti-foreigner core of tea party voters. Would-be compromisers, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), gave up and gave in. They are playing to fear.
But in so doing, they opened the door for a far more professional fearmonger in Donald Trump. He’s built a whole sideline in denouncing what he sees as the depredations of foreign forces, from China and Mexico to Iran and Russia. Never mind that a good bit of Trump’s branding business is outside of the U.S. The world is against us, and Mexico is sending us “rapists” and drug dealers.
Short attention span
Eight years ago, Obama was the Facebook candidate, his rise powered by the 20 million “friends” he made in that collegial, familial medium. But Facebook is so 2007. Trump is made for a more contentious time in social media, a new era of distraction and accusation. He speaks loudly, simply, bluntly -- as if from the street, not the suite. His patented phrase is a clipped sentence of doom: “You’re fired!” He is made for the machine-gun burst of Twitter, where feuds explode instantly and anonymity and instantaneously generate controversy. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj have their feud, but The Donald has 3.34 million Twitter followers -- many times more than any of his Republican rivals.
Money doesn't just talk -- it shouts
Candidates' traditional hunt for campaign contributions turned to frenzy after the U.S. Supreme Court said corporations and labor unions could “independently” spend as much as they wanted touting candidates. Enter the billionaires, such as the Koch brothers in the GOP, and Tom Steyer among Democrats.
Trump is just taking the next logical step -- one that Ross Perot anticipated 24 years ago. If you are a billionaire (and Trump claims to be one many times over), why bother buying a candidate when you can be the candidate yourself? The flood of money already has dulled the outrage about it. It seems like a force of nature that it is useless to resist.
And there is something else at work: a weird sense of working-class dream-world solidarity with Trump, whose message is that if he is president, everyone will be rich, just like he is. At a time when so many Americans see genuine upward mobility as impossible -- The Donald himself has declared that the “American Dream is dead” -- why not believe in a man who knows how to work the engines of salesmanship to amass wealth for himself?
It's as though Trump’s very being is somehow proof that the dream is still alive.
Notoriety is the iron ore of our era. It’s less important what you know or what you have done than what impression you make or how much fame you possess. Indeed, fame has become fungible; you can transport it from one arena of public life to another.
Until recently, entertainers (and Trump is essentially one) felt required to serve a mid-life apprenticeship if they wanted to enter government. Ronald Reagan went from actor to president, but only after serving as governor of California. Comedian Al Franken, a Harvard grad, educated himself by writing (funny) political books and hosting a wonky public affairs radio show a long stretch. Only then did he run for (and win) the U.S. Senate.
Trump the celebrity has watered down his apprenticeship. He has been a contributor, and a kibitzer in New York for years, a dilettante whose major substantive contribution until now was his “political campaign” to discredit Obama as a man who had been born in Kenya.
Trump feels no need to have detailed proposals, or any real proposals at all. He will build an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border (though he backpedaled frantically when his new “friends” in Laredo, Texas, told him in public that it was a bad idea). He will “create millions of jobs.” How, no one knows. He will stop the Chinese from taking advantage of us in trade, no one knows how. He will stand up to Iran, no one knows how. He will protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, no one knows how.
Knowing details, like telling the truth, is the habit of wimps.
If it bleeds, it leads
Media in general and TV networks in particular (especially cable) can’t take their eyes and cameras off of a gruesome scene on the highway. Trump is a never-ending car crash of controversy, accusation, bile and baloney. In the midst of the summer ratings doldrums on cable, he has been a godsend.
The political divide on American cable and in digital media makes Trump even more attractive. GOP-leaning Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, features non-stop coverage of the Republican race. It can’t avoid Trump even if it wanted to, which it doesn’t, though he threatens to turn the GOP contest into a circus. Mayhem means ratings. MSNBC, the ideological counterpoint to Fox, loves Trump for the same reason: He can make a mess of the GOP.
The party's over
American voters no longer identify themselves politically by their allegiance to a political party. A large plurality now call themselves “independents.” Trump offers himself as the denouement of this slow-motion collapse, telling the GOP that if they don’t play fair with him, he could run as third-way force that would all but guarantee the election of a Democrats, if not of Trump himself.
Trump’s policy positions, such as they are, are a shrewd mix of Columns A and B on the restaurant menus of the existing parties. He is not running against the “welfare” state, but rather offers himself as a protector of it. He’s not suggesting massive tax cuts, either. He does not kowtow to the powerful evangelical Christian wing of the GOP.
At the same time, he ridicules the Obama administration as weak and corrupt, especially in its dealings with other countries and peoples. He decries the ineptitude of government as a whole. He scorns regulatory controls on business.
The answer to every knotty problem is that he, Donald Trump, will “make America great again.” That’s what it says on his white cap, and there is nothing more American these days than that simple, almost desperate, slogan.