My students (and most in the world) are asking: why is the unlikely candidacy of billionaire Donald Trump on an apparent path of capturing the GOP nomination? My (non-partisan, outsider's) take is that Trump represents a combination of Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Sylvio Berlusconi and reality TV star. Which is another way of saying that Donald Trump is unique.
Former US President Andrew Jackson is in many ways the founder of the modern Democratic Party. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans realigned American politics for at least a quarter of a century. He was fearless, populist, nationalistic, relished a fight and ceaselessly implemented his agenda. He owned slaves and clearly that kind of racism is not applicable to Trump (but not necessarily to some of his supporters in South Carolina). Andrew Jackson attacked elites without mercy. His fight against the National Bank is legion. He would do almost anything to protect the economic and physical security of his (white) base including a harsh approach towards Native Americans. Although injustices and racist undertones were palpable, it was probably the case that many Americans in frontier regions viewed Native American raids as the terrorist attacks of their day. When Trump attacks Wall Street, lobbyists and unfair trade pacts, he is seen to be standing for the interests of the average American like Andrew Jackson did. His avowed willingness "to bomb the [expletive] out of ISIS", build a wall on the border with Mexico (and have the Mexican government finance it, for good measure) and his undignified attacks on illegal immigrants can be seen as part of the Jacksonian tradition. If we want to do clichés, the milkman in Arkansas has a Trump bumper sticker on his truck.
The Donald's connection to President Ronald Reagan is even more clear. Both are unusually entertaining (but in different ways). Both cannot be accused of being intellectuals. But politics is not about reading or writing books (though a certain level of intelligence and intellectual curiosity are indispensable). After all, neither of the two greatest American Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, had a college education. More importantly, Reagan tapped into an integral strain of the American psyche: optimism. "It's morning in America again" was his slogan. Trump is simply taking a page out of the Gipper's playbook when he declares: "Let's make America great again!" Republicans seem to instinctively respond to this in a positive manner.
Trump is short on policy details; and Reagan almost certainly never mastered them, even after eight years in the White House. But five or seven point plans are overrated. The political class (and professors like myself) are sincerely interested if not obsessed with them. But does anyone think that the extensive party platforms are read by anyone, including the presidential nominees? Almost nobody cares about pre-election detailed policy positions because most think that this is an elaborate charade destined to be overtaken by events and the messy reality of checks and balances. So people actually look for character and more general principles; and what many Republicans see in Trump, at least so far, is someone outside the party system, outside even the traditional GOP, who promises to breathe new life into the American dream. It is no coincidence that Trump rallies always end with the chant USA! USA! USA!.
Which brings us to Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His party was named Forza Italia, in effect, the Italian version of the USA! chant. Like Trump, he was a billionaire and this fact allows them an argument that very few people can make in contemporary politics: "I do not need the money of anyone. I do not need the support of special interests. I can stand up to anyone because no one can own me." Although I am certainly no Berlusconi fan, there is something in this populist argument that is seductive in perilous times of global transition. Trump has so far stood up against Fox News, Apple, George W. Bush and even the Pope. While other candidates rely on Super PACS and big donors (with what everyone expects to be post-election commitments and constraints) Trump is reserving a giant middle finger for all of them (although he is accepting donations). In what is a delicious historical irony, this attitude brings plutocrat Donald Trump much closer to socialist Bernie Sanders. Both are attacking and taunting the Establishment and politics as usual. But Trump is doing a much better job of capturing headlines and insulting people.
This is where Trump the reality TV star comes in. Although still insufficiently understood (doctoral dissertations will inevitably be written about it), Trump clearly derived invaluable lessons from his apprenticeship (pun intended) on NBC. Somehow he figured out how to convey emotions, putdowns and messages to his viewers/supporters in a visceral and succinct way. He is the master of Twitter in an age where email and Facebook are oh so 2008.
So Trump is offering a potent cocktail of nationalism and optimism as a political outsider who can't be bought, facts, niceties and illegal immigrants be damned. A scarred and scared Republican base seems to be buying it. Can he go all the way? Trump has been consistently underestimated, which is a great place to be in politics (or in life). He needs to first capture the nomination, though. If Marco Rubio fails to win Florida and John Kasich Ohio, it will be game over. But occupying the White House (a downgrade for him in terms of luxury and space) will be harder. The Electoral College has, at this moment, a built-in advantage for the Democrats with more "safe" votes for them. The insults hurled against minorities and women might come back to haunt him. A truly negative campaign and opposition research into his finances have yet to materialize (but will if he is the nominee). It is unknown if fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg will decide to run. Most importantly, we do not know yet who the Democratic nominee will be. There is simply a lot of politics left in the process. But we can be certain that this will be the most interesting political campaign in a generation.