This post will remain at the top of the page for a while. Please scroll down for newer material The Power of Trump's celebrity
First of all, thanks to everyone who's donated to the holiday fundraiser this year. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. It's been a dark year, but you've made it a little bit brighter.
Last year at this time we were all watching the debates and everyone was laughing about the idea that Donald Trump and Ben Carson were the front-runners for the GOP nomination. Oh how hilarious it was! All the sage pundits and political analysts assured us the Trump had no chance, he was like the Herman Cain of 2016 or, at worst, the Newt Gingrich. Surely Jeb! or Rubio or Chris Christie would be the nominee.
What a difference a year makes. We are now dealing with Donald Trump the president-elect.
I never understood why people dismissed him. It was clear from the very beginning that he was something very different than we'd ever seen before and that he brought with him a kind of celebrity and fame that was very powerful.
On the day after Trump announced, I wrote this:
The GOP race for the presidency has been upgraded from a clown car to a three-ring circus with the official entry of Donald Trump into the race. After daughter Ivanka delivered a stirring introduction worthy of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, the audience waited expectantly for the great man to appear. And it waited. And waited. Finally after several long moments, the great man finally emerged above the crowd on the mezzanine level of the glittering Trump Tower building waving as if he were Juan Peron (or the Queen of England). As Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” continued to play over and over again, he then descended to the stage on an excruciatingly slow-motion escalator and began his speech by insulting his fellow Republican candidates for failing to know how to put on a competent political event.
It was a perfect beginning to what is going to be an astonishing political spectacle.
Right out of the gate he began to free-associate like a drunken Tea Partyer on 2 Shots For A Buck night, insulting Mexican immigrants by calling them rapists and drug dealers, asking when we’ve ever beaten China or Japan (!) at anything, declaring himself to be potentially the greatest jobs president God has ever created and more. Oh, and he also told us that he’s worth $8,737,540,000 — more or less. It was the best presidential campaign announcement ever, even better than Lindsey Graham’s.
The media seemed a little bit shell-shocked in the early going — perhaps they’ve never actually heard what the average right-winger believes. They seemed to find it noteworthy that he was incoherent and contradictory, with promises of totally free trade even as he said he would make Mexico pay a tariff to construct the Great Wall he envisions building on the border.
And they didn’t seem to know what to think about his endless gobbledygook about “making” the world do what he wants it to do. They are clearly unaware that members of the far right don’t follow the philosophy of Edmund Burke. They follow the philosophy of Glenn Beck, Joe McCarthy and P.T. Barnum. Not even Roger Ailes can control the way their minds work.
Donald Trump may not make sense to the average journalist — but to the average Tea Partyer, he’s telling it like it is, with a sort of free-floating grievance about everyone who doesn’t agree with them mixed with simplistic patriotic boosterism and faith in the fact that low taxes makes everybody rich. It’s not about policy or even politics. It’s about following your instincts. (“In your heart you know he’s right.”)
But it wasn’t long before Twitter lit up with insider jokes and insults among the Village press. Salon chronicled some of them here. The only one to take Trump seriously was Bloomberg News’ Mark Halperin, whose first impression was quite a bit less derisive than anyone else’s, giving him a solid B- on his tiresome political report card:
Substance: Made a concerted and admirable effort to laundry-list his presidential plans before the speech was finished, calling for the replacement of Obamacare, cautioning foreign adversaries about messing with the U.S., expressing opposition to the current trade bill, promising to build a southern border wall and sticking Mexico with the bill, terminating Obama’s executive order on immigration, supporting the Second Amendment, ending Common Core, rebuilding infrastructure, resisting cuts in entitlement programs. Still, left open too many questions about the hows and wherefores, given that he has never run for nor held office.
Best moment: Protracted run-up to formal declaration of candidacy was spirited and engaging.
Worst moment: Lost his rhythm a bit whenever cheerful supporters in the crowd tossed out helpful prompts or encouraging chants.
Overall: A madcap production–garrulous, grandiose, and intense—that displayed his abundant strengths and acute weaknesses. For the first time in decades, Trump is a true underdog, but his ability to shape the contours of the nomination fight should not be ignored. On the debate stage, through TV advertising (positive and negative), in earned media, and by drawing crowds, Trump has the potential to be a big 2016 player. He staged an announcement event like no other, and now he will deliver a candidacy the likes of which the country has never seen.
What is it they say about a stopped clock? Well, even Mark Halperin is right twice a day. The Villagers in general may not be able to see it — but for reasons about which we can’t even speculate, Mark Halperin is on to something when it comes to Donald Trump.
First, let’s dispense with the fact that his ideas are more bizarre than anyone else in the field. They are not. Say what you will about the Donald, but nobody can bring the wingnut cha-cha-cha like Tea Party fave Dr. Ben Carson:
“I mean, [our society is] very much like Nazi Germany. And I know you’re not supposed to say ‘Nazi Germany,’ but I don’t care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”
Compared to that, building a wall on the border is standard boilerplate on the right and it certainly isn’t hard to find candidates who are willing to demagogue China or Japan and claim that liberals have destroyed the American way of life. Trump’s style is colorful, to be sure. His ideas are disjointed and irrational. But they are hardly unique. In fact, he represents a very common strain in American political life: the right-wing blowhard.
Trump actually has something that none of these other candidates have and they’re pretty important. First, of course, is the money. Trump says he’s worth 9 billion. Let’s assume he’s exaggerating by 50 percent. That’s still a whole lot of money, more than enough to finance a presidential campaign for as long as he wants to do it. The Beltway wags seem to believe that he’s only announcing so that he can get himself into the debates but it seems more likely that he’s finally so wealthy that the cost of a campaign is so negligible he figures he’s got nothing to lose. After all, if he were to spend even a hundred million on the primary it wouldn’t make a serious dent in his bottom line. What else has he got to do?
But there is something else he has that may be even more valuable than money: stardom. I don’t think it’s possible to place a political value on the fact that Trump has had a prime-time network TV show for over 10 years with “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“The Apprentice” averaged 6 to 7 million viewers a show with finales sometimes getting between 10 and 20 million viewers. Last year’s “Celebrity Apprentice” averaged 7.6 million a show. Fox News’ highest rated shows rarely get more than a couple of million viewers and they are all elderly hardcore Republicans. The Donald has a wider reach and might even appeal to the most sought-after people in the land: non-voters.
It’s impossible to know if that’s a serious possibility. But it’s fair to say that many more people in the country know the name of Donald Trump than know anyone else in the race (with the possible exception of Jeb Bush). It’s hard to quantify that kind of name recognition but it’s certainly not worthless in our celebrity-obsessed culture. And remember, Trump would not be the first show business celebrity who everyone assumed was too way out there to ever make a successful run for president. The other guy’s name was Ronald Reagan.
Sure, Trump is a clown. But he’s a very rich and a very famous clown. And he’s really not much more clownish than many of the current contenders or some serious contenders in the past. It’s interesting that the one time Mark Halperin deviates from the conventional wisdom he may actually have seen something more interesting than the rest of his cohort: the fact that Donald Trump has the potential to be a serious 2016 player. And that says everything you need to know about the Republican presidential field and the state of our politics today.
I underestimated how bad he could be. But I think I understood from the beginning that he could win, which is something that mainstream journalism, for the most part, failed to see. Case in point:
I was wrong about many things this past year, of course. I'm not an oracle. But I wrote about Trump seriously from the beginning, knowing that he represented a strain in American politics that could be powerful if given voice. I have never been so unhappy to be right about anything in my life.
I'm not part of the Village and I don't pretend to be a journalist. I'm just a political observer, blogger and essayist who tries to sort out what's going on in the world around me. I'm lucky to be able to spend my time doing this, but I couldn't do it without the support of my readers.
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