Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.
As the summer of Donald Trump came to its end — and the prospect of a springtime for Trump no longer seemed like a gag — the quest to explain the billionaire’s runaway clown car went into overdrive. How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish “defy political gravity,” dominate the national stage, make monkeys out of pundits and pollsters, and pose an existential threat to one of America’s two major parties?
Of course, it was the news media’s fault: The Washington Post charted the correlation between Trump’s national polling numbers and his disproportionate press coverage. Or maybe the public was to blame: Op-ed writers dusted off their sermons about Americans’ childish infatuation with celebrities and reality television. Or perhaps Trump was just the GOP’s answer to the “outsider” Bernie Sanders — even though Sanders, unlike Trump, has a coherent ideology and has spent nearly a quarter-century of his so-called outsider’s career in Congress. Still others riffled through historical precedents, from the third-party run of the cranky billionaire Ross Perot back to Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio-savvy populist demagogues of the Great Depression. Or might Trump be the reincarnation of Joseph McCarthy (per the Times’ Thomas Friedman), Hugo Chávez (the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens), or that avatar of white-racist resentment, George Wallace (George Will)? The historian Richard Hofstadter’s Goldwater-era essay on “the paranoid style” in American politics was once again in vogue.
In the midst of all the hand-wringing from conservatives and liberals alike, Politico convened a panel of historians to adjudicate. Two authoritative chroniclers of 20th-century American populism and race, Alan Brinkley of Columbia and David Blight of Yale, dismissed the parallels. Brinkley, the author of the definitive book on Long and Coughlin (Voices of Protest), said Trump was a first in American politics, a presidential candidate with no “belief system other than the certainty that anything he says is right.” Blight said Trump’s “real antecedents are in Mark Twain” — in other words, fictional characters, and funny ones.
There is indeed a lighter way to look at Trump’s rise and his impact on the country. Far from being an apocalyptic harbinger of the end-times, it’s possible that his buffoonery poses no lasting danger. Quite the contrary: His unexpected monopoly of center stage may well be the best thing to happen to our politics since the arrival of Barack Obama.
In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform rather than the crime against civic order that has scandalized those who see him, in the words of the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, as “dangerous to democracy.”
Trump may be injecting American democracy with steroids. No one, after all, is arguing that the debates among the GOP presidential contenders would be drawing remotely their Game of Thrones-scale audiences if the marquee stars were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. When most of the field — minus Trump — appeared ahead of the first debate at a New Hampshire forum broadcast on C-SPAN, it caused little more stir than a soporific pageant of congressional backbenchers addressing the empty floor of the House. Without Trump, even a relatively tame Trump, would anyone have sat through even a third of the three-hour-plus trainwreck that CNN passed off as the second debate?
What has made him more entertaining than his peers is not his superficial similarities to any historical analogues or his shopworn celebrity. His passport to political stardom has been his uncanny resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype that has been an invigorating staple of American movies since Vietnam and Watergate ushered in wholesale disillusionment with Washington four decades ago. That character is a direct descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth.
Trump’s shenanigans sometimes seem to be lifted directly from the eponymous 1998 movie, in which Warren Beatty plays a senator from California who abandons his scripted bromides to take up harsh truth-telling in rap: “Wells Fargo and Citibank, you’re really very dear / Loan billions to Mexico and never have to fear / ’Cause taxpayers take it in the rear.” Bulworth insults the moderators of a television debate, addresses his Hollywood donors as “big Jews,” and infuriates a black constituent by telling her he’ll ignore her unless she shells out to his campaign. Larry King, cast as himself, books him on his show because “people are sick and tired of all this baloney” and crave an unplugged politician who calls Washington “a disaster.”
Trump also sounds like Hal Phillip Walker, the unseen candidate of the “Replacement Party” whose campaign aphorisms percolate throughout Robert Altman’s post-Watergate state-of-the-union comic epic, Nashville (1975). His platform includes eliminating farm subsides, taxing churches, banning lawyers from government, and jettisoning the national anthem because “nobody knows the words, nobody can sing it, nobody understands it.” (Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.) In résumé and beliefs, Trump is even closer to the insurgent candidate played by Tim Robbins and reviled as “a crypto-fascist clown” in the mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) — a self-congratulatory right-wing Wall Street success story, beauty-pageant aficionado, and folksinging star whose emblematic song is titled “Retake America.” Give Trump time, and we may yet find him quoting the accidental president played by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003): “If America was a woman, she would be a big-tittied woman. Everybody loves a big-tittied woman!”
Thanks to Trump, this character has leaped off the screen into real life, like the Hollywood leading man in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. As a human torpedo blasting through the 2016 campaign, Trump can inflict more damage, satirical and otherwise, than any fictional prototype ever could. In his great comic novel of 1959, The Magic Christian, Terry Southern anticipated just the kind of ruckus a Trump could make. Southern’s protagonist is a billionaire named Guy Grand who spends his fortune on elaborate pranks to disrupt almost every sector of American life — law enforcement, advertising, newspapers, movies, television, sports, the space program. Like Trump, he operates on the premise that everyone can be bought. In one typical venture, he pays the actor playing “an amiable old physician” on a live network medical drama a million bucks to stop in mid-surgery and tell the audience that if he speaks “one more line of this drivel,” he’ll “vomit right into that incision I’ve made.” The network, FCC, and press go into a tizzy until viewers, hoping to see more such outrages, start rewarding the show with record ratings.
There have already been some modest precedents for Trump’s real-life prank — most recently, Stephen Colbert, who staged a brief stunt run for president in 2007. The comic Pat Paulsen, a Smothers Brothers acolyte, ran for president intermittently from 1968 into the ’90s, aiming to call attention to the absurdity of politics. His first run was under the banner of the STAG (Straight Talking American Government) Party; later, he ran consecutively as a Republican and a Democrat. (“I like to mix it up,” he explained.) Paulsen came in a (very) distant second to Bill Clinton in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, one of four primaries where he qualified for the ballot that year. But a judge threw him off the ballot in California, declaring, “I do not want to reduce the campaign for an important office like president of the United States to some kind of farce.”
Some kind of farce, nonetheless, is just what the modern presidential campaign has devolved into. By calling attention to that sorry state of affairs 24/7, Trump’s impersonation of a crypto-fascist clown is delivering the most persuasively bipartisan message of 2016.
Trump lacks the comic chops of a Colbert or Paulsen, and, unlike the screenwriters of movies like Bulworth and Nashville, he is witless. His instrument of humor is the bitch-slap, blunt and cruel — Don Rickles dumbed down to the schoolyard. But when he hits a worthy target and exerts himself beyond his usual repertoire of lazy epithets (Loser! Dope! Slob!), he is funny, in part because his one-liners have the ring of truth. When Eric Cantor endorsed Jeb Bush, Trump asked, “Who wants the endorsement of a guy who lost in perhaps the greatest upset in the history of Congress?” When Trump’s presidential rivals attended a David and Charles Koch retreat, he tweeted: “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch brothers. Puppets?” Twitter inspires his best material, as does Bush. Among Trump’s many Bush put-downs is this classic: “Why would you pay a man $1.3 million a year for a no-show job at Lehman Brothers — which, when it folded, almost took the world with it?” The exclamation point in Bush’s sad campaign logo, JEB!, has effectively been downsized to a semicolon by Trump’s insistence on affixing the modifier “low-energy” to his name every chance he gets.
The most significant Trump insult thus far is the one that heralded his hostile takeover of the GOP. The target was Reince Priebus, the overmatched Republican National Committee chairman. Following the debacle of 2012, Priebus had vowed that his party would reach out to minorities and curb the xenophobic and misogynist invective that drives away the voters without whom it cannot win national elections. When Trump lampooned John McCain’s sacred record as a POW as gleefully as Republicans had Swift Boated John Kerry, the chairman saw his best-laid plans for a “big tent” GOP imperiled by an unauthorized sideshow. “Party donors,” no doubt with his blessing, let it be known to the Washington Post that, in a lengthy phone conversation, he had persuaded Trump to “tone it down.” Hardly had the story surfaced when Trump shot it down: He said Priebus’s call had been brief and flattering, and that he hadn’t agreed to change a thing. As Priebus beat a hasty retreat, Trump joked that manipulating him wasn’t exactly like “dealing with a five-star Army general.” Soon the chastened chairman was proclaiming Trump a “net positive” for his party. When Trump deigned to sign a faux legal document pledging not to run as a third-party candidate, Priebus had to show up at Trump Tower to bear witness, like a lackey summoned to an audience with the boss. That “pledge” served Trump’s immediate goal of securing his spot on primary ballots, but come next year it will carry no more weight than a certificate from the now-defunct Trump University.
Trump’s ability to reduce the head of his adopted party to a comic functionary out of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta is typical of his remarkable success in exposing Republican weakness and hypocrisy. The party Establishment has been trying to erect a firewall against the onslaught by claiming, as George Will has it, that Trump is a “counterfeit” Republican and that even “the assumption that today’s Trumpites are Republicans is unsubstantiated and implausible.” Thus voters should discount Trump’s “bimbo” tweets, anti-immigration fulminations, and rants about Mexican “rapists” as a wild man’s ravings that don’t represent a party that reveres women, welcomes immigrants, and loves Hispanics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in its own effort to inoculate the GOP from Trump, disparages him as a “casino magnate” — an epithet it doesn’t hurl at Sheldon Adelson, the still-bigger casino magnate who serves as sugar daddy to the neocon hawks the Journal favors.
Trump does take heretical economic positions for a Republican — “The hedge-fund guys are getting away with murder!” — but on the matters of race, women, and immigration that threaten the GOP’s future viability in nonwhite, non-male America, he is at one with his party’s base. What he does so rudely is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.
In reality, Trump’s most noxious views have not only been defended by conservative stars like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and late summer’s No. 1 best-selling nonfiction author, the radio host Mark Levin, but also by the ostensibly more “mainstream” Republican candidates. Trump is picking up where his vocal fan Sarah Palin left off and is for that reason by far the favored candidate of tea-party Republicans, according to a Labor Day CNN-ORC poll. Take Trump’s peddling of “birtherism,” for instance. It’s been a right-wing cause since well before he took it up; even Mitt Romney dipped into that racist well in 2012. It took a village of birthers to get Republicans to the point where only 29 percent of them now believe that Obama was born in America (and 54 percent identify him as a Muslim), according to an August survey by Public Policy Polling. Far from being a fake Republican, Trump speaks for the party’s overwhelming majority.
Charles Krauthammer, another conservative apoplectic about Trump’s potential to sabotage the GOP’s 2016 chances, is arguing that Trump’s incendiary immigration stand is also counterfeit Republicanism — an aberrational “policy innovation.” The only problem is that Cruz, Walker, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson have all supported Trump’s “policy innovation” calling for an end to the “birthright citizenship” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In Pew’s latest survey on the issue — taken in May, before Trump was in the race — 47 percent of Republicans agreed as well. Even more Republicans (62 percent) support building a wall along the Mexican border (as does Krauthammer), much as they did in 2012 when Herman Cain did Trump one better by proposing an “electrified fence.” Trump’s draconian call for deporting illegal immigrants en masse is also genuine, not counterfeit, Republicanism. Romney had not only argued for “self-deportation” in his last presidential campaign but in 2008 had called for newly arrived illegal immigrants to be deported immediately and for the rest to be given just enough time “to organize their affairs and go home.”
With women, too, Trump embarrasses the GOP by saying in public what “real” Republicans keep private. The telling moment in the Fox News debate was not when Megyn Kelly called him out for slurring women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” but the cheers from the audience at Trump’s retort, in which he directed those same epithets at Rosie O’Donnell. (No one onstage protested.) When Trump attacked Kelly the next day in language that seemed to refer to menstruation, most of his GOP rivals made a show of rallying around Kelly. But the party’s real stand on the sanctity of female biology had been encapsulated in the debate by Walker’s and Marco Rubio’s endorsement of a ban on abortions for women who have been raped or risk dying in childbirth. No wonder Trump’s bloodying of Kelly gave him another uptick in polls of Republican voters.
Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe. Poor Bush, once the Establishment’s great legacy hope, is so ill-equipped to pander to the base that he outdid Trump in defending the nativist term anchor babies by applying it to Asians as well as Mexicans. (Bush also started mimicking Trump’s vilification of hedge-fund managers.) The candidates who have gone after Trump with the greatest gusto — Graham, Paul, Carly Fiorina, Jindal, George Pataki — have been so low in the polls they had nothing to lose. (Even so, all except Fiorina have fallen farther after doing so — or, in Rick Perry’s case, fallen out of the race altogether.) The others were painfully slow to challenge him. That cowardice was foretold in June when most of the presidential field waited days to take a stand against the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre. If they’re afraid to come out against slavery a century after Appomattox, it only follows that they’d cower before a billionaire who insults his male adversaries’ manhood as reflexively as he attacks women’s looks. As Steve Schmidt, the 2008 McCain campaign manager, has said, Trump had all but emasculated Bush by the time Bush belatedly started fighting back. In the second debate, Fiorina finished the job by counterpunching Trump with more vigor than Bush could muster.
In this excerpt from the 1959 novel The Magic Christian, the eccentric billionaire employs his fortune to prank American media and show business from the inside, exposing its inanity.
August Guy Grand himself was a billionaire. He had 180 millions cash deposit in New York banks, and this ready capital was of course but a part of his gross holdings.
In the beginning, Grand’s associates, wealthy men themselves, saw nothing extraordinary about him; a reticent man of simple tastes, they thought, a man who had inherited most of his money and had preserved it through large safe investments in steel, rubber, and oil. What his associates managed to see in Grand was usually a reflection of their own dullness: a club member, a dinner guest, a possibility, a threat — a man whose holdings represented a prospect and a danger. But this was to do injustice to Grand’s private life, because his private life was atypical … he had a very unusual attitude towards people — he spent about ten million a year in, as he expressed it himself, “making it hot for them.” …
“There’s no biz like show biz,” he liked to quip to the other troupers, “ … oh, we have our ups and downs, heck yes — but I wouldn’t trade one whiff of grease paint on opening night, by gosh, for all the darned chateaux in France!”
Thus did he enter the field, not nominally of course, but in effect. There was at this time a rather successful drama hour on Sunday evening. “Our Town Playhouse” it was called and was devoted to serious fare; at least the viewers were told it was serious fare — truth to tell though, it was by any civilized standard, the crassest sort of sham, cant, and weak-kneed pornography imaginable. Grand set about to interfere with it.
His arrival was fairly propitious; the production in dress rehearsal at that moment was called All Our Yesterdays, a drama which, according to the sponsors, was to be, concerning certain emotions and viewpoints, more or less definitive.
Beginning with this production, Grand made it a point that he or his representative contact the hero or heroine of each play, while it was still in rehearsal, and reach some sort of understanding about final production. A million was generally sufficient.
The arrangement between Grand and the leading actress of All Our Yesterdays was simplicity itself. During final production, that is to say, the Sunday-night nation-wide presentation of the play, and at the top of her big end-of-the-second-act scene, the heroine suddenly turned away from the other players, approached the camera, and addressed the viewers, point-blank:
“Anyone who would allow this slobbering pomp and drivel in his home has less sense and taste than the beasts of the field!”
Then she pranced off the set.
Half the remaining actors turned to stare after her in amazement, while the others sat frozen in their last attitudes. There was a frenzy of muffled whispers coming from off-stage … Then there was a bit of commotion before it was actually faded — one of the supporting actors had been trained in Russian methods and thought he could improvise the rest of the play, about twelve minutes, so there were one or two odd lines spoken by him in this attempt before the scene jerkily faded to blackness. …
The third time something like this happened, the producer and sponsor were very nearly out of their minds. Of course they suspected that a rival company was tampering with the productions, bribing the actors and so on. Security measures were taken. Directors were fired right and left. Rehearsals were held behind locked doors, and there was an attempt to keep the actors under constant surveillance, but … Grand always seemed to get in there somehow, with the old convincer.
In the aftermath, some of the actors paid the breach-of-contract fine of twenty-five or fifty thousand; others pleaded temporary insanity; still others gained a lot of publicity by taking a philosophic stand, saying that it was true, they had been overcome with nausea at that drivel, and that they themselves were too sensitive and serious for it, and had too much integrity, moral fiber, etc. …
Meanwhile the show went on. People started tuning in to see what new outrage would happen; it even appeared to have a sort of elusive comic appeal. It became the talk of the industry; the rating soared — but somehow it looked bad. Finally the producer and the sponsor of the show were put on the carpet before Mr. Harlan, the tall and distinguished head of the network.
“Listen,” he said to the sponsor as he paced the office, “we want your business, Mr. Levet, don’t get me wrong — but if you guys can’t control that show of yours … well, I mean goddamn it, what’s going on over there?” He turned to the producer now, who was a personal friend of his: “For Christ’s sake, Max, can’t you get together a show, and put it on the way it’s supposed to be without any somersaults? … is that so hard to do? … I mean we can’t have this sort of thing going on, you know that, Max, we simply cannot have …”
“Listen, Al,” said the producer, a short fat man who rose up and down on his toes, smiling, as he spoke, “we got the highest Trendex in the books right now.” …
The critics for the most part, after lambasting the first couple of shows as “terrific boners,” sat tight for a while, just to see which way the wind was going to blow, so to speak — then, with the rating at skyrocket level, they began to suggest that the show might be worth a peek.
“An off-beat sleeper,” one of them said, “don’t miss it.” “New comedy,” said a second, “a sophisticated take-off on the sentimental.” And another: “Here’s humor at its highest.” Almost all agreed in the end that it was a healthy satire.
After interfering with six or seven shows, Grand grew restive. “I’m pulling out,” he said to himself, “it may have been good money after bad all along.”
It was just as well perhaps, because at the point when the producer and sponsor became aware of what was responsible for their vast audience, they began consciously trying to choose and shape each drama towards that moment of anomaly which had made the show famous. And somehow this seemed to spoil it. At any rate it very soon degenerated — back to the same old tripe. And of course it was soon back to the old rating as well — which, as in the early, pre-Grand days, was all right, but nothing, really, to be too proud of.
All of this should make Democrats feel pretty confident about 2016. A couple of conspiracy theorists on the right have speculated that Trump is a Hillary Clinton plant. But Trump has hurt Clinton too. Her penchant for dodging controversial questions — fracking, the Keystone pipeline, the Trans-Pacific trade pact — looks still worse when contrasted with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness. Even when asked to name her favorite ice-cream flavor during a July appearance at a New Hampshire Dairy Twirl, she could do no better than “I like nearly everything.”
It’s not a coincidence that the Joe Biden buzz heated up just as Trump started taking off. The difference between Clinton’s and Biden’s views is negligible, but some Democrats may be in the market for a candidate of their own who will wander off the reservation and say anything in the echt Trump manner. Yesterday’s “gaffes” are today’s authenticity. Whatever happens with Biden, the Clinton campaign seems oblivious to the possibility that Trump is a double-edged sword, exposing her weaknesses even as he undermines the GOP. When he boasted in the Fox News debate that the Clintons had no choice but to attend his last wedding because he had given them money, he reduced the cloudy questions about transactions between the Clinton Foundation and its donors to a primal quid pro quo that any voter can understand.
As the Trump fallout has rained down on Clinton, so it has on the news media and political pros who keep writing his premature obituary. He has been dismissed as a lackluster also-ran in both debates — compared to the “impressive” Fiorina, Rubio, John Kasich, whoever. No one seems to have considered that more Republican primary voters may have cared about Tom Brady’s endorsement of Trump hours before the CNN debate than the substance of the event itself. Throughout, Trump’s rise has been accompanied by a veritable “Dewey Defeats Truman” festival. After the McCain smackdown in July, political analysts at the Times, the Washington Post, and CNN all declared that he had reached a “turning point” presaging his demise. The Times’ version of this consensus ran as a column in “The Upshot,” the paper’s rubric for data-driven reporting. It argued that because Republican “elites” had been outraged by the incident, it would “probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.” This conclusion ultimately proved no more predictive than the ostensibly data-driven Literary Digest poll proclaiming Alf Landon the certain victor over FDR in 1936. Given the hostility of the GOP base to elites in general and McCain in particular (unless he’s on a ticket with Palin), it was a better-than-even bet that Trump’s numbers would go up, as they did.
An “Upshot” entry almost two weeks after the Fox News debate dug in further: “The Most Important Story in the G.O.P. Race Isn’t About Donald Trump.” The more important story, it turned out, was the relative “boomlets” for the not-Trump candidates. But Trump continued to be the most important story, not least because of how he kept drowning out the supposed boomlets of the other candidates. Trump, we’ve been told, is sucking the oxygen out of a GOP contest whose other contenders constitute a “deep bench of talent” (the Times) and “an embarrassment of riches” (Peggy Noonan). But Trump is the oxygen of the GOP race, and that deep bench’s embarrassing inability to compete with him is another important story. Even so, guardians of journalistic propriety (and some readers) have implored the upscale press to resist emulating cable news and stop paying Trump so much attention. Some journalists who condescended to write about him have asked forgiveness for momentarily forsaking sober policy debate and stooping so low. The Huffington Post announced it was relegating Trump coverage to the Entertainment section.
That summer of denial is now kaput, but many of the press’s usual empirical tools are impotent against Trump. Columnists and editorial writers across the political spectrum can keep preaching to their own choirs about how vile he is, but they are not likely being read, let alone heeded, by Trump fans. Diligent analyses of his policy inconsistencies are built on a false premise because Trump has almost no policies, just ad hoc opinions that by his own account he forms mainly by reading newspapers or watching Sunday talk shows. When writers for both the Times and Journal op-ed pages analyzed Trumponomics, they produced the same verdict: Nothing Trump said added up. Kimberley Strassel, a conservative columnist at the Journal who regards the Republican field as “teeming with serious candidates,” has complained that Trump is “not policy knowledgeable.” That’s for sure. You won’t catch him following the example of “serious” candidates like Fiorina, Rubio, and Walker, who regurgitate the boilerplate drilled into them by foreign-policy tutors. Why bother, Trump explains, since “one of the problems with foreign policy is it changes on a daily basis.” Such thinking, or anti-thinking, may not win over anyone at the Aspen Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, but does anyone seriously doubt that it plays to much of the Republican-primary electorate? That’s precisely what is spooking conservatives like Strassel.
What’s exhilarating, even joyous, about Trump has nothing to do with his alternately rancid and nonsensical positions on policy. It’s that he’s exposing the phoniness of our politicians and the corruption of our political process by defying the protocols of the whole game. He skips small-scale meet-and-greets in primary-state living rooms and diners. He turned down an invitation to appear at the influential freshman senator Joni Ernst’s hog roast in Iowa. He routinely denigrates sacred GOP cows like Karl Rove and the Club for Growth. He has blown off the most powerful newspapers in the crucial early states of Iowa (the Des Moines Register) and New Hampshire (the Union-Leader) and paid no political price for it. Yet he is overall far more accessible to the press than most candidates — most conspicuously Clinton — which in turn saves him from having to buy television ad time.
It’s as if Trump were performing a running burlesque of the absurd but intractable conventions of presidential campaigns in real time. His impact on our politics post-2016 could be as serious as he is not. Unsurprisingly, the shrewdest description of the Trump show’s appeal has come from an actor, Owen Wilson. “You can’t help but get a kick out of him,” he told the Daily Beast, “and I think part of it is we’re so used to politicians on both sides sounding like actors at press junkets — it’s sort of by rote, and they say all the right things. So here’s somebody who’s not following that script. It’s like when Charlie Sheen was doing that stuff.” As Wilson says, for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.
He also makes a sport of humiliating high-end campaign gurus. When Sam Clovis, a powerful Evangelical conservative activist in Iowa, jumped from the cratering Perry to Trump in August, it seemed weird. Despite saying things like “I’m strongly into the Bible,” Trump barely pretends to practice any religion. The Des Moines Register soon published excerpts from emails written just five weeks earlier (supplied by Perry allies) in which Clovis had questioned Trump’s “moral center” and lack of “foundation in Christ” and praised Perry for calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism.” But, like Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, Trump figured correctly that money spoke louder than Christ to Clovis. He was no less shrewd in bringing the focus-group entrepreneur Frank Luntz to heel. After Luntz convened a negative post-debate panel on Fox News that, in Luntz’s view, signaled “the destruction” of Trump’s campaign, Trump showered him with ridicule. Luntz soon did a Priebus-style about-face and convened a new panel that amounted to a Trump lovefest. One participant praised Trump for not mouthing “that crap” that’s been “pushed to us for the past 40 years.” It’s unclear if Luntz was aware of the irony of his having been a major (and highly compensated) pusher of “that crap,” starting with his role in contriving the poll-shaped pablum of Newt Gingrich’s bogus “Contract With America.”
A perfect paradigm of how lame old-school, top-heavy campaigns can be was crystallized by a single story on the front page of the Times the day after Labor Day. Its headline said it all: “Clinton Aides Set New Focus for Campaign — A More Personal Tone of Humor and Heart.” By announcing this “new focus” to the Times, which included “new efforts to bring spontaneity” to a candidacy that “sometimes seems wooden,” these strategists were at once boasting of their own (supposed) political smarts and denigrating their candidate, who implicitly was presented as incapable of being human without their direction and scripts. Hilariously enough, the article straight-facedly cited as expert opinion the former Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom — whose stewardship of the most wooden candidate in modern memory has apparently vanished into a memory hole — to hammer home the moral that “what matters is you appear genuine.”
We also learned from this piece that Clinton would soon offer “a more contrite tone” when discussing her email woes, because a focus group “revealed that voters wanted to hear directly from Mrs. Clinton” about it. The aides, who gave the Times “extensive interviews,” clearly thought that this story was a plus for their candidate, and maybe the candidate did, too, since she didn’t fire them on the spot. They all seemed unaware of the downside of portraying Clinton as someone who delegated her “heart” to political operatives and her calibration of contrition to a focus group. By offering a stark contrast to such artifice, the spontaneous, unscripted Trump is challenging the validity and value of the high-priced campaign strategists, consultants, and pollsters who dominate our politics, shape journalistic coverage, and persuade even substantial candidates to outsource their souls to focus groups and image doctors. That brand of politics has had a winning run ever since the young television producer Roger Ailes used his media wiles to create a “new Nixon” in 1968. But in the wake of Trump’s “unprofessional” candidacy, many of the late-20th-century accoutrements of presidential campaigns, often tone-deaf and counterproductive in a new era where social media breeds insurgencies like Obama’s, Trump’s and Sanders’s, could be swept away — particularly if Clinton’s campaign collapses.
Another change Trump may bring about is a GOP rethinking of its embrace of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing unlimited campaign contributions. Citizens United was supposed to be a weapon wielded mainly against Democrats, but Trump is using it as a club to bludgeon Republicans. “I’m using my own money,” he said when announcing his candidacy. “I’m not using lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.” By Washington etiquette, it’s a no-no for a presidential candidate to gloat about his wealth. Especially if you’re a wealthy Republican, it’s axiomatic that you follow the George H.W. Bush template of pretending to savor pork rinds. But Trump has made a virtue of flaunting his fortune and glitzy lifestyle — and not just because that’s the authentic Trump. His self-funding campaign may make him more effective than any Democrat in turning Citizens United into a political albatross for those who are enslaved to it.
Having no Citizens United–enabled political-action committee frees him to remind voters daily that his Republican adversaries are bought and paid for by anonymous wealthy donors. The notion of a billionaire playing this populist card may seem counterintuitive, but paradoxically Trump’s populism is enhanced by the source of his own billions. His signature business, real-estate development, is concrete, literally so: He builds big things, thus visibly creating jobs, and stamps his name on them in uppercase gold lest anyone forget (even when he hasn’t actually built them and doesn’t actually own them). This instantly separates him from the “hedge-fund guys” and all the other unpopular one percenters who trade in intangible and suspect financial “products,” facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs, and underwrite much of the Republican presidential field and party infrastructure, to some of the Republican-primary electorate’s dismay. The simplicity and transparency of Trump’s campaign funding are going to make it harder for his rivals — and perhaps future presidential candidates — to defend their dependence on shadowy, plutocratic, and politically toxic PAC donors.
The best news about Trump is that he is wreaking this havoc on the status quo while having no chance of ascending to the presidency. You can’t win the Electoral College in 2016 by driving away women, Hispanics, blacks, and Asian-Americans, no matter how large the margins you pile up in deep-red states. Republicans who have started fretting that he’d perform as Barry Goldwater did on Election Day in 1964 have good reason to worry.
But Goldwater won the nomination in the first place by rallying a disaffected hard-right base that caught the GOP Establishment by surprise, much as the remnants of that Establishment were blindsided by Ronald Reagan’s insurgency that almost denied the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. Trump’s ascent, like the Goldwater and Reagan rebellions, makes it less likely that the divide between the GOP’s angriest grassroots and the party elites who write the checks will be papered over in 2016, as it was by the time the 2008 and 2012 Republican conventions came to order.
Probable as it may be that Trump’s poll numbers will fade and that he will flame out before the Republicans convene in Cleveland in July, it’s not a sure thing. If the best his intraparty adversaries can come up with as dragon slayers are his fellow outsiders — the joyless scold Fiorina, who presided over the firing of 30,000 Hewlett-Packard workers (a bounteous gift to Democratic attack ads), or the low-low-energy Carson, who has never run anything except an operating room — that means they have no plan. And thanks to another unintended consequence of the GOP’s Citizens United “victory,” the PACs it enables will keep hopeless presidential candidates financially afloat no matter how poorly they are faring in polls and primaries, thereby crippling the party’s ability to unite early behind a single anti-Trump alternative. In a worst-case scenario, the GOP could reach the spring stretch with the party’s one somebody still ahead of a splintered field of nobodies.
By then, Trump’s Establishment nemeses, those who march to the beat of the Journal editorial page and Krauthammer and Will, will be manning the backroom battle stations and writing big checks to bring him down. The specter of a brokered Republican convention loomed briefly in 2012, when Romney was slow to lock up the nomination. Should such a scenario rear up again in 2016, the Koch brothers, no fans of Trump, could be at the center of the action. Whatever happens, there will be blood. The one thing Trump never does is go quietly, and neither will his followers. As Ross Douthat, a reform conservative, wrote in August, Trump has tapped into the populist resentments of middle-class voters who view the GOP and the elites who run it as tools of “moneyed interests.” If the Republicans “find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message,” he added, the pressure of that resentment will keep building within the party, and “when it bursts, the GOP as we know it may go with it.”
Even if this drama does not play out to the convention, the Trump campaign has already made a difference. Far from being a threat to democracy or a freak show unworthy of serious coverage, it matters because it’s taking a much-needed wrecking ball to some of what has made our sterile politics and dysfunctional government as bankrupt as Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. If that’s entertainment, so be it. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the Republican Party is reduced to rubble along the way, we can live with it. Trump will not make America great again, but there’s at least a chance that the chaos he sows will clear the way for those who can.
*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.