by Akim Reinhardt
I've lost track already. During the past month, too many people to keep count of, each with a look of bemused panic in their eye, has asked me if I think Donald Trump has a chance. Knocked back on their heels by the frenzy surrounding Trump's recent surge, they implore me to tell them what I think.
Is it possible that this crude, bombastic display of runaway hair known as The Donald will actually succeed Barack Obama in the White House?
Alas, it's hard to blame these worry warts. Of late, the press marvels at Trump's soaring poll numbers, and ruminates endlessly on his success in spite of his obvious shortcomings and endless string of outrages, and what it says about American society and its broken political system.
From NPR to Ezra Klein, there's no shortage of media mavens trumpeting Trump and theorizing what his success means. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Or if they don't, they're desperate to find one. Confused by it all, The Atlantic went so far as to simply ask people why, oh why, do you support this man? Then, sans analysis, the magazine simply threw up its hands and published the responses.
Why, oh why indeed. Why is this barbarian at the gate? Why is this roaring, fatuous pig of a man on the verge of undressing our republic and claiming its highest office?
In looking for an answer, I believe we should not dig too deep. After all, Donald Trump doesn't seem to over think much, so we probably shouldn't over think him.
Admittedly, that's a bit glib. But if you've followed The Donald's career, it's hard to come away with any other conclusion than: What you see is what you get.
And what I see right now is the same thing I always see when I look at Donald Trump: a garish, abusive, womanizing snake oil salesman. A huckster pushing his product.
It just so happens that Donald Trump's flagship product is Donald Trump.
So if you want to understand the temporary whirlwind surrounding Trump's most recent bid for the presidency, then you have to recognize the thing Trump is best at: selling himself.
For more than three decades now, Donald Trump has been selling himself, and doing a bang up job of it. Like any other athlete or celeburante seeking endorsements, Trump has made a successful career of branding himself. That's why he keeps writing books about how great he is. That's why he purchased The Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants, which represent his twisted and dated version of “glamour.” That's why he constantly scrambles to keep himself in the limelight.
Donald Trump: Real Estate Tycoon? No, Donald Trump: Celebrity Asshole Pitchman.
Why? Because it turns out that Trump is more successful at building up his self-image than he is at building skyscrapers, casinos, or resorts.
The son of a successful New York real estate developer, Donald Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But when he went into the family business, he botched it. His own career as a real estate developer has floated upon a wave of massive inheritance, loans, and bailouts. By the early 1990s, he'd gone belly up, begging his siblings for loans just to keep his office running. His appearances in divorce courts are likely outnumbered only by his appearances in bankruptcy courts. By 2011, The Donald's reputation in financial circles was that of a “deadbeat,” according to a Deutsche Bank big wig quoted in The Atlantic.
It's easy enough to point out all the financial blunders and bankruptcies. But if you really want wrap your head around The Donald, then you have to understand how and why he turned himself into a Thanksgiving Day Parade hot air balloon.
As it turns out, while Trump might be, at best, a mediocre real estate developer, he's actually a crackerjack pitchman. And while he wants to sell you anything he can, selling you anything at all is largely predicated on Trump's impressive ability to sell himself.
That's why, for example, Trump spent years badgering Forbes Magazine to overstate his wealth on their annual rundown of insanely rich people. During the 1990s, when his situation was most dire, it was an annual rite for Trump to harangue Forbes writers and editors. He would insist they acknowledge his supposedly fabulous fortune by publicly listing his net worth at up to five times what the good people at Forbes thought he was actually worth. Year after year, the same routine. Forbes would estimate his value. Trump would throw a fit and bully some writer or list editor to publish a vastly higher and totally unreasonable figure. They would decline, and then the haggling would ensue.
But why was a fantastical public accounting of his wealth so important to Trump? Because calling yourself Billionaire Donald Trump, instead of just plain old Donald Trump Whose Business Practices Invite Scrutiny, is a way to brand oneself. Polish up your name, get it out there, and then use it to attract buyers.
A cornerstone of that branding process has been Trump's relentless effort to continue defining himself as a real estate mogul, despite all the bankruptcies on his ledger. He's accomplished that by attaching himself to various building projects where he doesn't actually building anything. According the The Wall Street Journal, instead of building, owning, and then selling real estate, Trump simply sells his name to other real estate developers, who then slap TRUMP on their various projects.
So the Trump-this or Trump-that, which you see on skyscrapers and resorts, was probably not made or ever owned by Donald Trump. You know. The same way some star athlete isn't really back there flipping burgers at whatever shitty, overpriced, yuppie bar-n-grill has his name on it.
But it has worked, and from there The Donald has spread his wings. Transitioning from stumbling real estate developer to successful real estate pitchman and sponsor, Trump also whores himself out to all sorts of ventures unrelated to real estate.
Such as a failed, unaccredited, for-profit “school” called Trump University. Or one particularly shady business venture that some have reasonably classified as a pyramid scheme.
And while an array of “Trump” ventures have gone belly up, Donald Trump's public image as the über successful celebrity-businessman has never been stronger. Hell, Trump has branded himself so well over the years that he even got a long running TV show out of it, right down to the recognizable “You're fired!” catch line, which comes across as just a meaner, stupider version of Gary Coleman squinting and demanding to know “What'chu talkin' about Willis?” or the flustered Skipper turning beet red and shouting “Gilligan!”
No wonder then that Forbes lists Trump's primary source of wealth as “television.”
And it's all worked out magnificently for him. Two decades after all the unseemly wrangling about his wealth, Forbes now lists Donald Trump as the 405th richest person in the world. Although there are two other Donalds on the list ahead of him, much to his chagrin, no doubt.
But it is within this context, of Donald Trump as the man who has become fabulously wealthy by selling himself, that we must examine his supposedly serious presidential bid. This is not Carly Fiorina, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, Herbert Hoover, or some other incredibly successful business person who genuinely thinks they can be a great political leader because they've been a great business leader, and is willing to spend tens of millions of personal wealth to make it happen. This is a showman looking to drum up business by pushing his brand in the biggest spotlight he can find.
Lest you forget, this is hardly the first time Trump has made a show of pretending to run for president. He first publicly speculated about a run for the Oval Office way back in 1988, when he was doing well and his ego was in full bloom. Then he didn't bother with such superficial activities during the 1990s, when he was putting his Trumpty Humpty Dumpty image back together again. By 2000, however, the new and improved Donald Trump had re-emerged as a modern public spectacle, and he took a shot at the presidential nomination for Perot's Reform Party. He even won the California primary, which is kind of like winning a junior high school science fair by paying to have actual lava dumped on that one kid's baking soda-vinegar volcano. But despite claiming the Golden State in the name of fruitcake schismatics, in the end Trump failed to earn the Reform Party's nod. That special honor went to a more committed political lunatic: Pat Buchanan. In 2004, Trump once more made waves about running for president, and then again recently as 2012, in case you'd already forgotten. Along the way, he talked loud and long about running for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014.
In each case, all of these electoral bids went no where, precisely because they weren't designed to go anywhere. The point is not to become president or governor. Rather, the point is to run your name up a flagpole, see how many slightly confused and very excited people salute it, and then capitalize on the notoriety by continuing to brand yourself. Afterwards, you're not just Dubious Billionaire Donald Trump, but also Dubious Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
And that's exactly why, yet again, Donald Trump has tossed his hat into the presidential ring. Not to become president, but merely so he can get free publicity of the highest order and burnish his brand, thereby continuing his reign as the nation's most insidious, insulting and, sadly, successful pitchman.
Okay, okay, you say, so all those other half-assed, go-nowhere political dalliances were just part of his relentless self-branding operation. But this time it's different. He's leading in the goddamn GOP polls!
It's a perfectly reasonable concern, especially given what a truly horrible person Trump has been at least since 1978, when The Village Voice first ran an exposé of him.
Thus looms the important question: What in the hell is going on here?
My short answer is: Not much, and it'll be over soon.
But that may not be enough to satiate you, so let's tackle the more in depth questions. In the media, public discourse, and personal communications, the following queries keep cropping up:
-Why are so many voters attracted to Trump?
-How do you explain his current success?
-What does that success say about our political system and society?
-Will he win the GOP nomination?
My brief answers are, in order:
-It's not actually that many
-Freud + Bugs Bunny
-Not in this fucking lifetime
Now let me flesh that out a little bit.
Let's start with the supposedly massive popular support Donald Trump is garnering. Yes, it's true that as of Friday, August 21, he's ahead in the polls for the GOP nomination. His percentage is in the high teens or low twenties, depending on which polls you go by. And in a field of 15 candidates, that works out to a substantial lead. He's currently lapping second place contender Jeb Bush.
But hold on just a minute. First off, it's important to remember that these polls don't reflect the general pubic or even the general voting public. These are polls of only Republicans. So how many registered Republican are there exactly?
According to Gallup, as of this past July, it's only 23% of registered voters. Democrats claim another 28%. And by far the largest group of Americans registered to vote are Independents, who comprise 46% of the electorate. So among a polling group that constitutes fewer than one-quarter of the nation's registered voters, Trump is currently the preferred candidate among roughly one-fifth of them.
In other words, among all of the registered voters in the United States, fewer than 5% currently think Donald Trump is the bee's knees.
Now contemplate that for a moment. Is one out of every twenty people you know a bit of a numnutz? Yeah? That about fair? Right then, so before you get yourself into a tizzy about how half the nation wants this whackadoo hair pie to be our next president, keep the numbers in perspective.
Let's see if Trump can actually win a primary before we start buying gaudy new drapes and gimcrack china for the White House. Let's see if he's still standing when the Republican field winnows from 15 to 5 before we assume all of this will end up as anything other than a quaint jolt of nostalgia 10 years from now.
That being said, Trump is certainly enjoying a surprising degree of popularity at the moment, not to mention some seriously outsized media coverage. His poll numbers are at least double each of the next two contenders in the field, Bush and Ben Carson, and everyone else is in single digits. So while reasonably recognizing his current success without getting carried away, it's fair to ask: What explains it?
Simply put, it's the Donald Trump brand, and what that brand represents to a very narrow slice of a frustrated electorate.
The image that Donald Trump has fostered lo these many years is that of the successful, brash, no-nonsense businessman who offers up a loud, New York City version of being aggressively plainspoken with nary a care of what you or anyone else thinks about it.
Yes, I and a lot of other people, probably you included, think he's a tiresome blowhard. But whether you buy it or not, the popular public image of Donald Trump, which springs from his relentless branding efforts, is the guy who says what's on his mind, who does what he wants, and who, along the way, cuts through all of society's insincere and misguided niceties.
In other words, he's a little id monster in the Freudian sense. He does and says whatever he wants when and wherever he wants. You know. A complete and utter fucking asshole.
But the charismatic version of a little id monster is someone people will love, rally behind, and make excuses for. A charismatic id monster is the person you wish you could be. A desperado among martyrs and imbeciles.
Think Bugs Bunny.
Everyone loves to root for that rascally rabbit. Constantly confronting stupid and mean people in an uncaring world, he outfoxes them at nearly every turn, and that make you happy. That there bunny's making the world right for the rest of us. You know, even if he is a bit of a handful.
And that's why a relatively small group of Americans is supporting Trump right now. They don't care what he's saying. They just like the way he says things. Because like everyone else, they too wish they could say whatever they want where and whenever you want.
The actual content of Trump's statements? Almost entirely irrelevant. Seriously. Let me give you an example.
In mid-July, I was visiting the friend of a friend in Omaha, Nebraska. This person is a native of the state and fairly conservative. The kind of person who in 2015 thinks allowing gays to marry is an infringement of her rights as a Catholic.
This person was very excited about Trump. When questioned about why, she said: “He's just saying out loud what everyone else believes.”
And what had Donald Trump most recently said out loud? That John McCain was essentially a loser because he'd been a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam.
“He's not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured.”
If anyone else had said it, it might have ended their campaign on the spot. It certainly would have required a retraction and heartfelt apology. But Trump said it, didn't backdown, and then emerged from the subsequent controversy with higher poll numbers than when he started. Among hawkish Republicans!
Now think about this for a second. We're talking about a woman who might as well be flying one of those MIA/Never Forget flags atop her garage. And she's lauding Trump for “saying what everyone else believes,” just as he was making headlines for saying something that's the exact opposite of what she actually believes.
On one hand, the cognitive disconnect at work here is absolutely stunning. But it's the other hand that sheds light on the Trump phenomenon. And that hand opens to reveal a person who isn't supporting Donald Trump because she's lockstep with his policy agendas, which beyond “Send back the immigrants and build wall!” range between the vague and the unspoken. She's supporting Trump because she's buying the Trump brand.
It's not that Trump is saying what she thinks, other than on the topic of immigration. For example, Trump is pro-abortion rights. She thinks abortion is murder. So it's not what Trump is saying. It's that he's saying whatever the hell he wants. Wherever the hell he wants. Whenever the hell he wants. Including on the campaign trail while there are microphones in his face and the cameras are rolling. And that devil-may-care hubris has attracted her.
Donald Trump is her Bugs Bunny.
This woman also wants to say whatever the hell she wants. As do I. As do you. But like most sensible people, we're all afraid of the consequences should we publicly voice some of the things we think. So we keep certain things to ourselves or our close confidants. And we cheer or laugh when a charismatic character, like Bugs or maybe some clever comedian, crosses a certain line. We get a thrill from it. We root for them, and salute their courage and honesty. That person becomes a reflection of your id.
If you have really bad taste, that person is Donald Trump.
So what then does Trump's current standing atop the Republican field say about our political system? Not much. It certainly doesn't say a lot about the electorate's views on specific political issues, because Trump says almost nothing about specific political issues. He's not tapping into some deep political vein in America. He's just being Trump.
That's why the rest of the GOP field is so confused about what to do. Trump is not a serious candidate making serious statements. He's just mouthing off, and a small segment of Americans are clapping and shouting Yay! It just happens to be a small segment of Americans that are very important to those other 14 GOP candidates. So the other candidates stand there, a bit dazed and confused, some of them criticizing Trump, some of them mimicking him, and all of them waiting for Trump mania to blow over. Which it will.
Because there is absolutely no way in hell Donald Trump is going to win the Republican presidential nomination, much less the 2016 election.
And if I'm wrong, I'll sell my row home, max out my credit cards, and buy all of you aggrieved readers plane tickets to Canada, while I remain behind and endure the unimaginably surreal ravages of a Trump presidency.
But it won't come to that. So just settle down. It's still August. Of 2015. The actual election more than 14 months away. The Republican convention is nearly a year away. The very first primaries and caucuses aren't until the dead of winter, and I'm still sweating like a pig here in Baltimore.
Towards the end of the year, as the leaves turn and fall, and things begin to get more serious, the spotlight will get brighter. And then all of Trump's countless faults will be harder and harder to avoid. That small group of Americans currently drawn to his id monster persona will decide that, as much as they wish they could be like him, they really don't want an unfunny Bugs Bunny with a comb over for president.
Furthermore, as other candidates fade from the field during the first two or three months of 2015, their erstwhile supporters will not flock to Donald Trump. Why? Because the ones who currently support serious candidates will move on to other serious candidates who remain. I mean honestly now. Can you envision current supporters of Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Paul Kasich, or Rand Paul shrugging and just moving on to Trump instead of one of the other candidates who's not a walking punch line?
It's not happening. Most of those voters want someone serious. Most of them also want someone who can win the general election, which Trump cannot.
And as for those people currently throwing their support behind other loony toon characters like Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, or Foghorn Leghorn? Who knows. But their numbers are too small to matter. Carson and Santorum combined are polling about 10%. I like Leghorn as a write-in candidate, although I'm not sure he'll do well outside the South. We'll see.
In the end, however, despite what will undoubtedly be his rapid political unraveling in the weeks or months to come, Donald Trump really will win, in a way.
After his ramshackle campaign finally winds down, after the sideshow packs up and goes home, after the smoke clears and the lights dim, in the United States and around the world, the Trump brand will be more recognizable than ever before. And then he can continue to pimp himself to anyone out there who's willing to trade big bags of money for his punny name or his endless bluster.
Donald Trump will never be president of the United States, I assure you that. But he will always be The Donald, a pied piper for people with bubbling frustrations and runaway dreams. And you can buy him whenever you like.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. There, among other things, you can find his prior writings on Donald Trump, including his dissection of The Donald's failed presidential bid four years ago.