In a few short months, Donald Trump has metamorphosed from a carnival sideshow in the American political circus into the headline act under its big top. With polls now showing this master showman, not only with a comfortable lead over his many Republican rivals, but also every leading Democrat, he is terrifying political insiders on both the Right and Left.
Conservatives spread rumors that Trump may be a Trojan horse, intended to destroy the Republican Party from within. Progressives review the history of totalitarian movements, wondering if “it” actually can happen here. And a disturbing number of people in both camps are acting as if The Donald’s ascendance to the throne is a fait accompli, even though it’s over a year until the general election. But what has been lacking is the will to take his popularity seriously.
Trump himself is partially to blame. As long as the man has been in the public eye, he has been a provacateur. Although he clearly loves being a celebrity, he has never seemed particularly concerned with having a good reputation. Any attention is welcome, even if it takes the form of condemnation or mockery.
There is a tradition in American society of business magnates who use their wealth in a desperate attempt to buy respectability, perhaps best captured in the fictional character of Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane. Despite being born into privileged circumstances and becoming extremely rich while still quite young, however, Donald Trump has shown no such inclination. On the contrary, he has appeared to revel in poor taste, actively resisting invitations to “grow up” and meet the standards of high society.
It is this quality that has made him an easy target for comedians since he first burst on the national scene in the 1980s. But it is also what separates him from other super-rich men with political ambitions, like the 2012 Republican nominee for President, Mitt Romney. The sort of people who rail against the insularity of Washington and New York, seeing — with some justification — a conspiracy against them at every turn, somehow fail to perceive Trump as the consummate financial and political insider that he undoubtedly is.
From their perspective, the traits for which he is mocked by the United States’ elites are also the ones that exempt him from the rapidly mounting rage those elites inspire. Far from being regarded as a detriment, his bluster and boorishness are transmuted into confirmation of his “outsider” character. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell how much of his self-presentation Trump actually has control over, but the effect is the same as if he had masterminded every move.
By far the biggest moment in his campaign so far was when, at the first Republican debate, Trump bluntly detailed the ways in which he had purchased political influence in the past, including from many of his rivals for the 2016 nomination. While a sad commentary on just how dysfunctional Washington has become, his cheerful confession also served to exempt him from the long-simmering hostility towards politicians who put themselves up for sale to the highest bidder.
Significantly, although Trump has been concentrating his speeches on points likely to appeal to the nation’s most intolerant conservative voters, this perverse form of honesty also holds considerable appeal to Americans whose populism inclines towards the Left. That’s why the groundswell of support that Bernie Sanders has experienced must not be regarded purely in terms of his underdog attempt to steal the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton: some of it comes from disenchanted people who are also turned on by Trump.
What Trump’s opponents, whether on the Right or Left, need is a clearer sense of the ways in which, far from representing some new phenomenon, his success derives from some of the deepest-seated reflexes in the American history. That is not to say that it is particularly rational; politics rarely is. But the conviction that the wealthiest citizens are also, somehow, the ones most able to speak and think freely, because they can’t be bought, is one that he is exploiting with astonishing facility.
Photograph by John Pemble. Published under a Creative Commons License.