The shock of Donald Trump receiving the Republican nomination coupled with widespread ambivalence about Hillary Clinton, generates worry this could be a close election. And it raises a question about how this unlikely candidate has advanced so far? We underestimate, I believe, the power of his unorthodox political style. Trump does not act like a traditional candidate running for president. The organizational disarray, the virtual absence of campaign advisors and the lack of notable fundraising underscore the fact that he considers himself to be the celebrity star of his own reality TV show, (a cross between Survivor, where challengers like Low Energy Jeb, Liddle Marco and Lyin’ Ted are voted off the island one by one, and The Apprentice, where each episode culminates with Trump telling someone they are fired), rather than a presidential candidate.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the Trump phenomenon is that he says many things that would demolish traditional political campaigns. If anyone else suggested Ted Cruz’s father was linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, raised the issue of Obama’s birthplace or wondered if Vince Foster was murdered, their credibility would plummet with their poll numbers. But unlike traditional candidates, Trump wants to shock as many as possible because his outrageous venomous remarks, delivered like National Enquirer headlines, boost the ratings of his personal reality TV show. Likewise, Trump’s campaign rallies, filled with outright lies, empty slogans, rhetoric that smears his competition and offends broad swaths of the electorate, and even threats of violence against hecklers or protesters, have more in common with Jerry Springer episodes than traditional political events. On the one hand, the vulgar spectacle of his provocative statements fired off like verbal missiles offer the illusion of news that enables him to secure free press coverage. But at a deeper level, Trump’s inflammatory comments implore the public to stay tuned for the next episode of his tabloid campaign. And we remain riveted, whether appalled or thrilled by what he says, each of us wondering what else will come out of his mouth.
The problem, of course, is that Trump is actually running for president. The virtual absence in his tabloid campaign of any serious discussion about serious issues is unprecedented. Instead, we get bluster about building walls Mexicans will pay for, tough talk about future trade negotiations and bold predictions about the quick destruction of ISIS. Trump never provides details about how any of this will be accomplished. And given his success, why should he? He believes that wading into the minutiae of public policy is not good for ratings. Besides, his supporters experience a vicarious thrill watching him blow off steam. So it remains a better strategy to say whatever comes to mind. Trump keeps his reality TV show “relevant” with provocative free associations based on a canny intuitive feel for what has maximum shock value.
But Trump’s campaign, like any other, does not exist in a vacuum. His tabloid style registers because it responds to something in the air. And the underlying truth of this political year is that both Trump and Sanders, what could be deemed the “Bernie Trump” phenomenon, reflect an enormous rage and uneasiness many feel about their lives, whether marginalized, less educated, older white working class men and women who sign on with Trump or young college educated men and women who face an uncertain future and gravitate to Sanders. Too many people feel left behind or cast aside. So Sanders and Trump offer pushback to those who feel powerless against forces adversely affecting their lives, from globalization and international trade deals to shifting national demographics.
Can Hillary harness the widespread anger, resentment and distrust that many feel? While she might win in a landslide, her eagerness and ability to talk about the intricacies of public policy could lead many to be wary of her, because men still feel threatened by very smart women. While aspects of her personality fuel public discomfort, like her defensiveness and paranoia about the press and lack of warmth and charisma in large public settings, she knows her stuff. As Obama recently noted, she is arguably the most prepared candidate ever to seek the presidency, while even Mitch McConnell recognizes Trump is in over his head. But will it matter? This election should force us to reflect on important distinctions between leadership and demagoguery. Let us hope we have sense enough to vote for the former and to repudiate the latter in this pivotal election, that Hillary will not be the last one voted off the island and that the tabloid headline in November will read: “Nation to Trump: You’re Fired.” The alternative is just unthinkable.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano