The Spectacle of Donald Trump

In the summer of 2016, Michael Moore predicted Trump’s electoral victory.  He even named the states Trump would carry to secure the presidency.  Moore labeled Trump’s impending triumph as a Molotov cocktail hurled at elites of both major parties. It was a remarkable display of political acumen.  

But now, eight years later, we need to go further than that.  From the start of his resurrected political career, sowing doubt Barack Obama was an American citizen (“you won’t believe what my lawyers are finding out”), Trump said and did things that would have sunk every other politician’s career.  When the Access Hollywood videotape surfaced during the 2016 campaign, even Trump feared his candidacy was fatally damaged.  But remarkably, his lewd misogynistic remarks did not impact his political fortunes.  And during these last eight tumultuous years, his egregious behavior, capped by an election fraud lie and a corrupt gambit to maintain power despite being defeated, has not ended his political career.  At least, not yet.  

The time has come to confront a sobering reality about Trump’s candidacy.  And we need to do so immediately as presidential primaries begin.  It is not simply that Trump stokes a distemper in our land, as Moore smartly observed.  We need to reckon with the astonishing and remarkable fact that with each criminal indictment, Trump’s popularity has increased.  No other politician would survive even a fraction of the legal trouble Trump faces.  And yet, he continues to thrive.   How can we understand this unprecedented phenomenon? 

Trump believes he can do anything he likes, any time he likes, to whoever he likes.  The rules and laws governing the behavior of others, do not apply to him.  Recall Trump’s infamous comment that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for him.  It turns out he was exactly right.  Why?  Because his followers experience a vicarious satisfaction when he gets away with things he knows, and they know, are wrong.  They delight and support his ability to get away with things they cannot in their own lives.  As a result, Trump’s popularity is not enhanced despite his egregious behavior, it is enhanced because of it.  Most people understand they cannot do whatever they want, to whoever they want, in their own lives and get away with it.  Trump supporters have attached themselves to someone who does.  This defines the not-so-secret ingredient of his puzzling political “superpower”.  

What is lethal for every other politician provides fuel for Trump’s political fortunes.  The vicarious satisfaction Trump supporters experience when he behaves in ways they know are wrong, is reinforced by their scorn for all those who want to hold him accountable. His supporters affirm the narrative that every attempt to hold him to account represents a witch hunt, a campaign of political and personal persecution.  

But Trump goes one step further to seal the deal with his supporters.  He represents a toxic combination of George Wallace and his politics of anger, and Roy Cohn, who advocated a scorched earth response to anyone who dared oppose him.  Trump proclaims that when political elites and their fake media allies persecute him, they persecute them too.  He presents himself as a victim of a sophisticated witch hunt perpetrated by the “deep state”.  And just as it opposes and hates him, the deep state opposes and hates them too.  In this way, Trump presents a compelling narrative that lashes their interests to his.  While his campaign moniker remains Let’s Make America Great Again, the underlying agenda is clear:  what’s good for Trump is good for the nation.  

How do we reckon with Trump’s toxic political presence?  We address it head on. We must assert repeatedly that not only did Trump lose the election, and to say otherwise is a great lie, but that Trump knew he lost the 2020 election on election night.  He has always known he lost the election.  And dozens of court decisions affirmed what he knew to be true.  The man is not delusional.  So, why did he lie about the election result?  Was it out of some noble concern for the will of the American people?  Of course not. Trump lied about the election result because it was good business for Trump.  His persistent lie kept him in the news.  It maintained his status as a major political player and a Republican party kingmaker.  And all this sustained his primary interest:  to keep his personal brand relevant and lucrative.  Trump’s worst nightmare is to become invisible.  That is a fate worse than death.  And in the service of keeping his personal brand relevant and profitable, he has played the nation and his supporters as fools and “suckers”.  His supporters are willing enablers who even pay his legal bills, so he does not have to spend a large chunk of his own alleged fortune to keep himself out of jail.   

In this explosive and pivotal political season, we need to change the narrative about Trump.  We need to turn the tables and recast him as the ultimate cynical huckster who pretends to promote the national interest while he enhances the value of his personal brand.  For the diehard faithful, nothing will dissuade them from supporting Trump.  But for many other Republican and Independent voters rebranding Trump as someone who pursues his own interest at the expense of theirs, offers an important opportunity to expose him as a cancer on the American body politic, willing to undermine a hallowed aspect of our democracy, a peaceful transition of power effected by free and fair elections deemed legitimate by the public.  It is imperative we expose Trump as an emperor with no clothes.  

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.

Editor of Delano