The Thinker

Trump tries the master illusionist trick

About a month ago I took my first look at the Donald Trump as a presidential candidate phenomenon. A month later he’s still a phenomenon. The press goes gaga over the man, as apparently does a good portion of the American public. This creates something of a virtuous loop, at least if you are Donald Trump. Even his detractors will admit that while he may be jingoistic and a misogynist, he rarely fails to entertain. He’s been the subject of countless editorials, op eds and internet comments. I too am feeding the beast with this second post on Trump.

Political analysts are spending a lot of time trying to understand the Trump phenomenon, as he comes out of far right field. Holding left field of course is Bernie Sanders. Sanders is actually attracting a bigger crowds than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but the press for the most part is not interested and is chasing Trump instead. I was at the health club the other day and watching the TV screens on the walls there in front of the exercise machines. I was wondering if CNN had become 24/7 Donald Trump channel. He was at the Iowa State Fair and the camera kept lingering on Trump and his showy helicopter. He was attracting crowds but Bernie Sanders was drawing bigger crowds. CNN didn’t bother to follow Bernie, maybe because he doesn’t have a private helicopter.

Trump remains mesmerizing to watch not to mention to try to figure out. Trump is an expert at understanding his brand, as he’s been in the self-promotion business for most of his adult life. With his bombastic comments and his reality TV show where he kept busy firing underlings, virtually every American already knew him. We all had opinions on the man. Most were negative but even I would not say that Trump is not interesting. To quote some lyrics from the band Heart, he’s a magic man.

Magic of course is purely illusion and Donald Trump is an illusionist. The author of the comic strip Dilbert, Scott Adams, is fascinated by Trump (see his blog), in part because Adams some years back took a course on hypnotism. He is convinced Trump is hypnotizing us and he gives him 98% odds of being our next president. I can’t be as clairvoyant as Scott Adams, but I can read the polls. While he definitely appeals to Americans who want a strong leader, and particularly those who want someone of action instead of another weaselly politician elected in 2016, the polls are clear that while most of us find him entertaining, the majority of American have still soberly assessed the guy and won’t vote for him under any circumstances. I’ll never say never, however. Americans have a history of voting for bamboozlers. I mean we put George W. Bush in the White House twice, although technically the Supreme Court put him in the first time.

The best characterization of Trump I’ve seen is his comparison to Ronald Reagan. Reagan said it was Morning in America when he campaigned. Trump goes everywhere with his branded baseball cap saying “Make America Great Again”. Like Reagan he is a divorcee and like Reagan he is an accomplished actor and salesman, although Reagan sold mostly Borax. Reagan was elected twice and had pretty good approval ratings, even though he proved to be a pretty poor president. We identified with him as a sincere common man who spoke his mind and did what he thought was right.

Trump is betting on a number of things in his campaign. He is betting that even though almost no Hispanics or Blacks will vote for him that he can whip up white voters to vote massively and mostly for him, which is the only way he can overcome the quickly changing voter demographics. And since white voters as a class tend to be Republican, he looks for our soft underbellies. Just like Nixon realized his path to the White House went through white voters in the South, Trump realizes that he must make outrageous statements about Mexicans, women, John McCain and a whole lot of other people to gain the attention and affection of white voters, many of whom are scared that their country is in decline because of those others. Unlike most of the other candidates who have no name recognition to most voters, he was already a brand. It’s not surprising then that he quickly rocketed to the top of preferred candidates among Republicans.

His success at least so far has opened my eyes a bit. He understands that what Republican voters really want is not necessarily someone with conservative values, but someone with a certain attitude. It’s his in-your-face attitude that connects to these voters, and it’s what they admire. Trump says occasional things that should be anathema to Republican ideologues, things like the rich should pay more taxes and there are parts of Obamacare that he likes. None of this seems to matter to his fans, most of who are Tea Party types. They just sense his character, latch onto his pugnacious style and see a successful businessman who manages to get his way. They project this to the national stage and think: if anyone can make Washington work, Trump can!

Trump of course has never held an elective office, something his supporters see as an asset. Given Trump’s attitude, he would likely take liberties with the Office of the President far beyond what even George W. Bush or Richard Nixon could have ever imagined. If he takes these sorts of liberties, he stands an excellent chance of being impeached and convicted rather quickly. Even Donald Trump cannot trump the Constitution of the United States. Moreover, he will encounter the same institutional forces every president has to deal with, as well as lots of pesky rules and regulations that he ignores or bypasses at his peril. Whoever is president must be a politician first or he or she will fail. It drives us voters nuts, but that’s the way it is. Trump too will have to do inconvenient things like follow contracting laws to build his wall along the Mexican border, assuming he’s sincere about it, which I doubt. He will also have to persuade Congress to fund it. The president is not a dictator. The president must persuade not just voters but Congress to actually wield power his way. Democracy is slow, painful and inelegant by design. Trump won’t make it dance.

I continue to believe (perhaps naively) that Trump understands all this upfront. He understands that he won’t be the next president so perhaps his aim is to change the national conversation, or to push for his agenda or he is a secret Democratic operative that even the Democratic Party is oblivious to. I wouldn’t put it past the man. Or I could be all wet and he actually plans to be our next president and his following his instincts that served him well so far. All he has to do is persuade enough of us, and he’s a master at the persuasion business. It starts with commanding our attention, and he sure has done that. Maybe for him the thrill is to close the ultimate sales pitch. If anyone has the skills to bamboozle us into doing so, he probably has it, which makes him dangerous to our democracy.

I am certain that Trump is being disingenuous and doesn’t actually believe half the stuff he is saying. I’m hoping that voters will eventually figure this out. Perhaps many of them have and simply don’t care because they like his pugnacious attitude. It’s clear though that voters are looking for someone who can break our national gridlock and institute real change. Many see in Trump that shiny man of practical action that could do this.

While Trump is not sincere, Bernie Sanders is sincere and has a forty plus year career of sincerely pushing his agenda. When Sanders starts attacking Trump directly, the fireworks are going to get very interesting, assuming the press deigns to pay attention. Like Jimmy Carter, Sanders can speak with a consistent moral authority. Trump simply cannot. If anyone can pull the curtains and expose the mere mortal that is the Great and Powerful Trump, it’s probably going to be Bernie Sanders. There is authenticity and there is showmanship. Sanders has authenticity, which is why at least so far Trump can only dream of getting the crowds to his rallies that Sanders draws routinely.

 

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