What is it that Donald Trump represents? His surge in the latest polls and the crowds he draws to his political rallies are truly astounding. It’s a phenomenon probably too significant to ignore. But beyond the freakishness of his occasionally outlandish behavior and statements, what else do the numbers reflect? How do you explain such a political phenomenon? This past week, Jon Stewart has had a circus ring filled with fun at the expense of Donald Trump. And Stewart has been quite funny (if you like his brand of humor) as he’s gestured toward a very unflattering shot of Trump and his famous head of hair. I have to admit that Trump is indeed a comic relief in the relentless and seemingly unending Presidential campaign season that we find ourselves already within. The first Republican debate is this Thursday evening, and one of the reasons I and likely many others will be glued to our TV sets is because of Trump’s irrepressible antics that are bound to occur during the broadcast.
Really, the constant chatter about him in the media is amazing. Of course, CNN and the others love high drama; in fact the various networks thrive on it. In a recent op-ed piece one of my favorite New York Times columnists, Frank Bruni, writes of the dilemma faced by many serious news people. He admits that some commentators reward Trump’s “bad and transcendently self-serving behavior” when they discuss his candidacy; yet, when they ignore his skyrocketing numbers in the national polls, they risk ignoring “something real.”
But what is that “something real” that Trump represents? His surge in the latest polls and the crowds he draws to his political rallies are truly astounding. That’s a phenomenon probably too significant to ignore. But beyond the freakishness of his occasionally outlandish behavior and statements, what else do the numbers reflect? How do you explain such a political phenomenon? Is there something deep down in the American psyche that Trump represents?
Let me suggest that at base, Trump is a caricature of the American character, writ large against the backdrop of a political race that he can’t win. A few years back, David Brooks wrote a book titled “On Paradise Drive.” Near the end of his assessment of our current culture, he talks about a “Paradise Spell” or cultural myth that we all inherit by virtue of being shaped from childhood with a sense of the possible in American life. He says:
The sense that some ultimate fulfillment will be realized here, that happiness can be created here, that the United States has a unique mission to redeem the world – are still woven into the country’s fabric. … This Paradise Spell … is the call making us heedless of the past, disrespectful toward traditions, short on contemplation, wasteful in our use of the things around us, impious toward restraints, but consumed by hope, drive … to improve, fervently optimistic, relentlessly aspiring … and, in this period of human history, and maybe for all time, the locomotive of the world. (pp. 267, 269)
In a book I’m currently reading by Steve Fraser (titled “The Age of Acquiescence”), Fraser points out that decades before the Civil War, Alexis de Tocqueville had already captured the American zeitgeist described by Brooks. De Tocqueville is quoted as saying, “America is a land of wonders in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement … they admit that what appears to them today to be good, may be superseded by something better tomorrow.” Fraser then notes that above all, this spirit “invited the emergence of the restless, driven, far-seeing hero of the story of Progress: the American Entrepreneur.” (p. 36)
I believe this is at base, at the core, the real reason for Trump’s populist appeal. Everyman can see himself – if he just works hard and gets lucky – amassing wealth and power like Trump, the entrepreneur par excellence. His seeming disdain for rules, his independence and unwillingness to bow to any man, is appealing to the masses because he speaks to something very basic in the American character. Trump is a reckless man, but smart. A “good” businessman in the sense of a successful one with lots of money to prove it.
Donald Trump is not Presidential material. But for complex reasons – ranging from fascination with surprise and the comic relief provided by his antics to reflecting something deeply embedded in the American psyche, and hence, calling forth some fellow recognition within us all – the “something real” that Frank Bruni referred to is indeed cause for reflection.