The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.
– Mark Twain
Today, as you read this, the presumptive nominee of one of our republic’s two major political parties is a man who 11 months ago was a tabloid-addled, real estate mogul turned reality TV personality. How did this happen? Let’s dissect.
Never Underestimate The Power Of Celebrity Or The Grim Reality Of Math
In the late 1980s I proposed the idea that if Clint Eastwood ran for president, he might not win but would garner about a third of the vote for merely being Clint Eastwood. This is long before a weighlifter/movie star became governor of the nation’s largest state. Once Donald Trump, a well-known macho big mouth, descended his fancy escalator at the Trump Towers on Fifth Avenue, he owned one-third of the Republican electorate by simply being Donald Trump. This is the celebrity quotient seemingly lost on the political class that at any time may come calling and is ignored at its own peril.
This one-third quotient would have been nothing but an entertaining fart in the wind if Trump were opposed by a reasonable three or four candidates divvying up the remaining 65 percent. This did not happen in 2015. A record 17 candidates emerged slicing up two, five, eight and 10 percent of the pie between them, leading to a growing narrative to those who thought Trump a goof (myself included) having a legitimate shot (something I came to realize all-too clearly in late September). And since not one of the other 16 candidates chose to confront this mathematical certainty, most stayed in the race, which made Trump’s 33 percent a solid bet.
Trump did not get a majority of the vote until his home state of New York, 34 states into the process. By then most of the field had winnowed and Trump had legs enough to break a record for the most GOP primary votes ever.
Shitty Field & The Republican Lie
Since 2009 the Republican Party, with the ardent assistance of talk radio and FOX News, rolled out the fantasy that President Barack Obama would plunge the nation into Hades. Not that he was a sub-par president, mind you, but Satan. When none of this actually happened, they decided to claim it did anyway. This narrative, wholly baseless, not unlike the left’s insane panic when Ronald Reagan became president, created a netherworld of fact-free political discourse that led to a TEA Party movement at first exploited and eventually reduced to a whole lot of nothing in Washington D.C., which predictably upset a whole lot of people.
Fast forward to the comically large Republican candidate field, which operated under another GOP lie that it would be the finest in a generation. It was not. It sucked, and people knew it, and thus “outsider” Donald Trump became the voice of the disenfranchised tired of the lie. His support was that of a defiantly powerful weapon against bullshit.
The actual shitty field was made up of wildly unpopular governors; Bobby Jindel and Chris Christie, unlikable sods with crappy records and no point to run for re-election, much less the presidency, and popular governors, Rick Perry, a dullard, who put glasses on to appear as if he were not a dullard, which made him look more like a dullard, Scott Walker, who campaigned as if he would rather have a three-way with the Clintons than run for president, and John Kasich, who never seemed to articulate what his actual point was. And finally two long-retired ex-governors, another goddamn Bush, who was merely fodder for Trump’s most effective coming out party; the burying of this pathetic era in American history, and for reasons only known to his shrink, George Pataki. Then there was Marco Rubio, a wildly unpopular senator that lived on the lie he was the Hispanic Obama, but turned out to be in way over his head, and the latest in the Paul family to be shoved aside as a libertarian kook. For fun there was Dr. Ben Carson, a mumbling neurosurgeon and religious loon, who had his 15 minutes of fame for being “nice”, thrice-failed religious loons, Santorum/Huckabee. Senator Lindsey Graham, who polled as well as me at zero percent, which made abject business failure, Carly Fiorina look good, her eventual running mate, Ted Cruz, a man who looked like the guy you would cast in a slimy politician role for your movie about corruption, and some guy named Gilmore.
Not a Jefferson in the bunch.
The Social Media Pissed-Off Two-Step
This is the social media era and Donald Trump is its demigod. He lives for the short-attention span this opiate satiates and the outlandish quip in short spurts it demands, which translates well to Twitter and cable news, the Internet for old people. Trump dominated every medium mostly made up of two things—a narcissistic obsession with self-promoting the most mundane claptrap and expressing the kind of the hate-speak no one would dare say in any measure of polite society.
Anger, whether legitimate or not, is anger. You can’t tell people they’re not angry if they’re angry, and since the electorate has been repeatedly lied to by both parties for centuries, it came to a head in a very unusual but understandable way. On the left, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tapped into the anger of progressives that feel abandoned by Obama while Trump tapped into the general anger of the lies the right has fed its base.
When people are angry they like to say outlandish things to hopefully shock the system; a collective Lenny Bruce moment when merely uttering “cocksucker” in a lounge becomes social commentary. This is why when Donald Trump said things that would not only fell normal politicians but destroy careers and reputations, it elevated his stature. He was the living embodiment of anger; an avatar for the very core of ourselves; righteous indignation. He was like the birth of punk music; crude, raw, and defiant, a middle-aged Kurt Cobain character with disdain for decorum and a hard-on for disorder.
For the first time, those who spent their days sitting at home elbow-deep in the Costco-sized Cheetos tub firing off horrifyingly hilarious vitriol under the cover of cowardice could now have a voice and a place to get nuts. Trump and Sanders provided the rhetoric and rallies to take it to the streets, and the primary voting days to file their protest. Some of this frightened those who are afraid of things like free speech and expression, but for those of us who celebrate the ugly experiment that is democracy reflecting the terrors of human nature, it was glorious times.
Trump, and to a lesser extent but no less riotous, Sanders allowed America to bear its soul, and it got real…fast.
The Boring & Sacrilegious Christ Analogy & The Vote
Trump was never really a candidate, he was a symbol. Like the symbol of Jesus of Nazareth some 2,000 years ago, the character rolling into Jerusalem and pronouncing his messianic priority, calling everything crap; the social system, the political system, the religious system, the entire thing crap. His declaration of one man replacing all of it is at once egalitarian (what we would call populist today) and fascist (a nebulous accusation of a singular proposal to return all-things to not crap) resonates. Both guys were faced with a similar push-back from those who needed to survive on the status quo. And when Jesus was executed, his point grew into this other thing entirely. What we call Christianity today is just another fulcrum for the frightened to keep reality at bay.
You think I’m nuts? Ask Ted Cruz, who said as much in his concession speech once Trump made mincemeat of the entire field. He talked about his own march being halted, but the “idea” living on, or “resurrected” in some other larger movement. Problem for Cruz is he was not the Jesus in this analogy, which was borne out by his being bested in nearly every state with evangelicals by Trump. It is Citizen Trump, the human grenade, that calls everything crap and has all the answers to make it not crap; him, alone—not a system or an ideology or even a party, just Trump. Very Christ-like. Or Mussolini-like. But I find it hard to differentiate the symbolic nature of Mussolini and Christ, but that is for another column entirely.
But, again, none of this matters without “the vote”. It was “the vote” that crushed the system and the ideology and the party, none of which could handle or understand Trump. The voters did. The anger did. The timing sure did. Every step of the way the voting came his way and it was ignored by the other candidates and the party and mostly the media, who looked at this as it looks at all things, a shiny object in which to sell ad space. None of these entities understand Trump or the fear and anger people have about a changing world they are not part of, whether socially or economically. Not that Trump can do anything about it, like the Christ thing, but it is better than the crap that is currently happening or what they believe is the crap that is happening.
The voting, not all the other stuff, kept the Trump Train on the tracks. Trump did not hijack the party as the lazy right-wing pundits and the Wall St. Journal claim; he got the votes. This is how it works. And it worked for Trump this time.
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum, whether Hitler or the Beatles. Trump is a man for his times, but he also represents our culture of flimsy factoids and fantasy narratives and that somehow being pissed-off is a solution to anything. Sometimes it is, like a bunch of British colonists unhappy about the tax/representation balance overseas, and for Trump, if he is to compete against the odds to actually be president, it had better be.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.