Do you remember Hope and Change? I remember it back in 2008 when Barack Obama was running for President. You could feel the positive energy all the way over here in Australia, as Obama swiftly became a political celebrity of the highest order.
Unfortunately the Hope faded and the Change turned out to be of the plus c’est la même chose variety. Now a significant proportion of Americans appear to be turning their backs on run-of-the-mill politicians, with unexpected numbers in the Republican primaries supporting Donald Trump.
Americans on both sides of the traditional political divide have woken up to the terrifying possibility that Trump might stand a chance of actually winning – both the nomination and, depending on your point of view, the Presidency.
The situation is desperate enough that Mitt Romney came out last week in a scathing attack on Trump’s character, labelling him a fraud and a phoney. Trump’s supporters have hit back at the former Republican Presidential candidate, pointing out that Romney was all too eager to accept Trump’s endorsement back in 2012.
What makes Trump so dangerous is that many Americans are tired of the old political game. Obama won on the back of popular optimism and a string of promises that even sympathetic observers now describe as “unrealized”, registering deep disappointment over issues such as drone strikes, mass surveillance, and Guantanamo Bay. Nonetheless, his election set a high-water mark of political enthusiasm. As Ross Douthat argued recently in the New York Times:
“the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar…
now we have the nearly-inevitable next step: presidential politics as a season of “Survivor” or, well, “The Apprentice,” with the same celebrity factor as Obama’s ’08 run, but with his campaign’s high-middlebrow pretensions stripped away.”
These are the options presented to the American voters: they can step down from Obama to some bland, same-old, same-old political professional, or they can instead embrace another demagogue, a leader of the common people who arouses their emotions and, perhaps, their prejudices.
This appears to be the twofold appeal of Donald Trump. First, he speaks to many of the deeper fears and concerns of ordinary Americans. Second, he promises to bring his personal success – or at least the appearance of personal success – to bear on America as a whole. Trump made his own brand a household name; imagine what he could do with brand-USA!
As a celebrity and a businessman, Trump brings an unfair advantage to a political game in which his opponents are conventional, even one-dimensional. Trump may well be a caricature in the public eye, but his presence is multi-layered, informed by decades of marketing and publicity across multiple areas of public life.
Imagine if Oprah Winfrey were running for President, and the nature of the advantage becomes clear. Trump may not be as likeable, but he doesn’t have to beat Oprah, he only has to beat a few interchangeable, significantly younger career politicians who are best known to the public at large for their role in the current Presidential primaries.
How galling it must be for Trump’s rivals to have played the political game so carefully, to have plotted and planned not to mention polled every aspect of their campaign, only to be stomped underfoot by a guy who would be easy to dismiss as ostentatious, narcissistic, boorish, crude, or any other of a dozen nasty epithets if only he wasn’t winning!
That’s not to say that Trump will be a better President than his opponents, or that he has a good chance of beating Clinton. It may well be that his policies such as they are would prove catastrophic for the country. Or perhaps they would falter against real-world obstacles much like Obama’s failed promise to close Guantanamo. Or perhaps, again, they are being touted even now by Trump as more of a sales pitch or statement of values than literal promises.
Trump remains divisive and unpredictable, which is probably just how he likes it. Even the man’s name invokes the full range of controversy: the word trump meaning either “surpass or beat”, from triumph, or “fabricate, devise, deceive or cheat”, from the French verb tromper for blowing a trumpet:
“to play the horn, alluding to quacks and mountebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying.”
Is the man America’s trump card or merely trumped up? Is he set to triumph, or is he just blowing his own horn? Either way, even in something as arcane as etymology, The Donald is gratuitous. Meanwhile poor old Clinton can only tell us that her husband’s ancestors hail from Glympton.
Can you imagine a showdown between the over-the-top caricature of the bullying businessman and the equally divisive Hillary, a candidate who all but exemplifies the safe political establishment? It will surely be a battle of epic proportions…though if you don’t mind, I’ll watch it from the safe distance of Australia.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com