To call Donald Trump controversial seems a little soft. Like calling Adolf Hitler irritating.
Obviously Trump is controversial and maniacal, a populist, a nationalist, and an Islamaphobe. He’s brash, arrogant, and can suck the air out of an any room. And he’s currently the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president.
He’s also a pioneer — as the first reality TV show, “shock jock” presidential candidate.
Trump’s spiritual descendants aren’t Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, they’re Joe Pyne and Morton Downey Jr. Pyne was the original right-wing talk show host. He once told the head of the U.S. Communist Party to “go gargle with razor blades.”
Downey, who surprisingly was a childhood friend of the Kennedy clan (his father was a popular singer-songwriter, nicknamed the Irish Nightingale), re-packaged himself as a right-wing talk show host back in the 1980’s when his own singing career hit a brick wall. For youngsters who don’t remember Mort, one of his signature bits was blowing cigarette smoke into the face of a hapless guest. When Downey went on a road tour, an old girlfriend and I caught his act live. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy as Downey got into the face of his guest — a young, long-haired peace activist — screaming, and practically foaming at the mouth. The Salem witch trials must have been something like this.
When Trump speaks today he channels Downey, morning shock jocks like Howard Stern and right-wing demagogues like Rush Limbaugh. It’s all there: he comforts his audience with simple answers buttressed by generalities, entertains with stories, glib one-liners, putdowns of his political enemies, and even does impersonations (although Trump got into some trouble for that). He even has a fixation with women’s looks, a staple of the so-called “morning zoo” shows that were pioneered by Stern and Don Imus.
He also comes from a reality TV background, which is television, but hardly reality. Many know Trump, not as a multi-millionaire, but the guy who says, “You’re fired” on the TV show, The Apprentice. Pollster Nate Silver, who has correctly predicted many recent elections, doesn’t know what to make of Trump supporters. They’re not mainstream Republican or even mainstream Tea Party; Silver questioned on his blog whether Trump supporters will even vote. Perhaps, Honey Boo Boo, the gal from Jersey Shore or the Kardashians (although they may be Democrats) would have the same polling numbers as The Donald.
It’s not surprising, that some question whether Trump REALLY believes what he says. His campaign could just be a documentary he’s making, or maybe he saw Clint Eastwood embarrass the Republicans for one night by talking to a chair and he figured he’d embarrass them for six months. Maybe he’s the guy who decided to run as a joke and people started to take him seriously.
I suspect Trump believes much of what he says. But remember, exaggeration and hyperbole are part of the act: instead of a nuanced discussion of immigration, just tell people the Muslims are coming to kill everybody. But Trump doesn’t always believe in things that strongly. He changes his mind a lot and doesn’t follow the Republican, or Tea Party, playbook religiously.
Republicans do have a Trump problem. He can’t really win the election, although most likely no Republican will win. That’s what happens when you have a party that’s adopted the attitude, “If you’re not a supporter of the Tea Party, get the hell out of the Republican Party.” And certainly Trump would receive less attention if the party had more qualified candidates.
As someone who’s written about and followed politics for several years, Trump winning the Presidency would go against everything I know about politics. Then again, it goes against everything my mother told me when I started the first grade, “If you’re loud, insult people, and think you’re better than anyone else, no one will like you.”
In Trump’s case, about 30% to 40% of a political party that represents 30% to 40% percent of the country, like him (and those are charitable numbers). But while it’s one thing for the front-runner to get beat up in debates, it’s unprecedented that both the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have both come out against Trump.
There are those cynics who claim that if America elected the star of Bedtime For Bonzo president they‘d vote for Trump. Again for the young people: back when Ronald Reagan was hawking General Electric products on the old Death Valley Days TV show, influential Republicans saw Reagan as an effective spokesperson to push their agenda — mostly fewer taxes for rich people. Reagan went on to become Governor of California for eight years where he continue to court Republican leaders until he became the embodiment of the establishment.
The candidate Trump most resembles is former Nixon speechwriter and talk-show host Pat Buchanan. You have to be a political junkie to remember that Buchanan won the 1996 New Hampshire primary at 26% – Trump’s projected to score about 32%. Buchanan’s nationalistic rantings were tame compared to Trump but the Party bosses didn’t want him. Several other candidates dropped out of the race after NH and the party united solidly behind Bob Dole.
Who’s this year’s Dole? The influential Manchester Union Leader is pushing hard for Chris Christie but in America’s heartland, Ted Cruz just passed Trump in polling for the Iowa caucus. Can anyone establish themselves as a Republican front-runner?
No doubt, Trump has served a role for the Republicans. Back in 2012, there was a buzz about the Democratic convention – “Michelle’s talking tonight. Hillary’s tomorrow” — must-see TV. Nobody cared about the Republican convention. Now, Trump gives the party some star power, and their own celebrity.
But the Donald at the top of the ticket? Look at this way – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be thrilled. So would ISIS. He’s their best recruiter.