Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why do people like to pretend that Trump has a chance?

For the record: Donald Trump will not be the next President of the U.S. He won't even be the Republican nominee. Not this time.

Notwithstanding, plenty of reasonably respectable pundits, commentators, and observers continue to pretend that he's a credible contender. This is perhaps in part because he lives up to the caricature of the United States embraced both at home and abroad by those who really, seriously, worry about just how crazy the country is becoming. Europeans and other assorted overseas commentators love the idea of Trump -- not because they like him -- but because he is a distillation of what America has come to stand for: a somewhat absurd combination of ignorance and self-confidence, backed up by tremendous wealth, sheer bluster, and arrogant disregard for the concerns of others. He fulfills their understanding of just how disturbingly awry things have gone in the United States. This is why they believe he has a chance -- because he seems to cut through the clutter of pretension and spin to reveal the true face of what America is, what it has become, what it represents as a character on the world stage. Fair enough, that might be a good enough reason to take his campaign seriously -- after all, he is cutting through the code of politics to say what so many Republican candidates really mean. Racist right-wing populism is not a novelty in today's GOP -- it's the coin of the realm, and Trump does not have a monopoly on it. He has succeeded in portraying himself as the craziest contender in a roster of extremists -- and this should provide the likes of Ted Cruz and Scott Walker with some comfort. By contrast with Trump's bluster, the rest of the disconcertingly extreme GOP roster appears almost moderate.

There are some compelling symbolic reasons for thinking Trump might have a chance. There are also some understandable practical ones, at least from the perspective of the commercial media. Trump makes good copy in the era of 24-hour total tabloid coverage. He doesn't require much in the way of expertise to analyze, because he doesn't have any actual policies. He represents the Holy Grail of cable news and the blogface-twittersphere: the affective charge of politics without the actual work of politics. The trappings of the issues are there and he's lusciously quotable and tweetable: he makes sensationally controversial off-the-cuff remarks and then doubles down on them. Perhaps most compellingly -- and tellingly -- he doesn't give a damn. Unlike political hustlers from across the spectrum, he does not come across as desperate for the job -- on the contrary, he acts like he's doing us all a favor by bringing his brand of deal-making to the low-paid (for him) office of the Presidency. This attitude plays out as an effectively refreshing rejoinder to the coded dance of political campaigning. He promises the reality TV novelty of a "politician" saying what he actually thinks: an example of what happens, to paraphrase MTV, when the candidates stop being polite and start "getting real."

Trump's thoughts aren't particularly interesting or novel -- which is perhaps why they feel so familiar to those who like to say that he's just like them -- but he is talented at staging the spectacle of correctness-busting candor. The public response is not to his political platform (he doesn't have one), nor even to the originality of his insights (come on!), but to the role he is playing of the politician unfettered. Popular American lore reveres the nation's businessmen above its politicians and it embraces the image of the maverick, liberated from convention by dint of breathtaking wealth. In terms of cable TV entertainment, Trump is a spectacle who will continue to attract high ratings, saturation media coverage, and popular attention.

But he will not "go the distance" -- in part because he's not really interested. Undoubtedly he'd love to be President, if someone would just hand the thing to him on a platter. But he's not willing to do the work of really figuring out how to run the country (Dubya wasn't either, but he was content to play the role of figurehead). His campaign is, fundamentally, lazy -- in part, we get the impression, because Trump is sure he has better things to do with his time than to do the work of an actual politician. From a business perspective, politics is, even for the winners, a loser's game. This is what frees Trump up: unlike the pundits, he knows he's not going to win the nomination. Not a chance. But he's been given a free media card, and he's going to play it until it's time to go home. The remarkable thing about his campaign -- what differentiates it from those of us his rivals -- is just how much he's enjoying it. And why not -- this is what he does. This is better than reality TV -- he can corner the entire US News media whenever he feels like it.

After making a lot of noise about not being beholden to anyone because he's rich, it is unlikely Trump will spend heaps of his own money on a long-shot bid. But what about his claim that he would be willing to spend $400 million on his campaign if he's "doing well" (which he is, for the moment)? That would be such a bad business decision, even Trump is unlikely to make it.

You need a lot of money to get elected in this country, and there is no clear route for Trump to raise enough cash from other people to make a credible run. The establishment GOP has already chosen its money candidate -- and it's not Trump. Despite all the free media he gets, Trump is unlikely to mount a workable grass roots campaign -- it's one thing to draw crowds with the spectacle of the freedom of obscene wealth, but quite another to then ask them to open their wallets for you.

Trump will ride the free media bandwagon and the poll lead for as long as he can -- which is highly unlikely to be all the way.  He will achieve what he set out to do: increase the value of his brand. The media will give him as long a ride as they can, because he trails record-breaking ratings along the way -- and because politics without politics is so much easier and more profitable to cover than the real kind.

By this time next year, Trump will be a Giuliani-like memory of the irrational exuberance of the campaign's early days. This might sound like wishful thinking - an attempt to comfort myself in the face of the specter of a Trump Presidency -- but the truth of the matter is that the other Republican contenders are likely to pursue equally destructive and regressive policies. We would be foolish to talk ourselves into believing that with Trump's departure from the field, right-wing populist extremism will have been rejected or publicly discredited. It's gone mainstream. Trump's signal achievement will have been to have provided the media with a great excuse to do what they do best: spend their time on outrageous comments and manufactured controversies. And the pundits who spent so much time pontificating on the meaning of Trump can get to work puntificating on the meaning of his departure, not quite noticing what an empty creature of their own creation he has turned out to be.

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