“Well, if I ever ran for office, I’d do better as a Democrat than as a Republican – and that’s not because I’d be more liberal, because I’m conservative. But the working guy would elect me. He likes me. When I walk down the street, those cabbies start yelling out their windows.”—Playboy, March 1990
Hot on the heels of the Obama personality phenomenon came one that redefined “cult of personality” on a scale few could have anticipated. Whatever opinion you may hold of Trump, he played America and its political system like an old violin. Before the primaries, nobody would have bet on him gaining the nomination. But everyone was used to candidates playing by the rules. Delve into Trump’s business dealings over the previous three decades and you realise that, to him, there ARE no rules.
Trump has always been a law unto himself, moves through a world of his own creation that a stash of billions helped form and sustain. In business dealings, he found glitz and chutzpah opened many doors in New York and learned early that honesty and integrity were disadvantages that hindered progress and—more importantly—could be dispensed with by the application of money and good lawyers. His profitable exit from the Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey, leaving partners and contractors holding massive losses is the stuff of law school lectures.
The application of this approach to gaining the Presidency caught the stuffy patricians of the Republican party off-guard, and his appeal to normally Democrat blue-collar voters flat-footed the Clinton campaign with slogans like “Make America Great Again”.
Such ostentation of wealth and boastful hubris should have led to an ignominious prattall and humiliation. But the “Emperor’s Clothes” phenomenon seems to have kicked in. By sensing the need—always strong in middle ad working-class Americans—for their country, and by extension themselves, to stand tall, Trump was able to don the clothes of reviving American greatness that Reagan used to great effect to heal the scars and despair of Vietnam.
Though hardly credible to any objective observer, he presented himself as one of the people, a fellow campaigner against the remote bureaucrats of Washington, who were guilty of letting America slide in the world, be overrun by immigrants, have their pioneering technologies stolen by Asian upstarts. It came out of the playbook of right-wing demagogues from Attila to Zarathustra: create an internal enemy that threatens the way of life (Democrat = socialist) and create external enemies who threaten the country itself (Latino immigrants and upstart Asians). It was cheap and tawdry, but that had never bothered Trump and plugged right into the fears of the millions of Americans who had hardly left their state, let alone owned a passport to find out the truth.
By dismissing serious reporting as “fake news”, by seizing social media to bypass traditional media, by spreading rumours of electoral malfeasance well ahead of time and galvamising a tribe who stormed the Capital to overturn his defeat, Trump rode the tiger of his own creation. And, so overwhelmed were many Republicans by this, that they saw only the populism and its electoral power. Trump became a party in his own right, daring Republicans to ignore his wide support and flat-footing both Biden and the Democrats, who still think only in terms of legal procedure.
He may be out of the White House, but the final chapter of Trump’s political saga has yet to be written.