The Insufferable, but Occasionally Right, Donald Trump
Many observers of U.S. politics believe that American voters search for traits in the next president they find lacking in the current model. If that’s true, we haven’t yet figured how to handle the problem of presidents’ runaway egos.
Partly it’s a function of modern campaigning: successful candidates speak every week for nearly two years—sometimes several times a day—with stump addresses consisting of two main elements: (a) how great they are; (b) how terrible their opponents are. If a friend acted like this, you’d do an intervention. But we applaud such behavior in our politicians. By the time they move into the White House, it’s not a pretty picture.
Bill Clinton’s sense of self-worth was so elevated that he testified under oath that when an unpaid intern serviced him in the Oval Office, she was having sex but he wasn’t. George W. Bush—in a convention speech, no less—imitated his own simian-like strut on stage while quipping that in Texas this was called “walking.” Barack Obama is so enamored of his own image that he takes selfies at funerals and retroactively inserts himself to White House website bios of previous presidents.
Yet when it comes to sheer ego, the latest entry into the 2016 presidential field makes our last three chief executives look like camera-shy Buddhist monks who’ve taken vows of silence. Donald J. Trump, in his Tuesday presidential announcement and subsequent interviews, embarked on an orgy of preening, boasting, and narcissism nearly impossible to parody.
Riding the escalator from his penthouse office in—where else?—the Trump Tower, The Donald hired actors to inflate the crowd and threw away his prepared text, winging it in a stream-of-consciousness speech in which he portrayed himself up as a national savior who could outperform all previous U.S. presidents.
“Sadly, the American dream is dead,” he proclaimed. “But if I become president I will bring it back—bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”
He talked this way for 45 minutes, seamlessly, if not coherently, in a message that can be paraphrased thusly: I’m richer than the other people running for president, and therefore smarter, and can use my superior intellect to solve all the world’s problems.
A worldview that simplistic can make one sound like a simpleton, and Trump obliged, inserted himself, Forrest Gump-like, into the historical narrative of geopolitics. “Islamic terrorism is eating large portions of the Mideast,” he said. “They’ve become rich. I’m in competition with them.”
“Free trade is terrible,” he added. “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have stupid people.” At times, you wished for his own sake that Trump had an internal fact-checker, perhaps hidden in that famous hair, who could stop him from saying things like “When did we beat Japan at anything?” or “There are no jobs.”
When not bashing Japan and China, he bashed Mexico. Sometimes he did it with one swipe. “Mexico is the new China,” he said. Riffing on the Great Wall of China, he added: “I would build a great wall. And nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. And I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Trump also expressed personal animus for Mexican immigrants. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
It could have been funny except for the 19th century-style nativism—racism is rarely humorous—but it had an eerie quality to it, as if you were watching a little boy in a man’s body just blurt out any random thought that came into his head. Or watching a dark Hollywood version of “Batman” and this was a guy running for mayor of Gotham. Speaking in an exaggerated New York patois, he called the other presidential candidates “stupid” and “losers,” while boasting like a 4-year-old, “I am very rich.”
“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” he added.
As one might expect, the stupid losers in the Fourth Estate had fun with this stuff.
The New York Daily News superimposed a fake red nose and circus makeup over Trump’s face with the cover line “CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ.”
National Review, a normally high-brow conservative magazine, was nudged out of its lane by Trump. “Witless Ape Rides Escalator,” hummed its headline. “All Dollars No Sense,” opined another conservative outlet, The Federalist.
USA Today columnist Windsor Mann noted puckishly that the Trump boast about being the best jobs-creating president God ever made was actually a rare expression of humility. “Trump seems to believe that God created him,” Mann deadpanned, “and not the other way around.”
Who can resist such an easy target? The answer turned out to be MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a performance artist himself, who explained Trump’s appeal—and possible impact on the 2016 presidential race. “If he's on the debate stage,” Scarborough said, “and he turns to Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush and hits them with something, not mean-spirited, but searing and truthful that nobody else in polite political society would say, it can shape a race.”
Scarborough’s prediction may have come true instantly, even before the first debate. As he mentioned on “Morning Joe,” one of the organizations bashing Trump was the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Last week, it issued a dismissive press release saying it wouldn’t bother to issue a white paper on his policies because Trump is “not a serious Republican candidate.”
But as Trump revealed Thursday, the Club for Growth had recently hit him up in writing—and in person—for a $1 million contribution, which he declined to give. Was this a pay-for-play offer, as Trump hinted, or just business as usual in the nation’s capital? Either way, Trump wins.
“The Club for Growth is the worst of the two-faced hypocrisy of Washington,” said Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “This unfortunate incident is representative of the corruption that persists in Washington, D.C., and politics in general, in the United States.”
That’s a message that might sell.