If one were to design from scratch the perfect presidential candidate – that’s perfect candidate, not perfect officeholder – for today’s political and media environment, he would look and sound a lot like Donald Trump: arrogant, superficial, supremely proud, confident that he can overwhelm any obstacle and yet immature.
Because Trump will be Trump, no matter the deserved derision heaped upon him, the early success of his bizarre presidential campaign says more about us than about him.
Ten years ago, or 50 or 100, Trump would have fizzled out after a week. But the helium supplied by today’s volatile mix of a persistently ravenous 24-hour news cycle, Trump’s protective personal fortune and our deep national anger and angst keeps his balloon aloft.
People who did not listen to all of Trump’s Friday rally in Mobile, Ala., should look it up. It mimics the worst reality television show ever conceived, a terrifying demonstration of ego, superficiality and mindless improvisation.
He suffers from the delusion that the instincts, talent and reflexes needed to earn an immense fortune in business make him expert in all things. His conviction on that point is so deep:
▪ That he scoffs at the idea of needing advice on any matter.
▪ That he cannot distinguish between instinctive ideas in his head (which anyone can have) and workable policy (which requires thoughtfulness and experience).
▪ That he thinks the personal immunity his fortune provides from the consequences of his nativism and misogyny is transferable to him as leader of the free world.
▪ And that he thinks, most recklessly, he can “make America great again” by bullying and/or ignoring the rest of the world.
What explains how such a deeply flawed persona can continue to dominate the political stage?
Start with a 24-hour news cycle that demands more of journalistic organizations than they are willing to pay for, resulting in the easiest-to-get, most-superficial reports. Trump’s always available for “exclusive” interviews and needn’t think beyond sound bites, because most journalists don’t know how or are unwilling to challenge his bluster and transparency; just grab a hot quote and loop it throughout the cycle until he drops the next one into your lap.
Add to that many Americans’ frustration with the political process and their anger over economic dislocation and social dysfunction. Trump’s bombast plays perfectly into their emotions, deceiving them into thinking that he has answers when all he has is fairy dust.
Together those factors create an environment receptive to the reflexive demagoguery that is Trump’s specialty. He’ll continue to lead so long as he need not move beyond declaring what he intends to do (deport immediately 12 million immigrants, make Mexico pay for an impenetrable border wall, rewrite the 14th Amendment), to detailing how he would do it and explaining why it would not be disastrous for the U.S. economy.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, himself a candidate, opined on Trump’s long-term prospects, “Ultimately, I think people are going to want grown-up government.”
But that desire for grown-up leadership can be realized only after people temporarily hypnotized by Trump’s personal bling and empty promises remember that a presidential campaign is not another television reality show for escapist entertainment or a cost-free way to have their real and imagined frustrations acknowledged and massaged.
People deliberately adrift from the realities of a complex world and willing to give supersalesman Trump a free pass are not grown-up enough to demand or deserve grown-up leadership.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.