Explaining Donald Trump
by Knute Berger
Donald Trump Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
Donald Trump, GOP frontrunner for 2012, is a tacky, self-serving creep addicted to gazing in the mirror of public attention. So what? If he’s warped, he’s warped in a way that represents a dark and highly productive side of the American psyche.
You wouldn’t think anyone would take him seriously, certainly not as a populist. He’s attached himself to the rump of the Tea Party like a tick, despite the fact that he’s preached the exploitation of the angry, alienated, recession-crushed voter he purports to champion.
In 2007, Trump’s team swept into Seattle touting “Trump University” (an oxymoron?). In an ad in the Seattle P-I, Trump stated: “If you’re not a millionaire by December 2008, you didn’t attend my foreclosure workshop.”
Needless to say, I skipped it. But it says lot about Trump that where the rest of us saw misery in economic collapse, he saw an opportunity to exploit suffering by teaching you how to screw your neighbor (Screw thy Neighbor — which commandment is that?). As I wrote at the time, this whole approach was like watching a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” where the evil Mr. Potter wins.
Modern populism is full of such contradictions. Lou Dobbs is a millionaire, Ross Perot is an anti-government billionaire who made his pile off of government contracts. “The Donald” is populist because he’s popular, on TV, ubiquitous. That he spouts babble is beside the point. He’s also popular because he’s willing to lead the lynchin’ party for the Birthers and the pitchfork folks still angry about “the blacks” and affirmative action.
You might not love that guy, but you certainly know that guy, because as loathsome as he might be to people of gentle sensibilities, he is the guy that makes this country go. This became clear to me back when his show “The Apprentice” was launched. I discovered one day that a friend of mine loved the show. I was dumbfounded. Why? Because, he said, this is my world. As a sales manager, he thought this was reality TV at its finest.
“The Apprentice” is the sales world writ large. The crudity, the brutality, the banality, the dog-eat-dog competition: This is what virtually every sales force in the country experiences every day. They might not work for someone as egotistical as The Donald, or as rich — or they might work for someone way, way worse. A few try and keep it classy, but that rarely lasts these days. American business thrives on the warriors who compete for dollars and contracts and do the dirty work the guys like me don’t have (or want) to think too much about.
The grubbing for money, status, bonuses, and recognition is all about the dollar signs. Your compensation: It’s in your own hands. Want your commissions? Get moving. Remember: The money in their pockets is yours, and you need to remind them to hand it over to you, now. Even if they loathe Trump and his ilk, the salespeople of America know him well. They’ve felt his foot on their necks.
So have we all. America doesn’t make much anymore, but we do know how to sell. The creative class? It’s mostly about hype, brand, “added value.” But it works: We have to compete by selling. Trump is both the ultimate salesman and the ultimate archetype of salesman. A gilded “world class” archetype, I might add. He’s what makes the economy run, he is where our global edge lies. Well, that and innovation. But true innovation is so rare and so hard. Easier to sell that old Chevy already on the lot.
Trump is the pied piper of bullshitters, leading them to the promised land where they can apprentice under him and learn how to succeed in business by crushing the family or nation next door, who, by the way, you don’t know or care about anyway — and besides, they’d do it to you if they could. If it’s kill or be killed, let’s be a nation of killer salesmen.
One of the appeals of selling, for many, is its simplicity. Success is determined by numbers preceded by a dollar sign. Good or bad is objective, measurable, there for all to see. Selling is the American game and embodies pure meritocracy. “Third prize is: You’re fired!”
Why not run the country that way?
Trump is a creep, but he’s a logical candidate for our times.