"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." -- H.L. Mencken
Orange County Housewives, the Kardashians, Ross Perot, George Wallace: Where does Donald Trump, incredibly a presidential candidate, fall in this constellation? And what does his candidacy say about media and ourselves?
Trump, 69. Real-estate investor, entertainment entrepreneur, TV series star, endorser of commercial products and survivor of multiple high-profile romances and marriages, has been seeking public attention for several decades. The King of Crass -- or at least crown prince after the Kardashian family.
But now, suddenly, he is all over the media making polarizing and offensive statements about people and issues and getting a respectable percentage in polling matchups among Republican presidential candidates.
Trump recently outraged Latinos with demeaning references toward them. He then declared Jeb Bush's wife "an illegal Mexican," prompting on angry fireback by Bush. He scorns U.S. political leaders of both parties as being weak in dealing with other countries, typically comparing relations between countries to dealmaking negotiations in the private sector. When conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who is wheelchair bound, criticized Trump, The Donald responded with reference to Krauthammer's handicap.
Got a problem with Mexico, Putin, China or Iran? He'd bring them around, Trump says, by threatening them with U.S. economic, financial and military power. The Donald would have them at his feet in no time.
A long line of political figures have made short-term hay by appealing to reactionary, Know Nothing instincts in the electorate. Where Trump differs from most of the others is that he does not come from the political community per se and is not riding any single issue but is capitalizing on general populist anger against major public and private institutions.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace made angry anti-establishment statements but, at the core, his 1968 and 1972 candidacies were about race. Trump bears most recent resemblance to Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, who led both President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992 polling matchups until a series of pratfalls took him out of the running. Even so, Perot ended up with 19 percent of the popular vote -- mainly taken from Bush -- and could be credited with Clinton's eventual election victory. Perot's early success came from a more focused message than Trump's, however. The federal budget deficit was his principal issue, as it would later be that of 2010 Tea Party candidates, and he did not wander all over the political and cultural map, hitting targets of opportunity as they arose.
Trump is one of those guys who will say out loud what you normally don't hear until closing time in neighborhood bars when angry ethnic, racial, class and other resentments surface and are verbalized.
Why does he command such attention?
Trump has spent his adult lifetime learning how to get media attention. If you are flamboyant enough, say controversial things, and are shamelessly self-promoting, you can find a niche in celebrity culture. You don't need to be informed or tell the truth. You just have to command an audience, which, in turn, becomes a revenue generator for media.
Thus Trump is called upon to make comments on financial, economic, political and social issues of which he knows little. But media give him exposure because they knew he will attract an audience.
How will he do in the presidential race?
Trump's present poll ratings reflect little more than raw name recognition in a crowded Republican field still unfamiliar to many voters. But he has no chance to last as long as a Wallace or Perot. Others in the contest, following Jeb Bush's suit, will nail him for insults and misstatements. Libertarian Rand Paul has recently done so as well.
Media are poised to bring Trump down, just as they helped him rise. Just in the past few days, stories have broken regarding Trump's hiring of illegal immigrants in his own projects and his generally harsh treatment of employees. Trump is rich but thus far has failed to make a promised full financial disclosure. This probably is because he is not the billionaire he claims to be — mainly operating with borrowed money — and perhaps not the generous charitable benefactor he also claims to be.
There are a million Trump stories.
One I heard personally came from a well-known male film star. The star, in New York, received a phone call from another Hollywood actor. Donald Trump, his friend said, had offered to fly them by helicopter to Atlantic City to see a championship boxing match at his casino. How about it?
So the two actors took the helicopter ride, arrived at the casino, and were ushered to a private elevator, which took them to an upstairs ballroom. The ballroom was empty except for a single table at its center. The stars were seated there and served drinks. Maybe 10 minutes passed. Suddenly Trump materialized. He stood behind the movie guys, smiled and placed a hand on each of their shoulders.
Cameras appeared to document the moment. Then Trump left, never having spoken a word, and the Hollywood pair were taken back to the elevator and given fight tickets. A week later, on a TV show, the visual image appeared and Trump spoke of his long and close friendship with the stars — neither of whom, the story goes, had previously laid eyes on him.
Trump has performed at least one service for us: He has made American more crass conscious. But there is a sad part to his story. This guy, on substance, is not worth any serious person's time. Yet he has received non-stop media exposure and, now, is befouling by his irresponsible presence a serious national debate about our American future.
This weekend in Phoenix, Trump will address a huge rally, sponsored by the local Republican organization. But it may well be the last party-sponsored rally he will headline. National Republican leaders have publicly called on him to temper his rhetoric. They recognize the damage he is doing to the party brand.
NBC, Macy's, ESPN and the PGA have severed their relationships with him, fearing he will poison their brands as well. As the old vaudevillians used to say: He belongs on the stage — the first one out of town.