His critics have called him anything from a performance artist, an executioner to America’s insult comic-in-chief. Designed to derail his presidential campaign, comments such as these have only emboldened Donald Trump’s increasingly certain bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The truth is that Trump is a performance artist. He is an executioner. And for the most part, he does treat the campaign trail as a stage for his foul-mouthed comedic routine.
Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t perfectly good explanations for Trump’s unlikely success thus far. It’s been noted that Trump is seen as a beacon of hope for the many Americans on the right who’ve suffered through more than half a decade of economic uncertainty and cultural anxiety. Part of this has undoubtedly to do with Republican Party alarmism and fearmongering. But this doesn’t discount the fact that the lives of millions of Americans — on both sides of the political spectrum — have gotten demonstrably worse in the past several years. Millions more feel alienated from the political process and used by establishment politicians who don’t seem to care about anything other than their own best interests. During such uncertain times, populist leaders have always stood out from the pack.
At the same time though, much of what’s happened this election season has also been difficult to explain. Had any political commentator predicted 12 months ago that Trump would be the most likely candidate to take the GOP nomination, their credibility would have been seriously questioned. When I spoke to experienced watchers of US politics in July last year, the prospect that Trump would seriously challenge the likes of Bush, Rubio and Walker was promptly laughed off. Who’s laughing now?
So what, besides the obvious, can explain Trump’s continued popularity?
In a now long forgotten essay, “Elections as ritual drama,” US political scientist Dan Nimmo claimed that successful presidential campaigns have a habit of mimicking certain theatrical traits and tropes found more often in the dramatic arts than in electoral politicking.
Elections being popularity contests, Nimmo argued, there’s nothing more important than keeping the people entertained. Candidates who manage to successfully portray themselves as the “hero” and their opponents as “villains” or “fools” not only win a following, they win crucial votes.
It’s clear that Trump is an extraordinary political entertainer. As James Wolcott observed in a Vanity Fair column: “Watch Trump on the televised stump or during debates with the sound off (your blood pressure will thank you) and observe how he grips the lectern, employing a battery of shrugs, hand jive, and staccato phrase blurts — it’s like being teleported back to an old Dean Martin roast, those medieval days of yore when Foster Brooks hiccupped through his drunk act, Phyllis Diller cackled, or Orson Welles shook from underground rumbles of Falstaffian mirth.”
Yet there’s also something about what Trump’s been doing that goes beyond what these actors from the days of yore did so well. And as much as Nimmo’s article begins to point us in the right direction, we mustn’t forget thatTrump is a distinctly 21st century actor in what’s turning out to be a distinctly 21st century election.
Rick Tyler, communications director for Ted Cruz, perhaps hit the nail on the head when, leading up to the New Hampshire primary, he tweeted that Trump is “turning the campaign into the latest episode of a reality show.”
For Time magazine columnist Katie Reilly, this is precisely what Trump is doing. The long-time star of his ownreality TV drama “The Apprentice” now has his sights set on the “Reality TV Primary” that’s so far turning outto be “2016’s top-rated show.”
Quick to cash in the ratings win, television producers and networks have only added fuel to the reality fire by airing The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. The “documentary” as it’s been called, which aired on Showtime back on January 17, promises to pull back “the curtain on the 2016 presidential race, revealing the intense, inspiring and infuriating stories behind the headlines. Key characters and events from the individual campaigns are presented in real time, as they are happening.”
For John Heilemann, one of three journalists who shadows the campaign in the series, this election is thick with drama, comedy and pathos. The “high human drama and sometimes the high human comedy of what it takes to try to win the nation’s highest office” fascinates people. It’s what people want to see.
For those not already worried, this is your cue to start.
Writing in The New York Times several years ago, columnist Rob Walker made the very astute observation thatreality shows “are more or less attempts to recreate the core narrative of electoral politics: a bunch of candidates competing and being eliminated until a solitary winner is chosen, by most votes, with a lot of dramatic tension, narrative richness and exciting plot twists along the way.”
Those still tempted to write Trump off should think on this — because what he lacks as a statesman, he more than makes up for as a first-rate reality entertainer. That’s the side of him people are increasingly clambering to see.
All of a sudden, it’s making a lot more sense why the firebrand billionaire businessman from New York continues to lead the GOP race.