There’s no mystery to the roll he has going. I mean, unless you haven’t been paying attention to the last twenty four years. Because from the moment Bill Clinton broke out his sax on the Arsenio Hall Show, politics as we knew it went the way of Nixon’s sweaty eyebrows.
There are plenty of folks who believe the 1960 Presidential Debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon changed the way political campaigns were run. Television viewers watched as a pale and sickly Nixon stumbled and mumbled, basically gift wrapping the debate for the telegenic Senator from Massachusetts. It’s a simplistic opinion, not to mention wrong. While Nixon did himself no favors with that Boris Karloff act, it wasn’t beauty that killed the beast in 1960. Kennedy simply ran a campaign that touched the nerve of a country ready for change. Kennedy ran the offensive by presenting voters with an updated patriotism which didn’t involve rubber stamp approval of the same old business model, while Nixon played prevent defense by railing on about the inherent risks. The country decided the reward was worth the risk, and Camelot was born.
In 1992, Clinton set the stage for every political campaign since. He harnessed the power of television, and he mastered the medium like no candidate had dreamed of doing to that point in time. Clinton waged war on the establishment thirty seconds at a time, traversing the theater of political war with surgical precision. There is a perception of accessibility that television engenders and Clinton pitched a perfect game when it came to this. The young felt empowered, the middle aged born again. Game. Set. Match.
Barack Obama introduced us to branding. His message of hope and change possessed all of the qualities of an IPO. Potential voters were akin to stockholders, buying the promise of an outrageously attractive investment opportunity whose volatility, they believed, was worth the risk. The symmetry of his social media campaign merging with blanket television coverage inspired an army of previously disenfranchised followers. It was as if John McCain was attempting to win the Daytona 500 with a 1975 Gremlin.
Enter Donald Trump. Last summer, the very idea that he might stick around for Iowa seemed as likely as the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl. His run was satirical, his political epitaph was written before Labor Day. And then a funny thing happened. The angry snowball became an avalanche and a Trump campaign built largely on gold wings and million dollar prayers became something very different. And while many pretend this away as nothing more than an anomaly, this ignores the very real prospect that Trump can win this thing. Not just Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Super Tuesday, but the nomination. And not just the nomination but- gasp!- the White House.
Laugh. Call it a mysterious blip on the political radar. But to do so is to ignore what Trump has accomplished over the last few months. Think about it. He effectively canceled out Jeb Bush- a two term reform governor whose last name owned a Presidential mailing address for twelve years. And while Bush fatigue might have canceled him out anyway, the manner in which Trump neutered Jeb cannot be overlooked. Brash, rude and pompous? Yeah. But also methodical.
Such is the lampoon of a Trump candidacy, that few- yours truly included– stopped to consider the business he was conducting. Through all the bluster, he became bullet proof. Through all the bullying, he redirected himself into the victim. His followers believe he is the antidote to business as usual politics. His middle fingered salute at the establishment is their anthem. Where Clinton promised access and Obama promised a larger investment, Trump filled loyalists with the idea that they had a guy on the inside.
It is Trump’s greatest coup, to entrench himself in a populism that runs counter to his bank account. He has successfully presented himself as the every man who will tear things down and start over. He is the master of grandiose proclamations- He’ll build a wall, send every illegal immigrant home, bomb the bad guys to hell, solve the debt crisis and he will do all this before the close of business. Easy. Never mind that he provides few details as to how he plans on going about the business of “Making America great again”. His promises are legitimized by the fact that his followers see him as a winner, and if you don’t think that can create the kind of carry over effect we have witnessed over the last few months, then you probably forget our national fascination with a train wreck by the name of Charlie Sheen.
Trump can do no wrong. He can say things that would prove political suicide to his opponents. He can deviate from the expected just because he feels like it. He can thumb his nose at the rules. And he can get away with it because he’s not one of them, he’s one of us. That’s the narrative his campaign has carved, stained, polished and buffed into a science fiction possibility. The idea of a President Trump is no longer an urban legend, it is a very real possibility.
If he loses? He still wins. Because his is the Rocky story- if Rocky was a billionaire. He wasn’t supposed to get this far. He took the GOP to the fifteenth round, and they sure as hell do not want a rematch. And if he wins?
Get ready for the West Wing Television Network, because it’ll be a thing.