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Trump's sideshow: Smoke, mirrors, pomp and circus tents

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Trump's sideshow: Smoke, mirrors, pomp and circus tents

Stephen H. Provost

I try not to wade too deeply into the snark-infested waters of political commentary - partly because they're so badly polluted and partly because I'm afraid I'll just add to the snark.

Too many politicians are unscrupulous narcissists  who throw out promises like they're beads at Mardi Gras, hoping we'll expose ourselves so they can get a cheap thrill out of it. For us, the thrill isn't quite so cheap. The quid pro quo for those broken-beaded promises usually amounts to campaign contributions and votes (but mostly campaign contributions).

Which brings us to Donald Trump. 

Unscrupulous? Repeated bankruptcies and more flip-flopping on the issues than your average bear, donkey, elephant or RINO. (Now a Republican, he not so long ago supported gun-control, said he believed in "universal health care" and was even a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009.)

Narcissist?  Hey, I don't trust anyone who talks about himself in the third person and brags about how he's supposedly a magnet for female attention. (He not only said he'd date his own daughter if they weren't related, he also claimed that every woman who appeared on his TV show "The Apprentice" flirted with him, "consciously or unconsciously.")

But this isn't a piece about the seedy side of politics or even about that guy who has the audacity to call himself "The Donald." It's about us.

What do we, the electorate, see in this guy?

When asked what they like about Trump, people repeat the same thing time and again. It's his bluntness. His directness. His supposed willingness to "tell it like it is," polls and political correctness be damned.

Getting away with it

I suspect it all comes down to this: Many of the people who like Trump wish they could say the things he does and get away with it. Some of them would love to demean women, dismiss their critics as a bunch of morons and build a wall to keep anyone "not like me" on the other side of everywhere. 

Trump's supporters revel in the fact that he can get away with things they'd never dream of trying. Because he's rich. Because he's famous. Because he feels like it. But here's the irony: They're the ones who allow him to get away with it by refusing to ever call him on his you-know-what. It doesn't matter how often he flip-flops, how many people he mocks and scorns or even why he's disrespecting them. It barely even matters what he says at all. What matters is that he can say it. 

Whatever "it" is. And that's the scary part.

Litmus tests

Anyone who knows me knows I hate political checklists, litmus tests and interest group ratings, whether they're issued by the NRA or the NAACP. They're the swords of Damocles that political "purists" hold over the modern candidate's head.  Politicians - and voters - who dare to defy them by thinking for themselves are thrown under the bus routinely because they don't toe the party line, an attitude that's helped create the severe polarization seen in government today.

The political highway is littered with the wreckage of candidates who crashed and burned because they didn't toe the party line. The slightest deviation from the accepted platform is greeted by impassioned calls off "Off with their heads!" - after which donations typically slow, campaigns struggle and candidacies flame out.

Not so with Trump, a tycoon who acts like he doesn't need to placate donors because he can fund a campaign using his personal fortune ... even though he's actually accepted millions of dollars in donations. Regardless of how much cash he's raking in, he perpetuates the idea that he "can't be bought," and with it the  impression that he can say whatever  he wants without any consequences.

Cult of personality

Voters are attracted to rich candidates because they're supposedly not "beholden to special interests." These "mavericks" seem like a breath of fresh air in an age of litmus tests and political dogmatism. Buy do they really change the status quo?

Hardly.

The modern climate of rigid political doctrine (groupthink), doesn't encourage voters to think for themselves. It's all about conformity. Yet the advent of Trumpolitics isn't necessarily an improvement, because it hasn't encouraged voters to think for themselves, either. Instead, it has created a cult of personality in which followers are encouraged to parrot whatever comes out of Trump's mouth, like the "dittoheads" or "clones" who call talk radio programs to regurgitate whatever rant the host happens to be spewing.

What he's saying doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that he's saying it.

Image is everything

A quarter-century ago, tennis star Andre Agassi did a camera commercial with the tagline "Image is everything." It was a nice play on words, and it worked well with the photogenic Agassi, who then sported not only an athletic figure but a leonine mane of hair that made him something of a sex symbol.

Trump could have come up with that tagline himself. 

He's spent years building up his cult of personality, in which substance is unimportant - or even a drawback. The name "Trump" has become iconic; name recognition has always been a big advantage in politics, but Trump has taken it to a new level. 

The catchphrase "You're fired!" from his TV show has become almost as recognizable. Is it any coincidence that Trump's ability to kick people off that show at his own discretion (whim?)  parallels talk radio hosts' propensity for cutting people off before they finish making their point? 

The phrase, along with Trump's status as host of the show, established him as an authority figure in households across America. Authority on what? It didn't matter. Nor did it matter that many of the people who appeared on his show were intelligent, more creative and even by some measures more successful than he was. What mattered is that Trump set himself up as the authority figure and America bought it, regardless of whether he had anything to back it up.

Now he's doing it again, and the stakes are a whole lot higher than Nielsen ratings. 

Fantasyland

He's not even trying to hide what he's doing.

His own words: "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies." 

Why?

"People want to believe that something is the biggest and greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration - and a very effective form of promotion."

Trump's open secret: He's essentially giving people a blank slate set against a backdrop of audacity and allowing them to project their greatest hopes and dreams onto it - onto him. Then he takes credit for making them come true before even bothering to lift a finger on their behalf. 

This is nothing new in politics. Voters in every election cycle become excited by some new face on the scene - often an outsider or celebrity who's made a name in some field other than politics. John Glenn, Ross Perot, Fred Thompson, Herman Cain and, most recently, Ben Carson are examples. When they announced their candidacies, they, too, were blank slates. People got excited about who they might be, and their poll numbers spiked. But the voters soured on each these candidates as they discovered more about who they really were. Either they were too boring, too mercurial or too willing to believe that pharaohs built the pyramids as granaries. 

Information was their undoing.

Teflon Trump

Pundits expected the same thing to happen with Trump, who by himself may have said more outlandish things than the rest of the 2016 candidates combined. But as of this writing, his poll numbers remain solid and people keep supporting him for one simple reason: It's not about what he's saying but the fact he can say "it" and get away with it.

Information is no antidote to that, because information is irrelevant in a cult of personality. All that matters is the cult figure's name, fame and salesmanship. He's everyone's instant, ready-made "me I wanna be." Trump doesn't talk about the issues beyond vague generalities because he doesn't have to. He's a celebrity, not a policy wonk. Kim Kardashian doesn't need talent to be popular. Trump doesn't need ideas. Same principle.

The Republicans have spent the past 27 years searching for the new Ronald Reagan, and Trump's the closest thing they've found. Reagan, like Trump, was a showman and converted Democrat with high name recognition and a lot of self-confidence. But even Reagan's ability to promote himself pales in comparison to Trump's. (Agree with him or not, Reagan did actually take specific policy positions on a number of issues, and he never referred to himself as "The Ronald.")

Barnum, not Oz

Trump's invulnerability (so far) to his own foot-in-mouth disease has makes Reagan's legendary "Teflon Presidency" look like a caked-on, baked-on kitchen disaster by comparison. Carson's odd notions on the pyramids sounded ridiculous, and they cost him plenty in the polls. But Trump? He can degrade women, threaten religious liberty - a supposed cornerstone of Republican dogma - spout unsupported stories about Muslims cheering the 9/11 disaster and absurdly claim the current president was born on foreign soil. Yet none of it, so far, has mattered.

That's because Trump has succeeded in convincing a sizable number of people that he's the embodiment of their fantasies - just as he bragged he would. He's not some two-bit circus magician from Kansas hiding behind a curtain and some phony projection; he's a used-car dealer who's spent the past three decades bragging about his ability to sell you a lemon. A fantasy. "The art of the deal," he calls it.

The astonishing thing is, after all this time, that so many people are still buying it.

Trump's no statesman, he's a salesman and a master of self-promotion who's preaching the gospel according to P.T. Barnum (as preserved by one of his critics): "There's a sucker born every minute."

And he's got plenty of us paying to see his sideshow.