America has a long, weird love affair with blustering celebrity politicians. While every presidential race is littered with the nonsensical platforms of bizarre fringe candidates—immortality and a political shift to theocracy among them—only a select handful manage to capture the populist impulse running through American voters. William Jennings Bryan, the fiery progressive populist who most remember from high school readings of Inherit the Wind, mounted formidable challenges in the electoral college as the Democratic Party's candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908 on the back of his prolific oratorical prowess. "His energetic performances and relentless good cheer made him a wealthy celebrity whose face and voice were as familiar as anyone’s in the nation," wrote Michael Kazin. "After his death a reporter remarked that the press should build a memorial to him 'because he was to the world of news what Babe Ruth is to baseball—the real drawing card.'"
This is, in essence, the spirit of Donald Trump.
The president-as-celebrity has become more accentuated with the advent of modern media. A favorite anecdote is the first televised presidential debate in history, which pitted a recently hospitalized, sickly looking Richard Nixon against shiny and handsome John F. Kennedy. As the story goes, the majority of the 74 million Americans who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy was the winner, while those listening on the radio assumed Nixon had emerged victorious. Even though Nixon performed better in subsequent debates, he was effectively toast. As Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder told Time: "You couldn't wipe away the image people had seared in their brains from the first debate." Decades later, it’s hard to deny that Obama's energized 2008 campaign and soaring "Hope and Change" spiel don't bear echoes of Bryan and Kennedy's rhetorical magic. And now, the New York Times reports that Donald Trump's celebrity is actually warping the political calculus of his fellow Republican candidates. "Winning the nomination isn't about winning every news cycle against a Trump," said veteran strategist Stuart Stevens, speaking about GOP candidates' traditional politicking. "It’s about winning 30,000 votes in Iowa and 50,000 votes in New Hampshire."
Despite the trail of tears that has followed him across the country, Trump is feeding the core impulse that's driven American politics for centuries.
Donald Trump, business magnate-turned-political lightning rod currently savaging the American countryside like a bloviating Godzilla, is riding high in the polls among the minefield of a Republican presidential field for one simple reason: Despite the trail of tears that has followed him across the country, Trump is feeding the core impulse that's driven American politics for centuries. This is amazing, considering Donald Trump has committed political suicide nearly every time he's opened his mouth. Trump effectively alienated the other Republican candidates from ever-important Latino voters by claiming that "[They are] bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." Oh, but there's more: Trump called Senator John McCain "no war hero" in a diss to veterans (a no-no basically everywhere) and refused to apologize, with no damage to his standing in the polls.
Somehow, Trump is leading the Republican presidential field—he's five points ahead of realistic favorite Jeb Bush, according to a RealClearPolitics average of five national polls—on the back of an ongoing stream of horrific nonsense. He is, in a twisted, screwed-up way, the modern avatar of the William Jennings Bryan-borne political celebrity. And while the media feeds this cycle (as Nate Silver puts it, Trump is "the world's greatest troll") Trump is far from a simple media-manufactured spectacle. Just look at these charts from Google Trends and social analytics service Topsy, which measure popularity in the form of message volume on the two platforms.
There are a lot of reasons conservative Republicans love Trump: He’ll say (fairly awful) things about immigrants that some voters think mainstream media glosses over in the pursuit of liberal political correctness; despite his many, many failures, laissez-faire adherents slobber over Trump's business bona fides; and he's an "outsider" (much like Sarah Palin was) in Washington, despite keeping a toe in political waters since his first rumblings of the Draft Trump movement in 1987. It also doesn’t hurt that, with The Apprentice, Trump became the ultimate celebrity in a culture that's long fixated on celebrities. With Obama leaving the White House, Trump is a natural channel for the righteous anger with the federal government felt by so many Americans.
Let me be clear: Despite all this, Donald Trump will never occupy the Oval Office. Ever. He's objectively too impulsive, too inexperienced in government, and too insane to actually succeed in a general election. It simply won't happen.
The populist zeal of "real Americans" rallying around a vision of "real America" spans decades in American political history.
Populist candidates come and go, but there's something to be said for Trump's particular brand of mass appeal, honed through years of media saturation and his propensity for instantly viral screeds that drive clicks for traffic-hungry news organizations. "Celebrity," wrote University of Sheffield professor Fred Inglis in A Short History of Celebrity, "is one of the adhesives which, at a time when the realms of public politics, civil society, and private domestic life are increasingly fractured and enclosed in separate enclaves, serves to pull those separate entities together and to do its bit toward maintaining social cohesion and common values." With a majority of Americans constantly dissatisfied with the state of the nation, and both the Democratic and Republican presidential fields looking increasingly fallow—Hillary Clinton's trust issues, Bernie Sanders' progressive eccentricity, and the Republican Party's clown car of sadness—Trump provides a firehouse of entertainment tempered, if subconsciously, with a hint of strange admiration: The dude has some balls.
"Authenticity" is a disturbingly overwrought strategy in electoral politics, but it matters. The populist zeal of "real Americans" rallying around a vision of "real America" spans decades in American political history, and has only become more acute with the steady rise of mass media in the latter half of the 20th century. “Beginning in 1976, Americans elected a series of presidents whose campaigns represented evolving standards of authenticity," wrote Erica J Seifert in The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, 1976–2008, in the aftermath of Sarah Palin's spectacular implosion. "In reciprocal discourse with the media and their publics, these successful presidential candidates structured their campaigns and images around projecting authenticity." All Trump needs to do to seem authentic is open his big mouth—and it's working.
It's these twin desires for celebrity and authenticity that make Donald Trump such a draw to parts of the electorate, even if they're just watching to see what he'll say next. But in a crowded field, where most electoral strategy really comes down to buying attack ads and monopolizing the airwaves, his campaign is attacking both of those reptilian desires, and in the process sucking oxygen out of the room for every candidate. Celebrity influence has been a constant fixture of civilizations for millennia, but in few other countries will you find the power of celebrity more salient than in the United States. (The exception maybe being the United Kingdom's royal family.) Donald Trump isn't an outlier: He is American political culture's id, wrapped up in expensive suits and bad toupees, brandishing the unbridled, rugged self-reliance that's baked into our society's national mythos. Trump is what America wants—and that's exactly why he's what America deserves.