Mystified by the Sphinx-like appeal of Donald Trump, our professional pundit class is eagerly awaiting the moment when the real-estate baron and reality TV brand utters the one outrageous quip that causes the whole Trump bubble to expire.
GOP strategist Brad Todd told Politico that once the process of primary deliberation begins in earnest, the Trump campaign will take its rightful place in the dustbin of American political history. When people start “passing out actual ballots at elementary schools at a thousand Iowa caucus locations, making this less like ‘American Idol’ and more like a decision with consequences” Todd said, Trump will be toast.
But the widespread wish to dismiss Trump as a fly-by-night political celebrity gets no closer to the heart of his surprise one-man siege of the GOP’s top tier. The unlikely spectacle of a billionaire media exhibitionist spearheading a populist conservative revolt more likely stems from the most obvious and fundamental truth about this primary cycle: Donald Trump is a loud, brash, self-promoting rebuke to the great American myth of meritocratic achievement.
Think about it. It’s a long-standing political rite of passage for candidates to advertise their bona fides as self-made strivers. Even coddled princelings of the overclass, such as George W. Bush and his younger brother Jeb, had to peddle the laughable fable that they overcame personal adversity and assorted market challenges to hoist their already well-known names in the public firmament. More commonly, presidential hopefuls will play up the story of how they acquired their selfless devotion to public in the school of hard knocks.
Sometimes this saving wisdom arises from an inspirational, upward-tending personal biography (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and countless others). For others, it’s simply a self-evident gospel truth — an unshakable faith in plucky American enterprise (Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney and all the Republicans of the 1920s). And in the most meritocratic American tradition of all, the apprenticeship to political leadership comes by way of the great character-building trials of military service (John McCain, John Kerry, John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower).
It’s no exaggeration to say that Donald Trump makes a mockery of all of these lovingly burnished campfire stories of the presidential stump. He was draft eligible during the Vietnam War, but collected four student deferments, and has given various unsubstantiated accounts of his post-collegiate deferment on medical grounds.
As for his tour in college — that great proving ground of impartially achieved meritocratic success — Trump has flat-out refused to release his transcripts from Fordham and the University of Pennsylvania. It turns out that he graduated from the Wharton School of Business, but not, as he formerly claimed, at the head of his class. And it appears that he came into his college credentials the old-fashioned way — by exploiting moneyed family connections. He got into the prestigious Wharton program largely on the strength of an admissions interview with a counselor who was a high-school friend of Trump’s older brother Freddy. This is a tale of meritocratic success in the same way that, say, Lance Armstrong’s performance-enhanced reign atop the Tour de France was a triumph of the human spirit.
Of course, Trump’s initial claim to fame — his vast real estate fortune — was never something he earned by the sweat of his earnest, striving American brow, either. He inherited the Trump family’s New York real estate empire from his developer father, Fred, and proceeded to leverage it into a still larger land fiefdom through a slew of corrupt sweetheart deals with local and state governments, eminent-domain boondoggles and business alliances with the East Coast mafia. Any one of these deals would have been a major scandal for a candidate like Romney, who ran largely on applying his alleged business savvy to the public sector. Yet Trump uses them all as de facto credentials: He knows how to game an already rotten system, so we may as well give him the presidency.
Trump doesn’t flinch before accusations about his mobbed-up business past because the image of squalid-yet-savvy corruption is the very essence of his brand. Ever since Spy magazine memorably dubbed him a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the eighties, Trump has played the part of an East Side Fauntleroy — or perhaps, Fauntleroy’s lecherous, logorrheaic uncle — with gusto. Crusading populist leaders on the left, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, may deplore the way the American economic system is rigged in the plutocracy’s favor; Trump, for his part, cheerfully offers himself as Exhibit A in the same case.
By all elite media accounts, Trump’s attacks on the cloistered logic of Beltway meritocracy should have disqualified him from viable candidacy. In these circles, to deride the war heroism of John McCain — a mascot of the D.C. media class who by this point should have his own plaque on the guest chair on “Meet the Press” — is nothing short of blasphemy. But Trump suffered no blowback in the polls for his (truly unjust) attack on McCain’s war record, and continues to consolidate his status as front runner after whaling away at a whole host of insider savants, from Fox News’s Megyn Kelly to GOP uber-pollster Frank Luntz to presidential rival (and enthusiastic McCain understudy) Lindsey Graham.
The GOP base, like most sentient beings, intuitively grasps that these figures are self-infatuated windbags — and perversely, Trump can claim his own unearned celebrity renown in the overlapping worlds of casino-promotion, reality-TV hucksterism and beauty-pageant glitz, to call them out. In the land of the blind, in other words, a hairpiece is king.
It’s improbable for billionaires to position themselves as tribunes of populist discontent, but it can happen. Consider Ross Perot’s phenomenally popular third-party candidacy in 1992: Perot benefitted greatly from the impression that a man so rich could be trusted to rise above the fray of venal moneyed corruption in American politics. Like Trump, Perot railed against the unfairness of global free-trade agreements and promised to clean up the political scene and redeem America’s beleaguered greatness. And yes, Perot, like Trump, built his data-processing fortune via the good graces of government contracts.
Trump’s bigoted campaign against immigration is nauseatingly cynical and dangerous, but it, too, is noteworthy for its complete repudiation of the American meritocratic elite’s uncritical support of more open borders. When Trump scapegoats immigrant workers for America’s economic woes, and calls for the abolition of birthright citizenship, he manipulates the longstanding protectionist opposition to open borders in the older union movement — while simultaneously preying on the Tea Party’s alarmist conviction that the one true middle-class and white America is under siege from a scheming, sinister multicultural criminal class.
These xenophobic outbursts — which echo, none too subtly, his earlier career as a birther who insisted that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — have found a robust following among the white working-class conservative base. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Trump, who regularly polls in the mid-20s in the crowded GOP presidential field, is the preferred candidate for nearly a third of non-college educated Republicans and independents. (Among college-educated Republicans, his support plummets to 8 percent.)
Pundits profess horror at Trump’s rise for the same reason that they united to lambast Edward Snowden as a “slacker” and a “high school dropout.” In each case, they understand that the pariah figure drawing their ritual ire represents a threat to their most cherished faith — the belief that the exercise of power in our democracy should naturally fall to figures who rack up the most baubles of privileged achievement. The immigration furor now convulsing the GOP is a proxy battle, in other words, over who should be rewarded for what sort of work in America, with pundits who benefit directly from an expanding pool of low-wage service labor in their vacation getaways and green rooms serenely dismissing the notion that open borders will drive down wages.
Trump and his backers, meanwhile, have taken up the old protectionist posture of the postwar American labor movement, and improbably made the call to revive blue-collar hiring a key focus of the GOP primary campaign. Trump is also a Republican outlier in professing his support for organized labor. Finally, he’s criticized immigration policies such as the H1-B program that drive down wages for skilled foreign workers in the technology sector while STEM graduates in the United States endure severe underemployment — a departure from the standard entrepreneur’s line.
None of this is to say, of course, that a Trump nomination, or a Trump presidency, would mark any sort of meaningful step forward for workers struggling for a secure foothold in today’s ravaged blue-collar economy. It does, however, help to clarify just what’s at stake for America’s pundit and political-professional classes as they desperately long for Donald Trump to just go away already.