No matter how bizarre Trump's latest diatribes sound, there is something quite familiar in both their manner and content. This mixture of populism and xenophobia is American through and through with echoes found around the world. The sound is ideologically and historically-grounded. Though shocking to some sensitive ears, Trump speaks in a familiar voice.
The appeal of political leaders depends, most often, on a combination of several factors: charisma, zeal, racism, xenophobia, hopefulness, and fear-mongering. Different leaders have displayed a combination of some if not all of these factors, from our founding fathers to President Wilson, all the way to Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler; Chairman Mao and General Peron come to mind as well. Though each offers his own variant with a combination of talents and personal characteristics, what is common is a sense of manifest destiny, delusional or real.
As a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump remains insanely entertaining. One wonders if he means what he says or is simply playing to the crowd, relishing a continuous string of cheers. But even this distinction--between the billionaire speaking his mind and the actor pleasing an audience--has become secondary. Like all theater, the blurring of the real and unreal, the suspension of disbelief, allows us as consumers of mass-culture to enjoy the ride but remain engaged.
And what a ride it is! Out of nowhere comes a privileged scion to a successful real-estate family to claim yet another piece of the American pie (or dream). What private jets and yachts symbolized a few decades ago, political power represents today. This too, has a checkered American history, from the Rockefellers and Kennedys of yesteryear, to more recent Silicon Valley trailblazers (eBay's Meg Whitman and HP's Carly Fiorina come to mind), it's the latest coveted prize only money can buy. In this sense, there is nothing new here: a deep-seated conviction that financial prowess can be easily translated into political brinksmanship (even leadership).
But ordering people around as their boss doesn't necessarily endear you to them. They may follow your orders but not respect you or your orders. And when the opportunity arises, they'll jump ship as quickly as possible. Political wisdom comes with years of cultivating relationships, building trust, and ensuring that whatever compromise is reached, all parties can return to their constituencies with a genuine sense of accomplishment. Stirring the emotions is one thing, ensuring that these emotions are appropriately directed towards a common goal is quite another.
The latest claim by Trump to stop all Muslims from reaching our shores is also not as outrageous as it's been portrayed. America has a history of singling out ethnic and religious minorities for unfair, discriminatory, and cruel treatment: slaughtering and confining native Americans, importing and trading African slaves, interning Japanese-American citizens, and refusing entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. From this perspective as well, Trump simply continues an ugly, shameful, and despicable tradition we thought we had left behind.
So what is novel about Trump's utterances? Is it his poor grammar? No, W was just as inarticulate. Is it his flamboyant style? Not really, as there are numerous celebrities who can outdo him any day. Is it that he readily violates all standards of political correctness? This won't do either, since the n-word rolls off all too many tongues and outright sexism is still blatant in all walks of life. What is novel is not that he says what's on his or on his followers' minds, but that he parodies the role and posture of a politician.
Trump's parody is powerful insofar as it defies the standards of judgment (not to mention the standards of good taste). Politicians are supposed to be polished, Trump is not (except for his suits). They are supposed to be vague in their pronouncements, and he is not. They are supposed to be subservient to those who bankroll them, and he reminds everyone that he's paying his own way. They are supposed to have a vision, and he does not. They are supposed to lead with a mandate from the majority while placating the minority, and he couldn't care less about either group. But he still puts on a show, pretending to be a politician while all along enhancing his own brand.
Trump's political success so far is the success of public venting, self-glorification, and branding. He excels in saying outrageous things--about Syrian refugees or Muslims--just to get attention, like the kid at a family gathering that screams or breaks dishes. We have many Trumps in our Age of Distraction, we call them celebrities. Popular culture pays attention to them in order not to have to think about or cover serious political and economic issues facing us. It's easier and definitely more entertaining than having to compare alternative energy sources or the regulation of the banking industry, not to mention our infatuation with militarism and gun ownership. These topics we leave to academics, knowing full well that there is no danger that any reality show will ever follow them.
The Trump phenomenon is really not about Trump or his views; it's about what American culture can tolerate in an Age of Tolerance. While the Supreme Court stretched the notion of free speech in 2010 to include corporations, it's not that outlandish to find someone like Trump being publicly racist and religiously insulting. Where are the boundaries? Who sets them? And on whose behalf are they set? Just raising these questions should alert us to what is unacceptable, and Trump is surely in that class of hate-speakers, the ones whose words are not only hurtful but can cause real and immediate damage. In short, Trump is a dangerous phenomenon America must stop.
Raphael Sassower is philosophy chair at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Prof. Sassower's latest books are Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), and Sports and Religion in American Culture (2014, with Jeff Scholes). He grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a young man after serving as an officer in the IDF.