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The Trump Card

By Daniel Brooks on May 31, 2011 in Other

News that Donald Trump is poised to enter the race for president of the United States should not come as a surprise. More than any other Western country, America derives its identity from that of its head of state, and recently having been buffeted by the worst of the financial crisis and emasculated by a surging China abroad and the prospect of a jobless recovery at home, a large chunk of American voters are looking for someone who offers a quick fix. To many, Mr Trump stands for success. In running for President, he promises a return to the good old days of American triumphalism and unapologetic excess.

Of course to many others the idea of ‘The Donald’ for President is ridiculous. He is a walking caricature: the hair, the multiple bankruptcies, the gold-plated buildings bearing his name. And that is before he opens his mouth. Never one burdened by nuanced thought, Trump has lit up the cable news airwaves this month with a cavalcade of disingenuous sound bites dressed up as solutions to some of the world’s most complicated problems. When asked how he would respond to the situation in Libya, Trump proclaimed, “I’d go in and take the oil or I don’t go in at all.” What to do about rising gas prices? “I’d just tell OPEC to lower prices.” How? “Brain power… Let me tell you, it’ll go down if you say it properly.”

This kind of performance is easy to mock. However, as with many other products spruiked by Mr Trump over the years, people seem to be buying it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published in early April put Trump’s support among likely voters at 17%, enough to place him second in a highly fragmented field of possible Republican nominees. A subsequent poll increased that margin, putting him in the lead with 26% support, 9% clear of his nearest rival.

A Trump White House?

In part, the frenzied response to a possible Trump candidacy reflects the shortage of exciting alternatives on the Republican side of politics. Predictably, Mr Trump has also found a willing ally in the media, who delight in his ability to stir up interest and to sell newspapers.

However, Trump’s candidacy is about more than a media circus. It is based on his successful embodiment of the qualities desired by a growing conservative constituency: outrage; an ‘outsider’; and anti-Obama. Trump has leveraged these traits to tap into the uneasy mood that permeates contemporary America, particularly among those who have been disproportionately affected by the tumult of the past three years.

Mr Trump gives a very effective voice to this mood. However, the real test will come when the novelty wears off and the emphasis shifts from what he is not, to what he is. At that stage, where coverage becomes less important than credibility and quantity must be supported by quality, Mr Trump becomes a very unstable political figure. There is very little right now that could be described as a pro-Trump movement and it is hard to see in what form any would emerge in the future. The task of cultivating one from scratch, particularly for someone of Trump’s colourful and patchy history, is a complex one. Hoping to do it in the midst of a presidential campaign, where every statement is analysed and every misstep amplified, makes it almost impossibly hard. If Trump is able to do it, it will be perhaps one of the most astounding feats of political skill in American history. One can’t help but doubt that Mr Trump is the person to accomplish that.

None of this is to say that Trump is not serious about running – he says he is, and he certainly has something to say. But he will not win. And this is good news for those who think that the last thing America needs right now is a national identity based on quick fixes and unapologetic excess.