It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in December, and the circus is in town. That is, Donald Trump is here to perform in a “town hall” before the 4,200 people who have filled the Convocation Center at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
But the show isn’t just Mr. Trump. It is also the many raucous fans in “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and T-shirts who have come to see the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. It is the vendors hawking buttons with messages about unleashing bombs on Islamic State. It is the Muslim activists and young anarchists here to disrupt and, inevitably, get tossed out of the arena.
And it is the other attention seekers – both pro- and anti-Trump – who have come to catch The Donald’s eye in quieter fashion, like bodybuilders Ronnie and Kathy Rowland with their “We Pump for Trump” poster and Tom O’Brien, whose handmade sign says “Christians Love Muslims” on one side and “Love Your Neighbor” on the other.
Like characters in a TV series, everyone plays his or her part and follows the script. In fact, Showtime has turned the entire 2016 race into a television reality show of sorts called “The Circus,” with weekly installments showing behind-the-scenes action and characters the audience identifies with and follows. “With Trump in the picture, it’s an obvious sell,” says Walter Podrazik, coauthor of the book “Watching TV.”
At the town hall in Aiken, Trump didn’t make much news – perhaps by design. Like any seasoned showman, the billionaire real estate mogul/reality TV star knows when to push and when to hang back. Days before, Trump had dropped the bombshell proposal to ban Muslims temporarily from entering the United States, and he was still reaping the reward – yet another bump in support from Republican voters.
If Trump wins the GOP nomination, he will have pulled off the political coup of the modern era: Through sheer force of personality and a message that both capitalizes on the public’s fears and mirrors them, an outsider with no experience in government will have taken over the Republican Party and placed himself, improbably, one step away from the presidency.
“President Trump” is no longer a long shot. But even if he falls short, his place in history is already sealed. He has shaken the Republican Party to its core, and taught the political class some hard lessons about American voters along the way.
Donald Trump, celebritician
In an important way, Trump’s campaign is not unique. Throughout American history, demagogues like Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan have seized voters’ attention with incendiary rhetoric and shaken their parties’ establishments. They have ridden populist waves amid times of insecurity, both economic and physical, and raised fear even as they sought to allay it. Trump, in that respect, is the latest in a grand American tradition.
And though he has never officially run for office before now, one can argue that Trump is not new to the game. In 1987, a “Draft Trump” effort caught his attention – and, he said later, may have “planted the seed.” In 2000, Trump quit the Republican Party and launched an exploratory campaign for the White House under the Reform Party, founded by another outspoken businessman-turned-presidential-candidate, Ross Perot.
In 2011, once again a Republican, Trump did a test run as a presidential candidate, giving speeches in key early states, before opting out. But he foreshadowed the Trump candidacy of 2015-16, going long on bravado and short on policy detail.
Still, exploring a campaign and making a few speeches isn’t the same as actually running. And in a way, the success of Trump’s campaign shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of politics.
“What’s unique and interesting about Trump, and what may sustain his candidacy, and what also changes the political landscape, is that Trump is not a politician,” says cultural historian Neal Gabler. “He’s the first celebrity to run for president.”
Even Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood celebrity before getting into politics, established his bona fides for the Oval Office by first serving two terms as governor of California. Trump jumped into the 2016 presidential race with no political credentials. Even his executive experience as a billionaire businessman is less central to his political success than his celebrity, says Mr. Gabler. Voters know him as the star of the long-running reality TV show “The Apprentice” and from seeing his name plastered on buildings, not from what goes on inside the C-suite.
The word “celebrity” is often defined as “famous for being famous” – and like other celebrities of our time (see the Kardashians), Trump is a master at holding people’s attention.
“Celebrity is a narrative form, and it’s sustained by narrative,” says Gabler, author of the 1998 book “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” “Trump’s genius is that he’s always sustaining the narrative – every week, virtually every day.”
The political process, too, is a narrative, an ongoing story of campaigning, debates, primaries, conventions, and finally, Election Day. “Trump is writing that story, and the other guys don’t get it,” Gabler says. “The other guys are playing the game by the old political rules.... Celebrities have their own terms. They can say whatever they want, and do whatever they want, because they’re not politicians.”
This is not to diminish the role of Trump’s business success as a key selling point in his campaign. Voters often cite his ability “to get things done” when asked to explain their support. But the political graveyard is full of successful businessmen (like Mitt Romney) who lacked the charisma needed to generate excitement.
Add to the mix Trump’s innate ability to read the mood of a certain slice of the electorate – white, tea party-oriented, working-class voters – and deliver a message that resonates.
“It’s just a whole other reality TV show; it just so happens it’s on Fox or CNN,” says Henry Barbour, Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi. “You turn on your TV in the morning, and Donald Trump’s face might not be there but you hear his voice, because he’s apparently sitting there in his slippers talking to some morning reporter.”
Whether Trump can keep it up, blending the celebrity and political narratives, is an open question. What’s clear is that Trump jumped into a presidential cycle that seems tailor-made for his simple, self-assured style – with big promises that are light on detail and heavy on bombast – as Americans grapple with a future that feels uncertain.
“Every election has a different dynamic,” says Al Cardenas, former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a supporter of former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush for president. “Donald Trump just hit the sweet spot.”
Republican activists’ views are mixed on Trump’s lingering effect, if he’s not the nominee. Some say his nationalist appeal – and the ugly expressions of racism and xenophobia he has incited – will tarnish the party for years to come. Others say his impact will be limited. The eventual nominee will become the party’s standard-bearer, setting the tone and agenda for Republicans in the general election.
But if Trump wins the nomination, Mr. Cardenas says, “we’re practically handing over to Hillary Clinton the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His style of campaigning and the substance of his remarks further shrink our party at a time when it needs to demographically expand.”
At nearly every campaign event, Trump points at the reporters in the back of the hall and lets them have it, calling them “liars” and “scum.” At least he doesn’t wish them dead, he told people at a recent rally, but he made a show of considering the idea of killing reporters.
So when this reporter approached attendees at the Aiken event, it was with some trepidation. But only one wouldn’t talk. And of those who talked, only one wouldn’t give her name – a nurse who keeps her support for Trump quiet, because she says her colleagues would be upset if they knew about it. Most called themselves committed Trump supporters, and had ready answers to the question, “Why?”
“Because he’s for America,” says Mike Carroll, a mortgage underwriter from Aiken. “I’m tired of hearing people say what I want to hear just to get my vote. Donald Trump is genuine.”
Mr. Carroll, in fact, disagrees with Trump’s idea of banning Muslims from entering the US. “But at least he means what he says. And I understand the fear. Every time I turn on the TV, there’s another terrorist attack.”
Most of those interviewed liked the Muslim ban. “If I had a belief that was dangerous to your family, would you let me in?” says Sam Reid, a first responder, carrying his infant foster son. “This is our home.”
Then there’s Pam Newton, who’s still “checking Trump out,” but loves the Muslim ban. In fact, she’s ready to go one step further and just “lock down” US borders altogether. “There’s no way to screen [people], so we shouldn’t let anybody in,” says Ms. Newton, an Aiken resident who works for a doctor.
Economic worries also loom large. Newton is upset about her child, who has racked up $200,000 in student loans. Carroll, the mortgage underwriter, says the economy around Aiken is “a little shaky.” But after the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks by a radicalized Muslim couple that killed 14 people on Dec. 2, fear of terrorism has shot to the top of voters’ concerns. And Trump’s numbers have only strengthened, both in South Carolina and nationally.
Ronnie Rowland, the bodybuilder with the “Pump for Trump” sign, isn’t shy about expressing his views on Muslims, both at the Aiken event and in a follow-up e-mail.
“I believe the people that are calling Trump racist are very confused,” he writes. “They are so worried about being politically correct or coming across as a bigot that they can’t see the big picture. These people obviously don’t understand that all of the male Muslims coming out of the Middle East who are for sharia law are radicals!”
Tom O’Brien, a children’s camp director from Columbia, S.C., disagrees. Standing at the back of Trump’s town hall, waging a silent protest, he holds a two-sided sign preaching love and tolerance toward Muslims. Midway through the event, Mr. O’Brien hoists the sign and aims it straight at Trump. Security personnel confront him, but he’s not ejected from the hall – just moved off to the side.
After the event, O’Brien explains that he’s concerned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric could radicalize young people. But he doesn’t have much hope in any of the presidential candidates, of either party. “I believe that Jesus is king, right now,” he says, “and I just want to speak truth to power.”
The mind beneath the hair
To understand Trump, the man himself suggests reading “The Art of the Deal.” His bestselling first book oozes self-confidence, via a list of business lessons that apply to his approach to politics, including think big, know your market, be flexible, and have fun.
“Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score,” he writes. “The real excitement is playing the game.”
That Trump is super-competitive is well known, as were his father and grandfather, also both successful businessmen.
“It’s part of their family culture: Push the envelope, never give up, and keep going,” says biographer Gwenda Blair, author of the newly reissued book “The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate.”
Another Trump rule: Never apologize. Even when caught red-handed saying something false, such as his assertion that “thousands” of Muslims cheered in Jersey City after 9/11, Trump simply reaffirmed the claim. In multiple interviews with Trump, Ms. Blair also discovered that he can be remarkably unreflective about himself. When she asked how going to military school affected him, for example, all he would say is, “Got a great education.”
“He had no interest in looking back, he had no insight, he had no interest in his own history, he had no rear-view mirror. It was all going forward,” says Blair. More recently, though, Trump has opened up to the press about his brother Freddy, who was an alcoholic and died young.
And his worldview has always been about winning and losing. “He’s a winner, everyone else is a loser – that’s it,” she says. “It’s not about compassion, it’s not about empathy, it’s not about understanding, it’s not about being part of a community or having a social contract or consensus or inclusivity. None of that. It’s about winning.”
Blair describes Trump as a “real micromanager.” “His father was relentless, and famous for being relentless, on every tiny detail,” says Blair. “Donald’s exactly the same. He does not delegate much.”
That’s not to say that Trump, clearly a shrewd operator, couldn’t learn to delegate if he were to become president, appointing people who would carry out his broad policy outlines. But he might find the glacial pace of government frustrating. And the politics of the presidency, including dealing with Congress, would be a whole new world for him.
Then there’s the hair, his most distinguishing physical feature, which Trump himself makes fun of – and which everyone else is allowed to mock, too. That’s by design, Blair says.
“It’s irresistible,” she says. “It’s also insidiously disarming. It makes people in the audience feel, ‘We’re all in this joke together, this kind of caricature of a guy.’ But at the end of the day, he’s still in charge. He’s the guy who closes the deal.”
Is Trump even a Republican?
Trump’s improbable rise in the polls is based on a series of vague promises: He’s going to build a big wall on the Southern border, and make Mexico pay for it. He’s going to ban foreign Muslims from entering the US, at least temporarily. He’s going to “make America great again.”
Talk to a member of the “Republican establishment” about Trump, and the frustration is palpable. Nearly three years after the GOP issued a 100-page “autopsy” on what went wrong in the 2012 election, some of the report’s key goals seem as distant as ever, including the call for comprehensive immigration reform and outreach to women, minorities, and young voters.
Mr. Barbour of Mississippi, one of the authors of the 2013 report, insists Trump hasn’t hijacked the Republican Party, but when asked if Trump is a “loyal Republican,” he doesn’t hesitate: “Of course not!”
“He’s a very successful guy who’s had different views from Democrat to Republican, liberal to conservative on lots of different issues, and I think he suits himself and suits his own purposes,” says Barbour.
Indeed, under different circumstances, Trump might well have run third-party. Ditto Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont running for the Democratic nomination. But in America’s two-party system, the only way to make the debates – and chart a serious path to the presidency – is by running for one of the major-party nominations.
Trump is, in a way, apolitical. At times, he has sounded like President Obama, as when he spoke positively about “single-
payer,” government-run health care, a model that both Trump and Mr. Obama say is no longer doable here. He has donated to Democrats as much as Republicans, because that’s what businesspeople do – they hedge their bets.
“I tell Trump supporters that he gave money to [Democrats] Terry McAuliffe and Rahm Emanuel and they just shrug,” says a young conservative activist, shaking her head in disbelief.
That Trump isn’t a typical politician is well established. He doesn’t play by the rules, because he doesn’t have to. As a billionaire willing to spend his own money, he’s not dependent on donors, and as a celebrity, he’s shameless in his ability to attract attention – and play the media.
But even if Trump exists outside conventional politics, the other candidates can still learn a thing or two from him, Republicans say.
“I think the enduring lesson of Trump is going to be his plain-speaking way against political correctness, and I think Ben Carson has done that, too,” says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush and coauthor of the GOP’s 2013 autopsy. “The call to ban Muslims in my book goes way too far and is wrong, but it shouldn’t surprise people, when the public is so anti-politician, for the public to reward someone who doesn’t talk like a politician.”
Mr. Fleischer warns that if Trump were to win the nomination he would “totally change” what it is to be a Republican. “It becomes an anti-trade party. It becomes Donald Trump’s personality,” he says. “It’s a lot of things I don’t like and I’m uncomfortable with.”
But Fleischer says Trump would bring “something the Republicans have wanted for decades, and that is greater appeal to working-class Americans, including Democrats and independents.”
Barbour, too, focuses on Trump’s simple style.
“Trump talks to people in everyday terms that people get; he doesn’t try to get too far down into the weeds,” says Barbour.
In that respect, Trump is following the 2008 playbook of then-Sen. Barack Obama, who rode a vague message of “hope and change” all the way to the White House. Today, voters are ready for change again, but Trump’s marketing of hope and change is strikingly different. He starts not from a Reaganesque place of smiling optimism, but from the scowling visage he often wears in public – and which graces the cover of his latest book, a campaign manifesto called “Crippled America.”
Trump begins the book by discussing why he chose a photo that is “so angry and so mean looking.” He could have used a “beautiful” picture, he writes, but decided it wouldn’t be appropriate – because the nation is “crippled.” The solution? Elect him, and President Trump will make America great again.
Trump is nothing if not relentlessly on message, another lesson for politicians: Know what your campaign is about, and pound that message home until everyone can recite the words along with you.
But what’s also clear is that Trump has tapped into a strain of xenophobic thought that critics decry as un-American and has also given oxygen to fringe elements, including white nationalists.
This blaming of the “other” – today, it’s Muslims and Mexicans – and calls for action, such as the Muslim ban and perhaps a registry of Muslims, have led to charges that Trump is a fascist, marching to the same tune as France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Protest cries of “fascist” are standard fare at Trump rallies.
The difference, though, between Trump and the European nationalists is that Trump doesn’t adhere to a well-defined ideology. His brand is more “Twitter populism” than “Trump doctrine.”
“He’s demonstrated that he’s quite adept and instinctive at playing on the fears of people,” says Cardenas. “Every time he’s had the opportunity to say something outlandish, and which plays on the fears of the primary electorate, it’s further enhanced his campaign.”
How far Trump will go remains the great mystery of 2016. Every time the pundits declare his support has hit a ceiling, it rises. Then there’s the question of whether he can inspire previous nonvoters to caucus and vote for him – new voters who could prove the pollsters wrong yet again. Data show that certain types of Democrats – those who are registered as Democrats but self-identify as Republicans – are his strongest supporters. But one metric, Trump’s big crowds, doesn’t guarantee anything. Many in attendance are still shopping for a candidate, or from out-of-state, or there just to “see history,” as software engineer Jim Thomas put it at the Aiken rally. Questions also persist about how well-organized Trump is on get-out-the-vote.
So far, though, the candidate has defied convention at every turn, and only gotten stronger. One test will be how he handles losing, if he does, in the kickoff Iowa caucuses. After all, Trump is all about winning. But biographer Blair sees plenty of examples from Trump’s past of when he “lost” – start with the four bankruptcies and the ill-fated ownership of a professional football team – but just kept plowing forward. No shame, no regrets.
Many observers expected that Trump would have faded by now amid questions about his electability. His celebrity candidacy would have given way to more conventional politicians, the thinking went.
“Normally, you reach critical mass where people wake up – the lights come up in the theater, and they say, ‘Do we really want this?’ ” says Gabler, the cultural historian. “That may still happen.”
Or it may not.
The narrative of Trump as superhero, who can swoop in and fix all problems, still has a grip on a sizable chunk of the Republican electorate. And disgust with politics as usual may be strong enough to win him the GOP nomination – and perhaps even the White House.