Far from destroying it, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.
In the short time since Donald J. Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform rather than the crime against civic order that has scandalized those who see him, in the words of the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael J. Gerson, as “dangerous to democracy.”
What makes him more entertaining than his peers is not his superficial-similarities to any historical analogues or his shopworn celebrity. His passport to political-stardom is an uncanny-resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype that has been an invigorating staple of American movies since Vietnam and Watergate ushered in wholesale disillusionment with Washington four decades ago. That character is a direct-descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish-behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth.
The party Establishment has been trying to erect a firewall against the onslaught by claiming, as George Will has it, that Trump is a “counterfeit” Republican and that even “the assumption that today’s Trumpites are Republicans is unsubstantiated and implausible.” Thus voters should discount Trump’s “bimbo” tweets, anti-immigration fulminations, and rants about Mexican “rapists” as a wild man’s ravings that don’t represent a party that reveres women, welcomes immigrants, and loves Hispanics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in its own effort to inoculate the GOP from Trump, disparages him as a “casino magnate” — an epithet it doesn’t hurl at Sheldon Adelson, the still-bigger casino magnate who serves as sugar daddy to the neocon hawks the Journal favors.
On the matters of race, women, and immigration that threaten the GOP’s future viability in nonwhite, non-male America, he is at one with his party’s base. What he does so rudely is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.
Far from being a fake Republican, Trump speaks for the party’s overwhelming majority.
Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe. Poor Jeb Bush, once the Establishment’s great legacy hope, is so ill-equipped to pander to the base that he outdid Trump in defending the nativist term anchor babies by applying it to Asians as well as Mexicans. (Bush also started mimicking Trump’s vilification of hedge-fund managers.) The candidates who have gone after Trump with the greatest gusto — Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, George E. Pataki — have been so low in the polls they had nothing to lose.
The others were painfully slow to challenge him. If they’re afraid to come out against slavery a century after Appomattox, it only follows that they’d cower before a billionaire who insults his male adversaries’ manhood as reflexively as he attacks women’s looks. As Steve Schmidt, the 2008 John McCain campaign manager, has said, Trump had all but emasculated Bush by the time Bush belatedly started fighting back. In the second debate, Fiorina finished the job by counterpunching Trump with more vigor than Bush could muster.