Donald Trump embodies what it means to be American. No, seriously, hear me out. The Donald is loud, brash, and seemingly allergic to the concept of nuance. Indeed, Trump appears to possess a bottomless well of misguided self-confidence completely unpolluted by the mitigating toxin known as shame. That alone would put him in the pantheon of American leaders who not only carried big sticks, but also wagged them incessantly into the rest of the world’s collectively embarrassed mug.
More importantly, however, Trump is super, filthy rich. While Americans will go on-and-on about how they’re a “Christian people” who are most concerned about “freedom,” let’s be honest: Americans worship Mammon above anything else, and if Mammon is America’s God, then Donald Trump is its ostentatious, casino and hotel disgorging, Atlantic City-bankrupting, thrice-betrothed, comb-over modeling, reality TV Jesus, sent from on high to lead the American people out from under the Bondage of Pharaoh Obama and into the promised land of right-wing Valhalla. (Yeah, I know I conflated Moses with Jesus there. Deal with it).
According to recent polls concerning the already booming GOP 2016 presidential primary field, The Donald is absolutely dominating among Republican voters, who seem utterly entranced by the toupée-topped plutocrat’s boorishly blunt bloviating about stuff that gets right-wingers teed off (which, these days, is pretty much everything). GOP voters like Donald Trump precisely because he’s a blowhard; because Americans of all striped have always been drawn, however fleetingly, to rich blowhards who mistake “telling it like it is” with informed, intelligent deliberation.
Some cases in point. Trump soothed over U.S.-Latin American relations by claiming that, “[t]he United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico,” and that Mexican immigrants were “rapists” who were bringing drugs and crime into a country that obviously never had problems with drugs and crime before them bean-scarfing Messicans crossed the border. Of course, Republicans hate all of those cantaloupe-calved drug mules from the south, so they heartedly embraced The Donald’s remarks. Moreover, Trump isn’t afraid to take on sacred cows from within his own party. Take erstwhile war hero, John McCain. Trump thinks that McCain is nothing but a whiney, bed-soiling milksop for letting himself get all captured by the commies in Vietnam. Trump would never have gotten captured by the commies, and besides, he was too busy racking up draft deferments. And while some Republican leaders expressed outrage over The Donald’s disrespect towards McCain, Republican voters don’t seem to care much. After all, isn’t John McCain the guy who lost the presidential race to that ‘Murica-hatin’ colored fella?!
All this is to say that Trump’s “surprise” appeal among GOP voters isn’t surprising at all. The Donald traffics in the kind of time-tested political demagoguery and absurdly simplistic approaches to complicated political issues that have always won over many Americans’ hearts, at least for a little while. Here’s the thing about Trump: in America, being rich allows you to do pretty much anything you want, even if you appear absolutely bonkers while doing it. Americans tend to give rich guys a pass on the whole sanity test because rich guys have already proven themselves worthy of admiration and worship by virtue of their wealth alone. Americans, especially conservatives, have always equated material wealth with the highest level of social acceptance.
Just consider the cavalcade of other cash-cluttered nitwits who made waves in previous GOP primary contests despite straddling the line that separates the adorably eccentric from the criminally insane. In 2012, there was Godfather’s pizza head-honcho Herman “Shucky-Ducky” Cain, who briefly captured GOP voters’ heartstrings by proposing a cockamamie tax plan that was basically a flax tax dressed up with slot machine numbers. Moreover, in 1996 and 2000, silver-spooned nut-job Steve Forbes tried his hand at the Republican nomination. This is a guy who still thinks that the U.S. ought to go back to the gold standard. Enough said.
The presence of rich blowhards who get national airtime to spout inexplicable sound bites is, by now, an expected national ritual, and that’s because Americans will tolerate any foamy-mouthed maniac applying for the job of leader of the free world just so long as said maniac is rich. In the U.S., wealth wraps demagoguery, boorishness, and lunacy in the comforting blanket of respectability. In the eyes of many Americans, a person who has achieved great wealth is worthy of a least a fleeting national platform from which they can spew their deranged ideas. After all, if wealth equals power and respectability, how can someone with wealth and power not be respectable?
The answer lies in the uniquely American concept of the “citizen consumer” that equates buying stuff with citizenship in the modern U.S. of A. Although the idea of consumer-citizenship has its roots in the turn of the century and the rise of industrial consumer capitalism, the idea that citizenship required material consumption became solidified in American culture during the mid-20th century. With the rise of the New Right from the 1970s onward — a movement that made the worship of the market more important than the worship of any celestial deity — consumer citizenship came to embody Americanness itself.
Historian Steve Fraser helps explain why the high regard Americans place on wealth leads them to embrace rich blowhards like Donald Trump. “Consumer culture, in its own everyday way, channels desire into forms of expressive self-liberation,” Fraser writes. “Consumer culture cultivates a politics of style and identity focused on the rights and inner psychic freedom of the individual,” he continues, “it tends to infantilize, encouraging insatiable cravings for more and more novel forms of faux self-expression.”* Is it any wonder, then, that a guy like Donald Trump — who has spent a lifetime feeding the wealth-obsessed consumer culture of modern America — would be embraced for his relentlessly calculated, yet paradoxically authentic, “politics of style and identity,” which he demonstrates via his pompous style of “faux self-expression” that’s meant to give voice to the perceived grievances of an uber-privileged, white consumer republic?
To voters who fancy themselves just on the cusp of buying enough stuff to claw their way into the upper echelons of American high society, Trump offers the best kind of hard-edged, non-politically correct straight talk. The Donald’s abrasive style of seemingly off-the-cuff bellowing wouldn’t work coming from a person of lesser means, but utterances that in less monied circumstances might be considered ignorant and stupid (if not outright crazy) instead become merely “eccentric” when flapped from the lips of an American billionaire. In many respects, Trump is not the hero America needs, but he’s the hero it deserves. His brash brand of narcissistic, rich guy pomposity makes perfect sense in a consumer-mad society where wealth and materialism are the only real measures of greatness, where the fork in the road that divides ignorance from wisdom is marked only by a big, flashing dollar sign.
* See Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (New York: Little, Brown & Co.:, 2015), 303, 305.