Why Personality Trumps Policy in American Politics

The Donald emerges from his Trump Copter to mingle with Iowa Real Muricans.'

The Donald emerges from his Trump Copter to mingle with Iowa Real Muricans.’

If you haven’t yet gotten your ticket to board the 2016 Trump Train, you’d better move quickly, because tickets are going fast and The Donald is racing down the GOP primary tracks with a head full of more steam than a four-star Turkish Hammam.

Donald Trump recently graced Iowa (which, along with New Hampshire, is America’s key primary-season schtupping ground) with his presence by barnstorming the barn-dotted Iowa State Fair in true Trump style. The Donald landed his helicopter amidst the cavalcade of Americana that is double-bacon-wrapped corn dogs and life-size butter cow sculptures. He also gave helicopter rides to an excited gaggle of fresh-faced Murican’ moppets.

And potential GOP voters can’t get enough of it. As one young mother explained, “I’d take him over the president we have now, I think there are better options — but he’s entertaining.”

The latter statement says a whole lot about American politics, not just in 2015, but throughout history. Many a Washington pundit are currently scratching their noggins wondering how a Manhattan billionaire became the blowhard voice of recession-battered Middle America, but Trump doesn’t care. The Donald is scoring points at fairgrounds by betting on the fact that his mammoth personality Trumps his even-more-mammoth wealth in the minds of star-struck conservative and independent voters.

Trump’s strategy ain’t crazy, either. If there’s one thing that Americans have always prized when it comes to their democracy, it’s what is often called the “Would I have a Beer With Him?” test. You know what I’m talking about here: it’s the process by which potential voters size up the future leader of the free world by determining whether they’d like to pound some brewskies with said candidate at the local corner bar in Anyswheresville, U.S.A. President George Dubya Bush made lots of hay out of this phenomenon by adopting an aw-shucks, gol’ darn it facade to convince the Heartland that he was actually a brush-clearing, boot-strapping, Texas Marlboro Man instead of an Ivy-league, Connecticut-born, blue-blooded carpetbagger.

Americans have a need to feel like the next man or woman in the White House is someone “just like them:” the kind of blue collar-Bubba who worries about the bills, swills crappy, Belgian-owned “American lager,” and does their own yard work. This image, of course, stands in stark contrast to the fact that most all presidential candidates are actually well-connected one-percenters who go to events like the Iowa State Fair in the same spirit that 19th-century western explorers observed native tribes: to gawk at the savages in their natural, fried Snickers habitat.

Alexis De Tocqueville: leave it to a 19th century Frenchman to figure out the riddle of the Trump-lovin' American.

Alexis De Tocqueville: leave it to a 19th-century Frenchman to figure out the riddle of the Trump-lovin’ American.

This is where having a big personality helps guys like Trump, because the more voters stare slack-jawed at his “entertaining” antics, the less aware they’ll be about his mixed bag of political stances. As Politico’s Timothy Noah writes, at various points in the past, Trump has voiced support for single-payer health care, backed a so-called “wealth tax” for the rich (the kind of thing that got Barack Obama labeled the second-coming of Stalin), called for the repeal of the Inheritance Tax (aka, the “Death Tax”), claimed that he was in favor of a ban on assault weapons, and even supported public unions. Now, all of those are good things — unless you happen to be a Republican voter. The Donald has also been variously registered as a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent.

That’s right, for all intents-and-purposes, the Trump of the past was often a liberal, or at least a mealy-mouthed RINO. But these inconsistencies matter little to Real Americans who marvel at the way Trump flaunts his exorbitant wealth and shoots his mouth off in a manner that’s downright refreshing when stacked next to the average, focus-group-beholden, campaign stump slave.

Policy positions are dull and difficult to understand, but a rich dude with a helicopter just screams the type of “rages to riches,” materialistic wet dream that makes many Americans still believe in the Land of Opportunity™.

Back in 1840, the great French political observer Alexis De Tocqueville noted how the combined notions of a classless society and a predilection towards material gratification bolstered the politics of personality in America. “When…social conditions differ but little… as every man sees around himself a million of people enjoying precisely similar or analogous advantages, his pride becomes craving and jealous,” De Tocqueville wrote. “In democracies, as the conditions of life are very fluctuating, men have almost always recently acquired the advantages which they possess; the consequence is that they feel extreme pleasure in exhibiting them.” De Tocqueville thus concluded that, “men living in democracies love their country just as they love themselves, and they transfer the habits of their private vanity to their vanity as a nation.”

To De Tocqueville, the American notion of individual achievement — bolstered by the “slightest privileges” — fueled a pridefulness that was both personal and political. In a “classless” society where anyone could (in theory) become wealthy — where anyone could (in theory) become president — vices like vanity, jealousy, and materialism became American personality traits worthy of public celebration, hence the merging of “private vanity” with “vanity as a nation.” In other words, being a pompous, materialistic asshole is as American as apple pie.

Donald Trump perfectly embodies the personality of private vanity as public spectacle, and Americans, hoping that a smudge of Trump’s success will rub off on them, are more than willing to bask in his hair-pieced glow.

As much as voters want their presidential candidates to embody the notion of the average Jane and Joe, they also want to imagine themselves in place of those candidates. Conservative politicos in particular like to mouth the idea that in America, there are only two classes, the rich, and the soon-to-be rich. Voters are living out this fantasy via The Donald. “Trump, I want to ride in your plane!” one Iowan bellowed. I touched him, too!” a fair-going youngster squealed to her Dad.

Trump confirms his love for pork chops in Iowa.

Trump confirms his love for pork chops in Iowa.

In addition to his Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth, voters also love Trump’s straight-talk. “I like it that he’s not a politician,” claimed Trump supporter Paula Johnson, “I’m tired of politicians. I’m tired of the sugar coating that they tell us.” Thus, when Trump bloviates that he would personally deport all undocumented immigrants, his supporters aren’t hashing out the details of such an undertaking; rather, they’re getting off on the fact that Trump — a man of privilege and power — isn’t afraid to spout the kind of non-politically correct sentiments that much of Middle America harbors.

Trump plays to Americans’ vanity, to their materialism, and to their fears that someone else might take those things away. They’re attracted to his brash personality and they’d love to have a beer with him, but they’re also seduced by the fact that Trump has enough money to buy multiple breweries and has no need to hang out at the corner bar in Anywheresville, U.S.A. Far from being a turn-off, however, Trump’s unabashedly vain displays of materialism, coupled with his no-nonsense, unfiltered defenses of shameless American pride, are a major turn-on to voters who dream of walking in his high-priced shoes. These voters would love to have the wealth, the power, and the brass gonads to tell immigrants to buzz off and career politicians to kiss a butter cow.

Now, as for Trump’s thoughts on policy? Who the hell cares?! He ate a pork chop-on-a-stick in Iowa! God (and The Donald) bless America.


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  1. Dear Jarret, I’m a long time fan from Australia. An insightful article as always, just one thing you got wrong, it’s not ‘Muricans’ but of course ‘Merkins’ one of which graces the Trump’s scalp.

    • Thanks for the compliment and much obliged for the note. Although, I’m sure Trump’s Merkin is custom-made 😉

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