Does the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump serve any useful purpose? If your first reaction is to dismiss the question because the idea that such an absurd and repellant figure could be taken seriously, it is worth remembering that American voters have elected others just as unlikely to the White House. Ronald Reagan the movie actor and George W. Bush the old money underachiever whose daddy was president were no less improbable early in their political careers.
To be sure, Trump’s candidacy might be nothing more than an example of the public attention seeking that afflicts the superrich. Rather like 1%ers pretending to be diplomats by bundling campaign contributions to be appointed ambassador to Romania or pretending to be astronauts by paying to spend a week on the International Space Station. Perhaps, but Trump’s public opinion poll numbers against a shoal of other candidates should give you pause before completely dismissing him. Many likely Republican caucus and primary voters like what he has to say.
The horrible truth is that in our party presidential nominating system, a crass billionaire bigot with high name recognition stands a decent chance of winning the GOP nomination.
Still unconvinced? Then ask yourself why so few of the other Republican candidates have dared to criticize Trump directly. One possibility is that they are pulling their punches because many are actually running for the party’s vice-presidential nomination. Why say anything now that they might have to walk back in the future as Number Two on a presidential ticket with Trump the Terrible? Take a moment to picture Mike Huckabee or John Kasich subjected to the sort of the “job interview” humiliation inflicted on The Apprentice in a vice presidential selection process. (Yes, revenge fantasies can be entertaining.)
The rest of the Republican candidates have another reason to avoid criticizing Trump. His candidacy normalizes what would otherwise be recognized as morally abhorrent. Just as the inanities of East Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert makes U.S. House Speaker John Boehner the rest of House GOP seem a little less extreme, so too the hate filled nonsense of Donald Trump makes front runner Jeb B. and the rest of the GOP presidential candidate field seem less extreme. The monsters of conservative derp break down our collective resistance to ideas we would reject if we were not being distracted to the point of transfixion. Like raising the retirement age for social security or ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. Trump distracts.
Mainstream news organizations seem no more capable or willing to put a stop to this nonsense than the Republican Establishment. The problem is that these self-appointed guardians of public probity need exactly what Trump delivers: content empty of everything except that which holds fleeting attention. The drift from serious news coverage to news as entertainment, to newsertainment, has been underway for decades. Trump the magnate-entertainer-politician is irresistible to entities that are themselves neither entirely fish nor fowl.
Rather than think of Trump’s candidacy as an exception to some standard, we may need to view him as first of a cohort of conservative politicians so wealthy that they do not even need to feign a capacity for modesty or shame. The favor he does us all is to put a face on the death of our democracy.