Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere

Mark Leibovich, New York Times, September 29, 2015

I don’t worry about anything,’’ Donald J. Trump told me aboard his 757 as we were flying to the recent Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. He was dividing his attention between the brick-size slice of red-velvet cake he was annihilating and the CNN commentator on the 57-inch television who at that moment was talking about Trump, as most commentators have been at pretty much every moment for the last three months. The commentator, Dylan Byers, was saying that Trump now ran the risk of ‘‘jumping the shark’’ because voters were becoming so familiar with his act. ‘‘Nah,’’ Trump said, smirking at the screen. As the real estate and reality-­show tycoon sees things, this is all win-win for him. Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal wrote something to this effect recently, Trump told me, explaining that even if he loses, ‘‘he goes back to being Donald Trump, but even bigger.’’

{snip} Initially, I dismissed him as a nativist clown, a chief perpetrator of the false notion that President Obama was not born in the United States–the ‘‘birther’’ movement. And I was, of course, way too incredibly serious and high-­minded to ever sully myself by getting so close to Donald Trump.

I initially doubted that he would even run. I assumed that his serial and public flirtations with the idea over several election cycles were just another facet of his existential publicity sustenance. I figured that even if Trump did run, his conspiracy-­mongering, reality-­show orientations and garish tabloid sensibilities would make him unacceptable to the polite company of American politics and mainstream media. It would render him a fringe player. So I decided not to write about him, and I felt proud and honorable about my decision.

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And yet his lead in the polls kept growing. He was impolite company personified, and many Republican voters were absolutely loving him for that. They seemed to be saying en masse that even if Trump could be crass and offensive at times (or, in his case, on message), could he possibly be any worse than what politics in general had become?

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Getting close to Trump is nothing like the teeth-­pulling exercise that it can be to get any meaningful exposure to a candidate like, say, Hillary Clinton. This is a seductive departure in general for political reporters accustomed to being ignored, patronized and offered sound bites to a point of lobotomy by typical politicians and the human straitjackets that surround them. In general, Trump understands and appreciates that reporters like to be given the time of day. It’s symbiotic in his case because he does in fact pay obsessive attention to what is said and written and tweeted about him. Trump is always saying that so-and-so TV pundit ‘‘spoke very nicely’’ about him on some morning show and that some other writer ‘‘who used to kill me’’ has now come around to ‘‘loving me.’’ There is a ‘‘Truman Show’’ aspect to this, except Trump is the director–continually selling, narrating and spinning his story while he lives it.

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And yet, throughout his rise, Trump has been labeled a ‘‘populist.’’ I had always equated populism with economic uprisings by the disenfranchised against the privileged. Trump, who grew up in Queens as a son of a wealthy real estate developer, promotes his astronomical wealth, elite academic credentials and ‘‘good genes’’ (‘‘my uncle was a professor at M.I.T., he was the smartest guy up there’’). He is, presumably, the first ‘‘populist’’ presidential candidate to mention his degree from Wharton at a campaign rally in Alabama. Certainly, there have been other rich-guy populists, like Ross Perot. And previous populist movements have, like Trump’s, been driven in part by stoking fear of ‘‘the other’’ (in Trump’s case, his bare-knuckled attacks on the undocumented immigrants who have made the United States ‘‘a dumping ground for the rest of the world’’).

But while populism is often associated with grass-roots movements, Trump’s brand of it flows not from the ground up, as did Obama’s campaign in 2008 or even the Tea Party movement in subsequent years. Rather, Trump’s is pure media populism, a cult of personality whose following has been built over decades. The popularity of Trump’s NBC reality franchise, ‘‘The Apprentice,’’ for instance, made him a potent cultural persona; the power of that persona (the frowning, pitiless boss) might actually outweigh the customary strategic imperatives (message discipline, donor bases) that the political wiseguys like to get all aroused about. In large measure, the core of Trump’s phenomenon is his celebrity itself, which, in today’s America, is in fact as populist as it gets.

Out on the sidewalk of Rockefeller Center, the horde for Trump was edgier and included several protesters. There were chants (‘‘Trump’s a racist’’), taunts (‘‘Donald, you want to deport me?’’) and placards (‘‘You’re not hired’’). A few protesters moved in and shouted within a few feet of Trump as he made his way into the back of his stretch limo for the short drive back to his tower. Seated serenely, he betrayed no sense whatsoever that he had just fled a tumultuous and slightly menacing situation to find sanctuary behind tinted glass. ‘‘There’s something happening here,’’ he told me.

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‘‘America is tired of being pushed into a corner,’’ Matt Yelland, a 60-year-old electrical engineer was telling me before Trump took the stage at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in mid-­September. We were just days from the debate at the Reagan Library, and a crowd of some 17,000 had gathered for a rally. Behind Yelland, a man flashed a ‘‘Silent Majority Is Getting Louder’’ sign, alluding to the old Nixonian notion–the Silent Majority–that Trump has identified as both a campaign slogan and a target market. ‘‘We’re a gentle dog, but we’re tired of being pushed around,’’ Yelland said.

This was a common sentiment among Trump supporters I met, a group that felt worn down from being bullied. Implicit in the campaign’s ‘‘Make America Great Again’’ rallying cry is a yearning for a leader to restore a lost swagger–a return to a less complex, less politically correct and more secure nation. Trump’s war on political correctness is especially pleasing to many of the white voters of the G.O.P. who feel usurped by newcomers and silenced by the progressive gains that women, Hispanics and gays have enjoyed. It also provides a kind of permission structure for Trump to offend in the guise of ‘‘telling it like it is’’ and only enhances the reality-­TV plotline. What will he say next? How will he say it?

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{snip} Other than undocumented immigrants, who represent a go-to boogeyman for the right, Trump’s targets consisted of a bipartisan assembly of the ‘‘permanent political class’’ that Joan Didion described in her book ‘‘Political Fictions’’: that incestuous band of TV talkers, campaign strategists and candidates that had ‘‘rigged the game’’ and perpetuated the scripted awfulness of our politics. ‘‘Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected,’’ Didion wrote. ‘‘But everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-­grouped.’’

Resentment of this class has built over several years. It has been expressed on both sides, by the rise of insurgent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (Trump’s railing against fund-­raiser ‘‘blood money,’’ ‘‘bloodsucker’’ lobbyists and Wall Street ‘‘paper pushers’’ would play well across the board). As a reporter in Washington, I, too, have grown exceedingly weary of this world–the familiar faces, recycled tropes and politics as usual–and here was none other than Donald J. Trump, the billionaire blowhard whom I had resisted as a cartoonish demagogue, defiling it with resonance. He tacked not to the left or to the right, but against the ‘‘losers’’ and ‘‘scumbags’’ in the various chapters of the club: the pundits who ‘‘wear heavy glasses’’ and ‘‘sit around the table,’’ the ‘‘political hacks’’ selling out American interests overseas. Karl Rove ‘‘is a totally incompetent jerk,’’ Trump told the crowd in Dallas, referring to the Fox News commentator and chief Republican strategist of the George W. Bush years. The crowd went nuts at the Rove put-down, which in itself is remarkable–the ‘‘architect’’ of Bush’s political ride being abused by a right-­leaning crowd in Bush’s home state.

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After an hour, as Trump continued to watch himself on TV, I tried to draw out some of the particulars of his big, great plans. We were at the part of the rebroadcast in which Trump was discussing people whose families had been ‘‘decimated’’ by illegal immigrants, the emotional apex of his speech. He described illegal-­immigrant ‘‘rough dudes’’ that join street gangs and commit murder. When Trump is president, ‘‘they will be out of here so freaking fast,’’ he said in the speech. I asked Trump how he planned to round up and eject these thugs. ‘‘Just get ’em out,’’ he said, waving his hand, not looking away from the screen.

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