You can never be sure how much of a celebrity persona is an act. Is Donald Trump the unfiltered blowhard that he seems to be? Or is he a blowhard who carefully filters out the thoughts that the character "Donald Trump" wouldn't say? Trump has never struck me as a man in control of his image—he wants to look like a shrewd negotiator but instead constantly comes across as a dumb buffoon. But maybe he's more self-aware than he seems. The buffoon role is clearly working for him.
Self-aware or not, he's striking enough of a chord to have pulled ahead in the Republican presidential polls. And while that lead might not last any longer than the Herman Cain surge of late 2011, it's clearly coming from somewhere. Trump has taken two traditions, degraded them into forms that fit his public persona, and combined the results into a powerful political stink-bomb.
The first tradition is that familiar force, the people's tribune: those fiery figures, from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Huey Long, who act, or claim to act, as the champions of the masses. As I wrote a few years ago, it may be
tempting to dismiss the tribunes as mere demagogues. But like entrepreneurs invading a complacent industry, the people's tribune succeeds by stressing topics his more respectable rivals prefer to ignore. When ordinary voters feel neglected by ordinary politics, the tribune will channel their resentments. And if that sometimes means that ugly sentiments that once were confined to whispers will spill out into public debate, it also means that legitimate anger about a host of arrogant policies, from urban renewal to police harassment to corporate bailouts, can be forced into the open as well.
Trump's rhetoric falls squarely in the "ugly sentiments that once were confined to whispers" category, though the anti-Mexican currents he's tapped into aren't really confined to whispers these days. Most of the other Republican presidential candidates are border hawks, just like he is. But they're polite about it, while Trump goes straight for the scapegoating and delivers it in bluntly bigoted language. The border-control crowd is always worried that the politicians promising crackdowns don't have their hearts in it—after all, they've been making those promises for ages, and illegal immigrants are still here. (Like a die-hard drug warrior, the borderista thinks a thriving black market is a sign that the government isn't policing hard enough.) They have no such doubts about Trump. More than any other candidate on the Republican side this year, he is constantly praised for "saying what he means."
Funny thing about that: It's far from clear that Trump literally means all the crazy things he says. Take his announcement that he won't just build a border wall but will make Mexico pay for it. I can't dismiss the possibility that Trump actually thinks he can do this. But it's easier to take it as an over-the-top bit of braggadocio that's meant more as poetry than policy. It's bad poetry, of course, but the world has always contained more bad verse than good.
When he spouts stuff like that, Trump borrows from the second tradition: those electoral tricksters whose campaigns serve as a sort of satiric performance art. Think of Norman Mailer's 1969 bid to be mayor of New York, in which he suggested that gangs fight formalized jousting matches in Central Park; or Hunter Thompson's 1970 run to be sheriff of Aspen, when he promised to put dishonest drug dealers in stocks; or Jello Biafra's 1979 campaign to be mayor of San Francisco, when he said the city should rehire laid-off public employees as panhandlers with a 50 percent commission; or Howard Stern's 1994 dive into New York's gubernatorial race, when he called for filling the state's potholes with criminals' corpses. When I wrote an article about those campaigns a couple decades ago, I noted that none of those candidates entered their races expecting to win (though Thompson very nearly got elected anyway). That fact
freed them, not only to push radical ideas that make more sense as poetry than as policy proposals—calling for a "Sweet Sunday" [when everything in the city stops for a day] makes a fine satiric point, but surely Mailer did not really want to shut the city hospitals down for 24 hours a month—but to be brutally honest in a way no "serious" politician ever can. To quote Mailer and Breslin's campaign slogan, these are campaigns with No bullshit.
So Mailer and Breslin were on the level about overthrowing the city bureaucracy and restoring power to the neighborhoods. Thompson was dead set on stopping the gentrification of Aspen. Biafra was out to show up the local corporate-state interests and to make fun of the police. Stern's was a populist thrust at the two most common complaints about life in New York: crime on the streets, and the streets themselves.
Trump probably isn't as self-aware as Mailer and the rest, and he certainly isn't as clever or funny. But he's filling a similar role. He's the guy willing to say something ridiculous to make his point. And if he's still in the race when the actual primaries are underway, he'll get votes from those Republicans so committed to Trump's point that they're willing to do something equally ridiculous in a voting booth.