Two fun things happened last weekend. On Saturday, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia awarded me first place in its Political Column category for my work at the Missoula Independent. That’s extremely nice of them and probably better than I deserve. In case you needed another reminder that the race is not to the swift, a Fox News poll released Friday had Donald Trump running first among Republican candidates for president, with support from 18% of likely primary voters. Before you stockpile canned beans, let us remember that Trump is one of 16 candidates for the Republican nomination, and his status as front-runner may testify less to his viability and more to how thoroughly that field has split the vote of people who try to supply the funniest answer to polls. Also, right after that one came out, Trump criticized Senator John McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War.
The Washington Post has published this probably unfair but enormously pleasing comparison of what Trump and McCain were doing in 1968, when the former was leveraging his family fortune in Manhattan and McCain was “relearning how to walk.” If you don’t know the story of McCain’s five-year experience as a prisoner of war in the notorious Hanoi Hilton,1 I urge you to read up on it. Both men went into the family business. It’s just that McCain’s dad was an admiral, and an inept North Vietnamese doctor tried to set young John’s broken arm without anesthetic. Meanwhile, Trump’s dad owned a lot of low-rent apartments, whose tenants sometimes hassled young Donald when he came to collect the rent.
In The Art of the Deal, Trump writes that “When I graduated from college, I had a net worth of perhaps $200,000.” That’s about $1.4 million in 2015 dollars, all of it earned working at his father’s business. Trump is surely a better businessman than most, but the idea that his billions make him some kind of genius is dubious. He inherited money and real estate connections at a moment when property in New York was relatively cheap, and leveraged them over a 45-year period when city real estate got extraordinarily expensive. Yes, he made good deals. But he was born on third base and talks as if he hit a triple.
In this way he is a fine mascot for the Republican Party. Between sealing the borders and repealing the estate tax, the conservative message sometimes looks like “keep everything the way it is and coast.” With his broad—some might say fatuous—public remarks and refusal to produce position papers, Trump captures the spirit of party politics 16 months before the general election: lots of big, abstract feelings and no specific ideas. He is blunt and self-aggrandizing. He’s going to fix everything with his personality, not with his plan.
The Jeb Bushes and Scott Walkers haven’t articulated many specific plans at this point, either. Trump’s approach is ideally suited to this early period, when media coverage is unevenly divided and name recognition counts more than policy or messaging. His relative lack of advisers might explain why Trump has pursued strategies that vault him ahead in the early polls while virtually guaranteeing his failure later—calling Mexicans rapists, insulting the war hero who was his party’s 2008 nominee.
These are the acts of a man who does not expect to be a candidate after Super Tuesday. Perhaps it is unfair to insist that the front-runer among Republicans is not a legitimate candidate. But Trump seems to insist that with virtually every public appearance. All of his bumps in the polls have come from what the press and other candidates agree are gaffes. Maybe that means we’re out of touch with what the people really want. Or maybe Trump is a huckster, and he has merely invited 18% of Republican primary voters to sit back and enjoy the show. It is pretty entertaining, even if it is an act of buffoonery.