The political success of Donald Trump is not surprising. His formula for success is rather simple: Tell everyone how bad things are and assure everyone he is the answer. Use his celebrity. Use his billions. Use his “you’re fired” tough talk. And Trump has his finger on the pulse of modern America. He’s right that America is fractured, culturally and economically, after two terms of Obama. He’s right that federal debt is nearly insurmountable at this point and America has lost its stature overseas. But those observations are not unique to Mr. Trump. A blind man could see the problems.
This moment isn’t the first time in American history that we’ve been in this sort of position. Have we forgotten the Jimmy Carter years? Nor is it the first time in American politics that a demagogue has risen to high popularity. Trump’s nativism is astounding and yet not new in American history. His policy solutions – the few he can actually articulate – are so big and broad that specifics are rendered meaningless for most Americans. He wants to build a wall on our southern border with Mexico. It’s hard to imagine what that might look like given that the border already has lots of fencing. But his idea is practically unimaginable for our historic American identity – a 1,950 mile “wall” along our southern border is un-American.
The truth about Donald Trump is that he isn’t solving anything. He’s simply offering up rudimentary and emotion-laden feelings of resentment and passing them off as public policy. Trump is a manager, not a leader. There’s a reason he champions building a huge wall along the border – he feels very comfortable managing projects as a general contractor. When he says building a wall would be easy, does anyone doubt him? No, because that’s what he does. He builds stuff. But building stuff is a lot different than running stuff and way different than leading the most powerful nation on Earth.
Trump’s enterprises have gone belly up four times and Trump blows it off as the cost of doing business. If he builds something and it fails, he just builds more stuff. A nation doesn’t work like that. When a nation fails, most of the people fail too, not just the guy with bad ideas. And it’s pretty difficult to regain the confidence of voters after major failure. Voters are different than Wall Street lenders who always seem to make money, success or failure.
On the other hand, Trump’s political success is counterintuitive. Rarely, if ever, has an American politician been so narcissistic, so rude, so personally unkind to every opponent and critic and so lacking in political experience. And yet many people love him. They love that he “tells it like it is.” They love that he challenges the “establishment.” They love that he speaks freely seemingly without care or consequence. In fact, his followers love him so much that his esteem rises in their eyes the more outrageous he sounds.
Trump is a political entrepreneur – otherwise known as an opportunist. He sniffed out the discontent of the American people. He saw how unbelievably immovable both political parties had become. He sensed that many Americans were ripe for emotional exploitation and eager for scapegoating their problems on to “foreigners.” Trump has a good eye for entertainment and the spotlight, for sure.
But what he doesn’t have is a moral compass, a clear understanding of American history or a positive vision for America’s future. He simply repeats the same tired old slogans about winning and losing. Donald Trump is an emotion, not a solution. Donald Trump is anger, not an idea. Donald Trump is what is truly awful about America’s body politic. He’s a virus. His fascism is little different than Bernie Sanders’ socialism. In fact, given the complexities of all of America’s challenges today, it’s remarkable that any candidate can become wildly popular simply by suggesting that we build a wall or hand out free college.
It’s fitting that Donald Trump cares little about his four bankruptcies. It explains so much about his egocentric focus. But Americans should care. When Trump fails America, he’ll go back to work. Not so for the rest of us left to pick up the pieces.