Don­ald Trump amuses us to death

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Matt Bai Na­tional Po­lit­i­cal Colum­nist

All right then, let’s do this. If we have to talk about Don­ald Trump, be­cause ap­par­ently the sub­ject will not just go away on its own, then let’s talk about him, even if it means go­ing back on a vow I made 16 years ago.

This was back in 1999 when I was a ju­nior po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent at Newsweek, and Trump was pre­tend­ing to run for pres­i­dent for the very first time. His venue then was a com­plete train wreck called the Re­form Party which for a brief mo­ment was a pretty big deal in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, but by that point was rip­ping it­self in half.

Founded by Ross Perot in 1995, Re­form was then led, nom­i­nally, by the wrestler-turned-Min­nesota-gover­nor Jesse Ven­tura, a pop­ulist lib­er­tar­ian with whom I spent an in­or­di­nate amount of time in those days. But Pat Buchanan, the dis­en­chanted so­cial con­ser­va­tive, had de­cided to stage a hos­tile takeover so he could use the party’s bal­lot line to run for pres­i­dent again — an even­tu­al­ity Ven­tura was so de­ter­mined to stop that he would have gladly thrown his sup­port be­hind any half-wit de­gen­er­ate who came through the door with some cash and a plau­si­ble re­sume. And in walked Don­ald Trump.

He said he was se­ri­ous about run­ning, any­way, and he in­vited me to Man­hat­tan, for the pri­vate tour of his pen­t­house in Trump Tower, with the mar­ble walls and the faux Greek stat­ues and the mas­sive scale model of his loom­ing residential tow­ers, over­look­ing un­ob­structed views of his loom­ing residential tow­ers. You know, pretty much the kind of decor you would choose, with a lim­it­less bud­get and no dis­cernible taste.

We rode in Trump’s stretch limo with his then girl­friend, the su­per­model Me­la­nia Knauss. (She was lovely.) We at­tended a din­ner with Alec Bald­win and a for­mer Miss Uni­verse. (She was lovely.) About two hun­dred times, Trump pointed out all the or­di­nary New York­ers who called his name as they passed and pointed out how much they adored him. He beamed for ev­ery cam­era in the zip code.

It was, in short, a gar­ish spec­ta­cle, and none of it seemed to have very much to do with run­ning for any­thing other than more at­ten­tion, and I wrote what any nor­mal per­son would have con­sid­ered a bit­ing, dis­mis­sive ac­count of the whole cha­rade. (This in­cluded the odd fact that Trump stead­fastly re­fused to en­gage in hand­shakes, though per­haps he’s got­ten over that.)

Af­ter the story came out, I got a call on my foot-long cell phone as I was walk­ing down the street. It was Trump. I braced my­self.

“You’re an un­be­liev­able writer!” Trump shouted. “That was a great piece!”

That call kicked me in the stom­ach, be­cause I re­al­ized Trump had got­ten from me ex­actly what he came for. I promised I would never again let my­self be used for brand pro­mo­tion mas­querad­ing as pol­i­tics, which I con­sid­ered then — and con­sider now — to be a very se­ri­ous busi­ness. But you know, when your en­tire in­dus­try is hap­pily al­low­ing it­self to be used, I guess you have to ac­knowl­edge the or­ange-haired ele­phant in the room.

Oh yes, I know, Trump is a le­git­i­mate ob­ses­sion be­cause he is the “Repub­li­can fron­trun­ner.” Look at the polls. Only an ar­ro­gant elit­ist would avoid cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing the front-run­ner says and does just be­cause you think him in­suf­fi­ciently qual­i­fied.

Ex­cept that Trump isn’t a front-run­ner for any­thing. That’s like say­ing Michele Bach­mann and Her­man Cain were fron­trun­ners in 2011. (Oh wait: We did that, too.)

It’s July. Trump’s plu­ral­ity in these polls ba­si­cally comes down to a tiny sub­set of pro­fessed Repub­li­cans who will ac­tu­ally talk to a tele­mar­keter and who find pol­i­tics in gen­eral to be a soul-suck­ing en­ter­prise.

Trump draws crowds be­cause he is a gen­uine celebrity and a world-class en­ter­tainer. Pol­i­tics is tedium and same­ness, like net­work dra­mas in the age be­fore ca­ble. Trump is re­al­ity TV, live and un­scripted.

And let’s drop all the pre­tense: That’s why we in the media hy­per­ven­ti­late over his ev­ery ut­ter­ance, too. I’m not say­ing, as the Huff­in­g­ton Post does, that Trump’s can­di­dacy shouldn’t be cov­ered as an ac­tual can­di­dacy. Only that, if there were any real pro­por­tion here, Trump would merit about half the cov­er­age he gets, and we wouldn’t con­stantly be bait­ing him to hurl some new, head­line-mak­ing ep­i­thet.

We can say we do this be­cause we have some somber re­spon­si­bil­ity to vet the lead­ing can­di­date, but the truth is we are op­er­at­ing in a pre­car­i­ous and in­se­cure mo­ment where noth­ing mat­ters more than the almighty click, and any­thing with Trump’s name on it gets a ton of them. Guess what? He knows that, too.

This is Trump’s pe­cu­liar ge­nius: lever­ag­ing one kind of celebrity into another, so that he never re­ally goes away. He didn’t get to be an iconic real es­tate devel­oper by build­ing nicer build­ings than ev­ery­one else; he did it by lever­ag­ing his money into ca­chet as a man­about-town and then rent­ing out his name to for­eign in­vestors. He took his act to TV be­cause he un­der­stood that he was per­fectly si­t­u­ated to lever­age his fame as a bil­lion­aire into even more fame as a TV boss. And now it’s on to the next thing: lever­ag­ing his TV au­di­ence into a boom­ing po­lit­i­cal brand, which is prob­a­bly an idea he got from watch­ing his friend and fu­ture sec­re­tary of state, Sarah Palin. Trump’s jug­ger­naut isn’t an ac­tual cam­paign, with an agenda or a strat­egy. It’s great pro­gram­ming. And this is

ex­actly what the so­cial critic Neil Post­man warned of when he wrote a phe­nom­e­nal lit­tle book called Amus­ing Our­selves to Death in 1985. Post­man’s es­sen­tial point was that our news and pol­i­tics were veer­ing ever closer to the dark vi­sion of Al­dus Hux­ley in Brave New World. He warned that the line be­tween TV en­ter­tain­ment and real events would be­come so por­ous that the na­tion would soon be un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween them, and as a re­sult our public dis­course would be­come a se­ries of mean­ing­less story arcs rather than an in­formed de­bate over the con­se­quen­tial busi­ness of gov­ern­ment.

Do I worry that Trump is the re­al­iza­tion of Post­man’s worst fear? No. And yes. Trump him­self doesn’t worry me. That’s be­cause I don’t think for a mo­ment that he wants the job. What Trump wants — craves, ac­tu­ally — is rel­e­vance. The man has a clin­i­cal pho­bia of ob­so­les­cence. He puts his name on ev­ery build­ing he owns just to make sure peo­ple will have to speak it out loud. He has no plan for ac­tual gov­er­nance and no am­bi­tion to ac­tu­ally gov­ern. It’s pos­si­ble that his daily bar­rage of in­sults and di­a­tribes, each more out­ra­geous than the last, is re­ally a kind of self-sabotage, as if he’s try­ing to fig­ure out how aw­ful he can be be­fore the show starts to lose view­ers. Even if Trump man­aged to get the nom­i­na­tion (which he won’t), the broader elec­torate would re­coil at the things he says, and he’s prob­a­bly count­ing on it. What does worry me is that Trump re­ally is a proven vi­sion­ary. He’s bril­liant at see­ing the next egolever­ag­ing op­por­tu­nity. He’s the first in­ter­lop­ing net­work star to jolt a pres­i­den­tial race, but no way is he the last.

Trump is point­ing us the way of cer­tain Euro­pean coun­tries, as my for­mer New York Times col­league Frank Bruni bril­liantly noted last week, when he very aptly com­pared Trump to Italy’s Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni. What Trump is do­ing, and it’s a twisted kind of public ser­vice, is show­ing all of us how easy it is now to suc­cess­fully ma­nip­u­late a media in eco­nomic dis­tress and a pres­i­den­tial process that caters, more and more, to an ever-dwin­dling bloc of ex­trem­ists on ei­ther side. Some­where out there right now is some busi­ness mag­nate or TV celebrity, some­one whose re­sources and au­dac­ity may vastly ex­ceed his in­tel­lect or com­pas­sion, whose am­bi­tion may be more of the Napoleonic va­ri­ety than the P.T. Bar­num kind, who’s bet­ter skilled than Trump at mak­ing dem­a­goguery look like a half-palat­able gov­ern­ing vi­sion.

And that per­son is prob­a­bly sit­ting by a pool ringed with lime­stone god­desses, watch­ing all this un­fold and ask­ing the ques­tion any of us might rea­son­ably ask in that sit­u­a­tion.

“Hey, why not me?”

Don­ald Trump with Jesse Ven­tura, then gover­nor of

Min­nesota, in 2000. (Photo: Reuters)

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