If you have watched a half-hour of any cable news program over the last several weeks, or since Donald Trump descended on an escalator and flamboyantly announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, you are aware that the media and political class are equally consumed by trying to unravel the paradox that the more that Trump has been saying things that make them want to dismiss him as a less than “serious” candidate, the higher his poll ratings have been climbing. Indeed, when Trump was polling at 7% or 8% in the polls, the talking heads asserted that 10% would be his ceiling. Then, when he started polling at 11% or 12%, they pushed his ceiling up to 15%. Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC had earlier gone one better on these predictions when he kept insisting that Trump would never run for president—until, of course, Trump announced that he was indeed running.
One of the common talking points is that Trump is this campaign cycle’s version of Herman Cain—that he will attract an unwarranted amount of media attention and then very quickly become a footnote once the “serious” campaigning begins. Although I have no way of knowing whether these prognosticators may turn out to be accurate or mistaken about Trump’s electoral prospects, I’d like to point out that arguments that depend on analogies are a very basic type of logical fallacy that has been recognized since Aristotle’s time.
So, why is Donald Trump’s campaign not comparable to Herman Cain’s?
First, almost no one knew who Herman Cain was before he announced his candidacy. In contrast, over the last two decades, Donald Trump has become one of the most widely recognized celebrities in America.
Second, Herman Cain’s business background left him tagged as the “pizza man” and his “9 9 9” tax plan became a campaign slogan with a very short shelf life—a slogan that rather quickly went from sounding fresh to sounding hackneyed and even somewhat ridiculous. In contrast, Trump is a real-estate developer, the owner of casinos—a guy who has homes decorated as garishly and baroquely as Liberace’s. But each of Trump’s successive wives has been a knockout; so, he has some of the larger-than-life persona of a Hugh Hefner kind of character, but with a veneer—no, gilt layer–of respectability.
Third, because Cain was relatively unknown, the accusations of sexual misconduct that became more public as his campaign was gathering momentum were enough to derail that campaign. In contrast, Trump has so insulated himself from any sort of public shaming that it is very difficult to conceive of a comparable personal revelation that might derail his campaign. About the only possibility would be the revelation that he is—as Lawrence O’Donnell has long openly suggested—not worth anything close to the billions of dollars that he repeatedly claims to have.
Fourth, it is a truism that Americans almost always “vote their pocketbooks.” But that truism simply does not apply to Republican primaries. If it did, there would not be so many working poor who were such staunch members of a party so clearly in the service of the so-called “one percent”–so clearly and persistently determined to limit broad-based democracy in order to secure the interests of the oligarchy. Like “Joe the plumber,” many of these working-class voters may be suffering under the delusion that they may soon become wealthy beyond their actual imagining, but they are clearly more conditioned to projecting their dissatisfaction onto scapegoats than in making any real, if incremental, improvements to their actual circumstances. Many of them are, in short, locked in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, and Trump is not just the guy whom they have fantasized becoming; he may also be the guy who will stick it to everyone preventing them from realizing their fantasies of being like him.
Fifth, Herman Cain is an African-American, and his appeal to that segment of the party that includes the most blatant racists was always going to be limited. Trump is not only White; he is also a White guy who might dress better than most of the voters to whom he is appealing, but who does not sound a whole lot different than most of those voters sound when they offer an opinion in their living rooms, workplaces, or favorite sports bars. To test the validity of this assertion, take a look at the Far Right comments on almost any op-ed with a progressive slant that has been published on the website of a major daily newspaper or national periodical. These are people who believe that stating their political convictions without any nuance whatsoever is irrefutable evidence of the unassailable truth of those convictions.
Sixth, although I am not sure that Trump entirely understands what he doing in his campaign—that is, I suspect that part of his strategy is to have no clearly articulated strategy by which he can be defined and therefore coherently attacked—he is certainly smarter than many of the voters to whom he is appealing. And, more importantly, they know that he is smarter than they are. That is what makes him, in their minds, a legitimate candidate for president. He speaks for them either in a way that they cannot speak for themselves or in a way that they do not have the means to sustain. In short, he not only gets attention; he demands attention.
Lastly, when Herman Cain ran in 2012, the others in the Republican field included very few senators and governors with an established political base and more than limited geographical recognition and appeal. In contrast, this cycle features a very large number of such candidates—enough to fill two debate stages to overflowing.
So, to make his mark in this campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump does not have to get the votes of 51% of the two-thirds of registered voters who actually vote in presidential elections. He does not even have to get 51% of the 25% of voters who are registered as Republicans—or whatever percentage of that 25% who will actually vote in the Republican primaries. If Trump gets anywhere between 20% and 30% of the votes cast in the early primaries—that is, if he can appeal to about 4% to 6% of the American electorate–he will be a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner. And, despite what the talking heads might wish were the case, his supporters will come out in numbers to vote for him.
For, only in 21st-century America can a billionaire blowhard have a deep populist appeal.
Indeed, if the Kardashians can be not just celebrities but unparalleled celebrities, Donald Trump can be a “serious” candidate for president. Trump may never actually be elected president, any more than the Kardashians may actually do “anything,” beyond whatever it is that they do. But no one wants to be on cable television in the same time slot opposite any one of the Kardashians’ reality shows. And I suspect that the other Republican presidential candidates don’t really want to be sharing the same time slot or the same debate stage as Trump.
As a coda, I am attaching a wonderful map posted to the Huffington Post that depicts Donald Trump’s worldview:
It is hilariously funny, even as it is so plainly preposterous and blithely unapologetic.