There are many things about Donald Trump’s run for president that are counterintuitive, unconventional and perhaps even precedent-setting.
The man kicked off his campaign by insulting an entire group of people. He became the Republican presidential front-runner without so much as a campaign ad explaining his recently minted relationship with his party or how the life-long private sector empire builder will rapidly gain the skills necessary to govern. And now, he’s delivered a speech — many have called it a rant — in Iowa that ran 95 minutes. It included this question about Republican contender Ben Carson’s claims that a belt buckle saved a friend who, in a fit of rage, Carson tried to stab.
“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” Trump asked. “How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”
That is what Donald Trump said to an audience in Iowa, while presumably stumping for their votes. Carson leads Trump in recent polls of Iowa Republican voters. So Trump has, of late, spent some time on the attack. But reasonable people have to wonder what, exactly, was Trump really doing Thursday?
There are at least two very distinct possibilities. Each is perhaps as outlandish and yet somehow feasible as the other.
The first option is that Trump might well be engaged in an effort to solidify and build on the kind of unfailing, this-man-alone-can-save-us-and-must-be-empowered loyalty that voters already in his camp have repeatedly professed. The second option is that he might be engaged in a public act of intentional self-sabotage, killing off a campaign that has thrived where and when others have sputtered and failed.
Let’s contemplate those possibilities, shall we?
Trump has thus far demonstrated a remarkable, if not singular, ability to wield the power of his personality and America’s obsession with that which he has and most do not — wealth and fame. He has done so in a way that has rendered the political experience, temperance and decorum of other candidates less appealing. He’s recast those as actual and unacceptable flaws. And he has managed to convince his staunchest supporters that it is precisely his personal cocktail of wealth, ego, fame and inexperience in elected office that makes him aware of their struggles. Trump alone is capable of ending their personal and financial pain.
He is richer (read: stronger and therefore more independent), shrewder (read: smarter and, when necessary, meaner) and bolder (read: braver, more iron-fisted and unshakable) than any other man or woman in the race. Trump has said all of the aforementioned, often. But what truly makes this approach worthy of our collective attention is the share of Americans — mostly white Republicans — who have translated those self-assigned superlatives to also mean that other candidates are unsuitable.
These voters seem also to have concluded that Trump alone understands them. Trump alone can restore or raise them to the dominant position for which they were intended. And he will do this by betraying zero public concern about the tension, umbrage and even global danger created by his faux-populism and claims that complex problems can be simply and easily resolved. For instance, on Thursday in Iowa, Trump told the crowd he would simply “bomb the [expletive]” out of the Islamic State.
Apparently, all America needs are a few bombs to prevent global jihad.
The fact is, Trump was born wealthy and given his first million by his father. His books and licensing deals supply much of his wealth. And Trump has, in his own words, strategically leveraged the nation’s bankruptcy laws — more than one time. He spent the past 10 to 15 years transforming from a New York Democrat and liberal to a man willing to express ideas about young black and Latino criminals and appropriate punishments for their alleged crimes.
Later, Trump became one of the chief national prosecutors of the phantasmagorical case against Barack Obama’s citizenship and his legitimacy as an elected president. If Trump can turn the president into a suspect outsider and interloper disrupting the natural or at least proper order of things, who else can’t be?
But the centrality of his personality, his image and his only-strong-men-like-me-should-govern claims — even the the length and volume of his public speeches — are worth noting. They have much in common, in fact, with the tactics and tools that brought the Caudillos to power in Latin America in the early 19th century and Mussolini to the helm of the Italian state between the world wars.
And now for the alternative: Perhaps that moment on the Iowa stage Thursday — one where the usually prompt Trump started speaking 40 minutes behind schedule and delivered his remarks with a raspy voice and mussed hair — was not a conscious and carefully planned effort to shore up his cult of personality. Perhaps it was a strategic effort to send it to a crashing end.
For months the Republican Party, establishment GOP candidates and political observers have insisted that, at some point, the phenomenon that is Donald Trump would halt its climb. Trump, they said, was a temporary diversion, entertainment for the disaffected masses before the real election began. Trump would lose interest. Voters would come to their senses. The once-presumptive front-runner, Jeb Bush, or one of the others who have a least held public office, would find their emotional and political bearings and mount an assent.
None of that has, in a sustained and overwhelming way, happened, as The Washington Post’s own Robert Costa, Philip Rucker and Ed O’Keefe have each reported in depth from the campaign trail. In fact, what the party seems to be digesting and thinking now is that Trump or Ben Carson could actually become their presidential nominee.
Few, if any of us, can say what Trump makes of that or his real intent. He’s been in the race for some time now. He’s spending his own money. He’s traveling and debating and doing SNL. He remains unrepentant about his lack of experience; his knowledge of world leaders, the language he uses to describe them, the details of American trade deals or the state of nuclear armament around the world. But he has grown more adept at attempting to conceal what he does not know by talking about what he does. And Republican voters like it.
Perhaps the open insults flying from that microphone and stage in Iowa and direct attacks on Republicans that other Republicans love — or at least, do not hate — are really Trump’s way of signaling he wants off this long and demanding ride. Maybe he wants to go back to the rigors of running his real estate business, licensing his name and image and, maybe a petty-fiefdom on reality TV. That’s a combination that has already made him richer, better-known and until very recently, overwhelmingly more appealing than any other Republican in the race. (And Trump is still leading in some national polls.)
What American alive cannot imagine Trump deciding he’s done with a White House run on the grounds that he’s never been second place in anything, and so he is getting out? Even Trump himself has suggested he might drop out “if I fall behind badly.”
The truth is that, by conventional political standards, what Trump did and said on that stage in Iowa Thursday would be regarded as the verbal equivalent of a death wish if it came out of any other candidate’s mouth. But of course, we are talking about Trump. And perhaps no one knows better than Trump that only Trump can remove Trump from contention.