A brief but telling statement about Donald Trump’s early years, courtesy of a former high school classmate:
“He didn’t mingle with the rest of the corps who were not as high ranked. He lived in a different set of barracks.”
I’m drawing attention to this quote because it highlights my main observation about Trump’s candidacy. He is not, despite the protestations of his most zealous supporters, a truth-teller of any kind. If he has meaningful convictions, he has yet to share them with the public. All that we know for certain about Trump is that he likes attention, wealth, and power… and, like most individuals who insatiably possess those cravings, he is willing to resort to sordid means in the hope of attaining them.
At some point in his life, it occurred to him that one particularly effective method would be to run for president. This is where his right-wing racism comes into play.
Think about it for a second – not emotionally, but rationally. When we first heard about Trump making a presidential bid, the year was 2011 and his signature issue was birtherism. President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, but many Americans believed that he was secretly born elsewhere. Why? Well, it may gauche to say such things in polite society, but the obvious culprit is racism. After all, Obama was the first African-American president, so racists (conscious and subconscious alike) were bound to question his bona fides as an American. What better way to do so than concoct absurd arguments insisting that he wasn’t actually born in this country (an argument that has been conveniently exempt from the current presidential candidacy of Ted Cruz)?
Flash forward to the 2016 presidential election cycle and we’re faced with a similar Trump campaign. The only difference is that, instead of focusing on one racially-charged issue, The Donald has learned to incorporate several. First he played off of racism against Mexicans; then he utilized misogyny, as well as a dash of hyperbole denouncing political correctness; when that began to expire and the candidacies of Cruz and Ben Carson started to take off, he conveniently came forward with discriminatory proposals against Muslims.
If it seems like Trump is able to come up with fresh ways of offending marginalized groups – and, not coincidentally, raising his public profile – at the precise moments when he needs to do so, it’s because you are more perceptive than many in the media. This isn’t to say that Trump isn’t actually a racist (his personal views on racial and religious bigotry mean nothing unless the fates are unkind enough to make him president), but his tactics are so transparent that it’s impossible to believe that he’s sincere. At some point, Trump learned that racism could aid his political ambitions, and since then he has been touching that nerve with gusto.
In short: Donald Trump is an epic con man.
The only question that remains is whether we will allow America to be his greatest mark. I fear that it’s too late to save the Republican Party at this point. This is a shame, when you think about it. While I don’t care for the GOP’s policies in the post-FDR era, that august political institution has a reputation worth saving. It produced several of our nation’s finest presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower being the most obvious examples, although I’d make a point of removing Ronald Reagan from that list and include Benjamin Harrison for good measure) and has stood for admirable principles like abolishing slavery and eliminating corporate monopolies. At the same time, the fact that so many of its supporters are willing to back Trump works to that organization’s lasting discredit. Even if by some miracles he doesn’t get the nomination, what does it say that a miracle is required at all at this point? Trump isn’t your standard issue sub-par politician; he is a transparent huckster, a flagrant fraud, and he is not only duping one-half of the American electorate but doing so while playing to its basest impulses. It is shameful that he has gotten this far, and that fact alone should tarnish the Republican brand for years to come.
While it may be too late for the party of Lincoln/Harrison/Roosevelt/Eisenhower, though, it is not too late for the rest of America. For that to be true, though, we need to call out Trump for what he’s doing. Denouncing him as a latter-day Adolf Hitler isn’t enough, if for no other reason than the “He’s Hitler” card has already been grossly overplayed in our political rhetoric (and, as I’ve argued before, is also demonstrably untrue). Besides, comparing Trump to Hitler implies a level of sincerity that most likely doesn’t even exist. The problem isn’t that Trump holds heinous beliefs, but rather that he says heinous things if he believes they will serve his personal ends. He is a con man, not an authoritarian, and while both are demagogues it is important to distinguish between those types of demagoguery.
When all is said and done, however, the story of this presidential election has very little to do with Trump himself. He is merely the Pied Piper of Hamlin leading America’s angriest fools to a watery grave. Many of them believe that this piper plays for them – that he doesn’t care about their rank because, by virtue of being a white heterosexual Christian male, he is fundamentally their equal – and as a result they merrily dance along, not realizing that he refuses to share their barracks or consider them as his equals.
For the piper’s followers, what follows is a well-earned tragedy. For the rest of us, there is a certain perverse hilarity in the ensuing spectacle, the kind of thing that fables and satires are made of. That said, many of us would rather not be dragged into the muck by his antics, and as such it behooves us to draw attention to them now before permanent damage has been done. In case we have any hesitation left, there is only one question to ask: Do we want the joke to be on Trump or on us?