“Stupidity, celebrity, plutocracy”: Donald Trump is the Reagan revolution on steroids -- and he just might win

Movement conservatives can protest that he is not one of them, but it's their movement that celebrated ignorance

Published May 5, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz   (AP/Reuters)
Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz (AP/Reuters)

Ten months ago, at a time when Donald Trump’s newly announced run for the Republican nomination was almost universally considered a bad joke, I had this to say about it:

One of the most compelling points Rick Perlstein makes in his excellent The Invisible Bridge is that Ronald Reagan was consistently and radically underestimated as a potential political force by the national media, public intellectuals, D.C. insiders, etc., until practically up to the moment he was on the edge of winning the GOP nomination in 1976.

This makes me at least begin to wonder if something similar might not be happening with Donald Trump. Now obviously there are enormous differences between the backgrounds, the careers, and the personalities of the two men, but there are also some striking similarities:

(1) Both mastered the art of manipulating their contemporary media environments.

(2) Both manifested a fine understanding of how to make outrageous statements in a way that ingratiated them with their political bases, precisely because the national media reaction to those statements allowed them to pose as victims of supposed media and/or elite bias.

(3) Both spent a good part of their lives as at least putatively wishy-washy Democrats, before discovering that selling racial demagoguery to the contemporary Republican party base was about as hard as selling beer at a baseball game on a 90-degree day.

(4) Both spent most of their careers being dismissed as clownish lightweights.

In a GOP presidential field that isn’t exactly stacked with political talent, the notion that Trump can’t win the nomination is at least premature. As is the idea that he can’t be elected president.

Ten months later, Trump is the presumptive nominee, and many of the same people who were certain there was no chance that could happen are now equally confident that he has no chance of becoming president.

I think they’re wrong again.

For all the agonized cries of movement conservatives that Trump is not really one of them, he is in fact the natural culmination of the entire Reagan revolution, which over the past forty years has transformed both the Republican party and the nation as a whole.

The French revolution’s slogan was “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The Reagan revolution’s guiding principles have been “stupidity, celebrity, plutocracy” – and Trump is the ultimate example of all three.

Under Reagan, movement conservatism became an aggressively stupid ideology: one which has celebrated the plain wisdom of the common people over the know-it-all arrogance of the elites, the intellectuals (always referred to invariably as “so-called intellectuals”), the ivory tower professors, and the scientists. A perfect example of this attitude is provided by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s paean to George W. Bush in the midst of his 2004 campaign for re-election:

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He's normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He's not exotic. But if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help. He'll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, "Where's Sally?" He's responsible. He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, "I warned Joe about that furnace." And, "Does Joe have children?" And "I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it's formidable and yet fleeting." When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain't that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain't that guy. Americans love the guy who ain't that guy.

The message is: vote for this guy not despite his ignorance, but because of it. Ignorance is strength, in other words.

Of course in comparison to Donald Trump, Bush the Lesser might as well be Ludwig Wittgenstein. I haven’t plumbed the precise depths of Trump’s ignorance of every subject that might have relevance to running the executive branch of the American government, but I also don’t know precisely what’s at the bottom of the New York City sewer system, and have no particular desire to find out.

Here’s an evaluation of that very question from Republican operative Mark Krikorian, who, after noting that Trump is a braggart, a liar, a serial adulterer, and generally unfit to be president, declares that Trump “wouldn’t recognize the Constitution if he tripped over it in the street. He doesn’t know even the Cliff Notes version of any policy issue.” (This is all in the context of Krikorian’s announcement that he plans to vote for Trump anyway).

As for celebrity, people mocked Reagan for being an actor, but again, in comparison to Trump, the erstwhile star of "Bedtime For Bonzo" looks like Benjamin Disraeli. Trump has spent his entire career, if you want to call it that, being a pure celebrity, in the sense of someone who is, in so-called intellectual Daniel Boorstin’s definition of the concept, famous for being famous.

Electing Donald Trump president would be as insane as electing Kim Kardashian president, and for the same reasons. He’s a reality TV star, and that is all he is. But in America in 2016, the cult of celebrity, like the cult of stupidity, is so all-encompassing that being famous for being famous is a sufficient basis for winning a major party’s presidential nomination, at least if that party is the party of Reagan, the know-nothing B-movie star who took over the GOP.

Finally, Trump’s ascendance marks the triumph of plutocracy in its purest form. Ronald Reagan hated government, and loved business, to the point where he helped create our national infatuation with the idea of the heroic businessman, who may have no idea what an administrative agency is or how to find Mexico on a map, but who knows how to Get Things Done.

And that is Trump in a nutshell. His other qualification for high office, besides being a total moron and having appeared in People magazine a lot, is that he’s a fabulously successful businessman. Of course Trump’s business success seems to be as phony as everything else about him (to the extent that he’s actually rich he appears to have made his money the old-fashioned way, that is, he inherited it), but in a culture that worships both stupidity and celebrity, the self-serving lies of famous plutocrats are often swallowed whole.

Forty years after Ronald Reagan came within an inch of taking the Republican nomination from President Ford, Donald Trump represents every horrible personality trait and political instinct that fueled the Reagan revolution. He is that revolution on steroids, and the very embodiment of our national cults of stupidity, celebrity, and plutocracy.

By Paul Campos

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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