Donald Trump amuses us to death

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·National Political Columnist
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Donald Trump with Jesse Ventura, then governor of Minnesota, in 2000. (Photo: Reuters)

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, just like the Prince song, 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, believe it or not, 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, where I got 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 or I would choose, if we had a limitless budget and no discernible taste and a yawing hole in the part of our psyche that parental love might normally fill.

We rode in Trump’s stretch limo with his then girlfriend, the supermodel Melania Knauss. (She was lovely.) We attended a dinner where I sat 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.

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Oh yes, I know, Trump is a legitimate obsession because he is the “Republican front-runner.” 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 the utility infielder who hits .460 in the first two weeks of April is a likely MVP candidate. It’s like saying Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were front-runners 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, who can’t keep any of these other droning candidates straight, 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 a 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 man-about-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 — I mean, 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 (as I’ve written before, both in this column and in All the Truth is Out, my own book on the subject of trivial political coverage) 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.

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What does worry me is that Trump really is a proven visionary. He’s brilliant at seeing the next ego-leveraging 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?”

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