Chuck Todd, NBC News: “So you wouldn’t allow Ukraine into NATO?
Donald Trump: “I would not care that much, to be honest with you. Whether it goes in or doesn’t go in, I wouldn’t care.”
Several years back I wrote a column lamenting the paucity of colorful characters in the American political landscape. I thought this personality deficit reflected a boring trend of sameness among our elected leaders, a move toward the bland and unremarkable, to cautious talking points and offend-no-one position-taking that could do with some spicing up, the injection of a few wild hairs.
From a spectator’s standpoint, it is always more fun to see players on the field who bring an unpredictable, electric vibe to the game, and even the odd dash of eccentricity. Life can be weird and curvy and at least a corner of our politics should reflect that, both in terms of personal background and style.
Inevitably, those tell-it-like-it-is qualities can get politicians into hot water. The good ones with special talent and depth recover and charge ahead unbowed. Others tumble over a career-ending tipping point for saying and doing things so outrageous they can no longer be effective in office.
Donald Trump is a walking tipping point. He is almost more caricature than character. He is a shocking zenith in our political sky, impervious, as we’ve heard a million times from the television pundits, to the “laws of conventional political gravity.” He is profane, obnoxious, funny and crass. He leads the polls and dominates our national discourse.
Trump comes from a long line of gaudy American showmen with an innate ability to zero in on the national mood, a strong current of which now reflects serious distrust and dissatisfaction with the political class (“all talk and no action”). His cutting candor and overly self-confident bravado (schtick?) recall legendary personalities ranging from Mark Twain to Teddy Roosevelt to Muhammad Ali, always suggesting just the hint of a wink to an audience in on the joke.
Perhaps better than anyone, Trump understands that ours has become a culture of celebrity, for it is one he helped create. Celebrity like his cannot be taken away and practically speaking, is worth untold tens of millions of dollars that he already has not had to spend on the traditional trappings of a presidential campaign.
Donald Trump has learned quickly that presidential elections are about leadership and vision, not policy details. Clearly, a big chunk of Republican primary voters are looking for a leader who comes across as decisive and evokes a sense of immediacy and action.
Trump’s former consultant Roger Stone – no slouch in the colorful character department himself – said the billionaire sees that “the country needs a cheerleader, a salesman … an optimist… who will lead.”
The real estate magnate slash reality TV impresario’s Reaganesque slogan, “Make America Great Again” is magnificently prosaic, compelling and forward-looking, and at the moment it is connecting with more than just Republicans who believe our country is going the wrong direction (64% of all Americans polled feel that way). And it is a good fit for a jaunty, can-do candidate who is clearly enjoying his time in the sun, in bold contrast to the joyless, desultory campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Like all great promoters, Trump is prone to hyperbole and he’s filled databases with wince-worthy and often curious and contradictory proclamations. He is a populist on steroids, and that kind of chauvinism can sometimes lead to dark places. Many things he has said are mean and just wrong. As real votes in Iowa and New Hampshire grow nearer, should he continue to enjoy success in the polls, a telling measure of his character as well as his intellect, will be his willingness and ability to act … presidential.