Can Donald Trump be president of the United States? Snoop Dogg and the Situation from Jersey Shore think so, and when are they ever wrong? Last week, the billionaire took time from firing ex-stars like David Cassidy from Celebrity Apprentice and attended a televised “roast,” where many of the jokes from B-list celebrities were about his intention to throw his toupée into the ring for the Republican presidential nomination. “Trump says he’s gonna run for president in 2012,” said host Seth MacFarlane, “but if his plan for America is to fire everyone, he’s about two years too late.” If smarmy stars believe Trump’s running, so does Trump. He told the show Inside Edition that he’s “seriously thinking about doing it” after this season of The Apprentice ends in June; he’s also reportedly booked time that month in New Hampshire, an early primary state, to address its fabled “Politics and Eggs” lecture series.
Trump is encouraged in his ambitions by a website, shouldtrumprun.com, which was set up by his spokesman Michael Cohen and grabbed what Trump described as “500,000 names in a very short period of time.” Polls are looking good too: a Newsweek one shows him running almost even in matchups with President Barack Obama, while another (by NBC, which broadcasts his show) announced that his favourable rating is higher than the GOP’s top candidates, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. In the words of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, “Who can beat Barack Obama? Donald Trump! Yeah, baby!”
Much of the mainstream media has chosen to treat his candidacy as a joke. Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator, told CNN that The Donald “has absolutely no chance of winning,” adding “I mean, he’s famous for being famous. He may be good in business but he’s not going to be president.” But maybe the supporters of the “serious” candidates don’t think Trump is such a big joke: after he appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February and said that Rep. Ron Paul has “zero chance of getting elected,” a Paul supporter from 2008 sprang into action and filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Trump, charging that this “de facto candidate” was improperly spending money to jump-start his primary campaign in Iowa.
And why shouldn’t these other candidates be afraid of a man who beats them at their own game? Not only is Should Trump Run challenging Paul when it comes to Internet cultism, Trump has been doing for years what all the other candidates only recently started doing: becoming a TV star. Virtually all the other Republican candidates are regulars on Fox News, which has become a sort of 24-hour infomercial for competing candidates. But none of them, not even cable reality star Sarah Palin, can compare to Trump when it comes to TV success. Though the ratings of The Apprentice have dropped lately, in the show’s prime it was one of the few things keeping NBC afloat. In 2004, network president Jeff Zucker gratefully said that Trump was “a huge game-changer for us” in those lean years. He saved NBC, and saved his own reputation after coming near bankruptcy in the ’90s. No wonder he thinks he can save something marginally less badly run, like America.
The Apprentice could be a better ticket to the presidency than a Fox News post, because in its own way, it’s more dignified. Whereas Huckabee or Palin are reduced to the level of pundits, Trump is treated almost like a demigod on his own show. Like Martin Sheen as the president on that other NBC show, The West Wing, Trump doesn’t always have the most screen time, preferring to let the contestants argue and his helpers (including his own children, setting the stage for a Bush-style dynasty) do a lot of the heavy discussion. When Trump takes centre stage in the climactic boardroom sequences, he often makes generic statements that could apply to virtually any contestant regardless of the scenario: “Do you really believe you’re tough enough to work in New York?” Like Obama with his famously bickering staff, Trump just amusedly sits around and watches other people fight, instead of joining the fray himself.
Even when he does say something that could be construed as embarrassing—in the very first Apprentice episode, he said, “Women have a tougher time in the workplace, or so they say,” as if he didn’t believe it was true—the editors make sure to cut in some shots of the contestants smiling at him, making them look amused instead of horrified. Other candidates get in trouble for their unguarded comments; Trump is just seen as an avuncular figure who says wacky things, just like the man every candidate aspires to be: Ronald Reagan.
Besides, there has never been a better time for a man with no political experience to audition for the world’s most important job. Previously, there was a sense that to be president, you needed to pay your dues, especially on the Republican side. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, almost all the U.S. presidents were former governors or ex-vice-presidents, and the GOP nomination usually went to the elder statesman who had run unsuccessfully in a previous primary, like John McCain. But by getting elected based on less than one term as senator, Barack Obama helped the world realize that being president doesn’t actually require a whole lot of experience. That opened the floodgates for Mitt Romney, who served one term as governor of Massachusetts, or Palin, the candidate who made Obama look like a seasoned pro. In a field like that, Trump’s inexperience hardly seems like a problem. He certainly has never seen himself as less qualified than anyone, in any field; on an episode of The Apprentice where he went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, he declared, “They should put my footprints outside. I’m a bigger star than anybody.”
His lack of political training could even be a selling point, if you assume that Republican candidates mean everything they say. One of the most frequent complaints about Obama is that he was elected president without any experience in the private sector. Lou Pritchett, a former executive for Procter & Gamble, wrote an open letter to Obama saying that, “You scare me because you have never run a company or met a payroll.” But many of the current Republican candidates are subject to the same criticism, or at least living their lives in politics instead of the cold, cruel world of business. That’s not the case with Trump, who hires and fires people all the time in real life and on his show. The Tea Party believes in Ayn Rand’s idea that, as Ed Kilgore of the New Republic put it, “business owners are the only source of economic growth in society.” Trump is not only a business owner, he has a producer credit on his own show, making him literally what Ayn Rand was talking about when she praised “producers.”
Of course, The Donald does have a strike or two against him. The conservative activists known under the umbrella term of the Tea Party tend to be socially conservative, concerned with issues like abortion. Trump has already had to repudiate the pro-choice positions he’s taken in the past, switching to a pro-life platform; Cohen told National Journal that the flip-flop was acceptable because “people change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.” There may also be signs that he has lost the Reaganite populist touch. The fall 2010 season of The Apprentice reverted to the format of the early seasons, using regular folks as contestants instead of celebrities—and it was the lowest-rated season in the series’ history.
Still, Trump does have some quirks that appeal to the conservative base, particularly his obsession with China, which he brings up in virtually every interview he does. He’s even implied that this is a reason to vote for him, telling Fox News that “China is just ripping this country like nobody has ever ripped us before” because “we don’t use our great business people to negotiate.” Romney or Tim Pawlenty can’t make the argument that only their business acumen can protect America against the Communist menace. Trump also told ABC news that he has “doubts” about Barack Obama’s citizenship, because “he grew up and nobody knew him.” If his TV fame doesn’t resonate with primary voters, maybe his embrace of “birtherism” will.
If he does run, he’ll have one other thing going for him: the support of new media stalwarts, just like congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was defended by conservative bloggers after saying that Lexington and Concord were in New Hampshire. The online world is already starting to warm to Trump now that he’s being attacked by the hated Republican party establishment. After the criticism from Lamar Alexander, the blog Freedom’s Lighthouse was one of several that came to Trump’s aid. “Just imagine if Trump was the nominee,” the blogger argued. “He already has the perfect slogan to run on: ‘Help me tell Barack Obama, ‘You’re fired!’ “