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In every U.S. election for the past 25 years, Donald Trump has promised to run for president, then balked. In 2012, for example, he explained he just couldn’t leave his reality-TV show, The Apprentice. “I have two hours of prime time every Sunday night and I’m gonna say, ‘To hell with it?’ No matter how rich you are, it pays a fortune. Like, big money.” But, finally, this week Trump stood in front of a crowd of vocal supporters and bemused journalists, and officially launched his candidacy with a provocative and mostly ad-libbed speech.
If delivered by any other candidate, much of what he had to say would be considered career-ending gaffes: “Our GDP is below zero”; “[Mexican immigrants] are bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Watching him swerve into these spontaneous asides was like watching a drunk trucker careen down a mountain with no brakes and a load of nitroglycerin. Complete disaster seemed only seconds away. But Trump is a rhetorical stuntman. He gets away with saying things no one else would dare.
The pundits have dismissed him as a sideshow for a long time, which is easy to do. According to the traditional rules of American politics, his infamous hair alone should disqualify him as a serious candidate. And his lengthy talk-show campaign to expose the alleged conspiracy covering up President Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth should relegate him to a special roped-off area on the sidelines. But here’s a risky prediction: Trump is actually going to do pretty well.
His platform is the purest populism, unfettered by political realities, budgetary constraints or gravity. He promises to renegotiate all of America’s foreign trade deals. He will rebuild America’s infrastructure while also reducing its debt. He will deploy more nuclear weapons, take care of vets and deliver a pony to every child who asks.
Anyone who is paying attention knows Trump is promising to fix problems that don’t exist and offering solutions that won’t work. But, for the voters who aren’t paying attention—which is to say, most of them—building a wall on the southern border and sending Mexico the bill is perfectly sensible. They hear Trump and nod in agreement: “I’ve been saying the same thing for years!”
Trump is transmitting at a different frequency than any of his Republican rivals. He doesn’t sound like a congressman. He sounds like your favourite uncle after six beers: “I’m not saying the Chinese are stupid—I like them!” He has the patter of a knife salesman at a county fair, slicing and dicing through the background noise. “When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?” This is Trump’s gift: He is essentially a showman.
The media are going to cover Trump obsessively, expecting him to crash in an explosion of invective and hubris. And he might. But, in the meantime, his outrageous sound bites will fill the newspapers, magazines and TV shows that normally ignore politics.
If Trump forgoes donors, as he promises, and funds his race with his claimed $8 billion in personal wealth, his campaign machine could quickly grow into the largest in the race, if not ever. It will essentially become the most heavily publicized and well-funded reality-TV show in American history. Maybe Trump understands politics better than we think.