Is there any candidate in American history like Donald Trump?
The real-estate mogul’s bombastic entrance into American politics has become a cultural phenomenon. His populist, nativist rhetoric has struck a chord with many voters and his wealth allows the billionaire to show a striking disregard for the norms of party politics. The result was that Trump’s appearance in the first presidential debate led to sky-high ratings, with a viewership higher than the World Series or the NBA finals.
Most recently, the controversy over his comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, that she has “blood coming out of her wherever”, has become front-page news around the world. The statement, which was widely perceived as a reference to menstruation, set off a media feeding frenzy that was covered as intently by supermarket tabloids as by wonky journals of policy.
Yet his rise has left pundits scratching their heads. Even in the most recent post-debate poll, albeit one conducted online and with a very small sample, Trump still maintained a healthy lead on Monday.
There are plenty of archetypes in American politics like the young idealistic orator, the grizzled veteran of Washington or the ideologue who inspires the party faithful. But the fabulously wealthy reality television host with a belligerent social media presence is something new. It is difficult to find parallels to Trump in recent American history. As Roger Stone, Trump’s former political adviser, told the Guardian: “No one is Trump. Trump is unique.”
He noted that while there may be elements of Ross Perot’s 1992 race in the real-estate mogul’s candidacy, there are still big differences. After all, “Trump is much, much richer than Ross Perot and he is also far better known.” But that hasn’t stopped academics and historians from trying to find a comparison.
David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, sees difficulty in comparing Trump to anyone who has sought the Republican nomination in recent years. He noted that the comparison to Pat Buchanan’s insurgent run in the 1992 Republican primary race was problematic because the former Nixon speechwriter and CNN television personality “had a long history with the Republican party and held responsible positions in Republican administrations”.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, who wrote Rule and Ruin, the definitive history of the collapse of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, saw Trump’s politics as emerging from an entirely different political tradition.
“Trump is not really a Republican, he’s a populist,” he says. In his opinion, Trump has “all the hallmarks” of populism. “He’s anti-establishment and anti-politics,” said Kabaservice. “He doesn’t pretend to be a man of the people, yet he is speaking for them and they find him to be an appropriate tribune.”
The historian also noted that one can draw analogies between the Trump phenomenon and European populists such as the Le Pens and Nigel Farage. One longtime observer of American politics reached back more than half a century for a Trump analogy. Walter Shapiro, a columnist who has covered nine presidential elections, saw Douglas MacArthur, a former general who flirted with presidential runs in 1948 and 1952, as the best comparison to Trump.
Shapiro noted MacArthur’s polling numbers against Harry Truman in 1951, shortly after he was sacked as the leader of United States forces during the Korean War, closely mirrored Trump’s today.
He further pointed out that both men fit the image “of a man on horseback – a business leader or a general who will make things all right and cut through all the crap in Washington”. Yet all of these comparisons underrate the celebrity factor in Trump’s candidacy.
He’s not just a television host but a fully fledged media personality who has been fodder for tabloid journalism for decades. He’s probably the first presidential candidate to have had his own board game.
Working their way up
Whereas celebrities have sought political office before, they’ve worked their way up. Jesse Ventura was mayor of his town before running for governor of Minnesota; Ronald Reagan was governor of California before running for president – and both were long past the heights of their fame.
The closest parallel in terms of celebrity may be John “Goat Glands” Brinkley, a radio doctor famous for implanting goat testicles into men suffering from impotence in the 1920s. After Kansas authorities took away his radio station and medical license, he decided to run for governor as a write-in, third-party candidate, and almost won in 1930.
Even then, the parallel is somewhat forced: Brinkley was not a national figure, nor did he have the influence or resources that Trump has been able to bring to bear.
At this point, there is no historical parallel that captures the emergence of Trump on the scene. There have been populist firebrands before and there have been candidates who have tapped into resentment over immigration. There even have been self-funders who have been able to make political decisions without any hesitation about worrying donors or the party establishment.
But there has been no candidate who has combined all of those aspects with a level of celebrity rivalling a movie star or even a Kardashian. The question is whether his candidacy has a lasting effect and inspires imitators, or if it’s as much of an aberration as “Goat Glands” Brinkley. – © Guardian News & Media 2015