Neal Gabler

The Huckster in Chief

He may be down, but Trump is still the man of this moment

By Neal Gabler
May 8, 2011

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THERE IS an old adage that the country gets the president it deserves, which was probably meant to explain Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, all of whom arrived in times of crisis. Now it may explain the pending candidacy and Republican popularity of celebrity businessman and television host Donald Trump. It has gotten to the point where the nation’s problems seem so intractable and the nation is so hopelessly divided that we seem to long for another approach entirely — hucksterism. And that’s where The Donald comes in.

By any traditional standard, Trump has absolutely no qualifications to hold the highest office, save one: his own overweening, bulldozing self-confidence. Even as a master of finance, which is supposed to be his métier, Trump has been less than spectacular. Four of his businesses have filed for bankruptcy, one as recently as 2009. Meanwhile, he has been forced to reduce his stake in his own enterprises so that he is more their face than their brain. This is hardly the man you would choose to put in charge of the American economy.

Except that Trump can’t really be measured by his financial acumen because he was never really a businessman — at least not in the usual sense. Trump was always a huckster, and whatever he lacked in business expertise, he compensated for in bluster. He divined that one’s name and one’s image were as much a currency as actual currency, and when people bought Trump’s junk bonds, they were investing less in a company than in Trump himself or what he purported to be. Trump’s business was always Trump.

He managed to turn “seeming’’ into “being.’’ Parading around as if he were a genuine financial titan, pop culture’s answer to Warren Buffett, he became one largely because everyone assumed he was one, when in fact he was just an elevated version of those shills on late-night TV infomercials who get rich by telling you how they can make you rich.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see why this would be a handy skill to have in politics. At a time when people complain that politicians are all talk and no “do,’’ Trump understands that if you talk brashly enough — say, insisting the president wasn’t born in the United States — talk becomes a form of “do.’’ And this is where Trump turns from businessman manqué to president manqué.

Ronald Reagan’s great contribution to American politics was to see the affinity between the movies and governing. He intuited that what Americans really want from their president is less for him to solve their problems than for him to make them feel the way the movies do — to give them that sense of elation you experience at a good movie. His conservative allies may have been focused on policy, but Reagan was focused on the psychological benisons — on national confidence-building, on narrative simplification that takes complexity and turns it into good guys vs. bad guys, on a sense of sunny optimism that forecasts a happy ending, just as the movies do. With his implacable buoyancy, he was not only the Movie Star in Chief, he was the Therapist in Chief.

Similarly, Trump’s contribution to American politics may be his understanding of the affinity between reality TV, his real métier, and governing. Reality TV makes stars of people who have only the talent of calling attention to themselves and the chutzpah of assuming their own stardom. To wit, the Kardashians. Reality TV requires a suspension of disbelief — namely the disbelief that these folks, Trump included, are really as important as they make themselves out to be.

Trump has lived his entire career within the public’s suspension of disbelief. What he seems to be attempting now is to become the first reality TV president, which may also make him the first post-modernist presidential candidate: the man who hopes to become president by pretending to be president just as he pretended to be a hard-driving businessman by telling people they’re fired on TV. Who needs policies when you’ve got bravado? All he is asking for is more suspension of disbelief.

If the public is receptive to this gambit, it is because we almost seem to prefer appearance to substance now. In this environment, there may be something appealing about the idea that we can simply dispel our problems by talking and acting tough — not solve them, just dispel them. That seems to be The Donald’s promise. He’s not about politics. He’s not even about turning the presidency into a national movie to make us feel good. He’s about turning it into a reality show where he can rant and rave and give us the impression that he’s in charge. He wants to be the Bloviator in Chief.

Trump’s probably wouldn’t be much of a presidency. It certainly wouldn’t be serious. It would be all noise and diversions and self-aggrandizement. But for all that, it may be precisely the presidency this nation deserves.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’