The Trump factor

I thought the hot air began to leak out of the Trump balloon during the Republican debate event run by FOX News last night. The leak began at the outset when Trump said he could promise to support the eventual Republican nominee only if he were the nominee. “I cannot say I have to respect the person if it’s not me,” Trump said.

Given the quality of the rest of the field, one would think that Trump’s reservation might tend to make even his Republican supporters a little queasy. What manner of man is this? Who doesn’t pass his muster? What is he doing here? Although I understand elements of his appeal, I don’t find the answer to any of these questions self-evident.

I thought the debate event tended to diminish him because he had so little to say. He doesn’t make much of an argument on behalf of a cause or an issue. He is a performance artist without the discipline or desire to master an issue beyond his immediate experience. His praise of the Canadian health care system, for example, is painful. Call the doctor! The system works well — unless you need to see a doctor for treatment, in which case you can get in a very long line.

Trump’s use of the Republican Party as the platform for this year’s performance seems decidedly a matter of convenience. He is too big, too eccentric, to be contained by any party. He is a Whitmanesque figure, uttering his barbaric yawp. Does he contradict himself? Very well, he contradicts himself.

Even when one agrees with him — even when I agree with him — one fears that he is a detriment to whatever issue he champions. I exaggerate a little saying he is an embarrassment to it, whatever it is. There is a powerful and reasoned case that needs to be made against the constraints of political correctness, to take just one small example, but Trump is unwilling to do more than pronounce against it. Ain’t got time for tone!

Trying to understand Trump, I think of the Jesse Ventura phenomenon in Minnesota. Ventura ran for governor in the election of 1998 as a forthright member of an independent third party. He was a creature of show business and a larger than life figure. He was bigger than either the Democratic or Republican Party.

He was his own man. He was blunt. In debates he held his own against Norm Coleman (then the mayor of St. Paul) and Hubert Humphrey III (Minnesota Attorney General), each a formidable figure and man of substance in his own right, even though public policy was really beyond Ventura’s ken if the question at issue did not touch him personally. Ventura’s crudity was part of his appeal to the segment of the electorate that fell for him, and the segment was sufficiently large that he emerged the winner in a three-man race.

As governor, Ventura proved an erratic figure. One sensed that he might not be particularly interested in the job. He gave it up after one term to pursue other interests. I thought he left us with a bad taste in our mouth. Having sat in on his defamation lawsuit against the estate of Chris Kyle in federal court in St. Paul, however, I have to say still draws on a small reservoir of good will among Minnesotans despite his ever greater eccentricities.

Trump and Ventura seem to have something of a mutual admiration society. For those trying to understand the present moment, the Trump oeuvre offers his millennial manifesto The America We Deserve (written with Dave Shiflett, 2000). Trump says that he met Ventura when he appeared at some of the “monster wrestling events I used to stage in Atlantic City.”

Trump seems to have been toying with the Reform Party at the time. Invoking Jesse Ventura, Trump writes:

Recently there have been some new names suggested for the presidency and one of them is mine. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has strongly encouraged me to run. I highly respect Jesse not only as a dynamic governor but also as the embodiment of the qualities America needs. Given the choice between another slate of stale professionals and Jesse’s mixture of basically commonsense principles and straight talk, it is no contest. He has convinced me that we need the same combination in the White House.

Trump added: “Nonpoliticians like Ventura are the wave of the future.” That was then, this is now. To borrow the title of the Moody Blues album, Days of Future Passed.

I thought that Trump’s limitations as a Republican presidential candidate emerged repeatedly last night. I would as an example his discussion of his business bankruptcies. I should think he could somehow have professed fallibility and the benefits of his experience, but he simply blew them off. “Out of hundreds of deals—hundreds–on four occasions, I’ve taken advantage of the laws of this country, like other people,” Trump explained. “The difference is, when somebody else uses those laws, nobody writes about it. When I use it, it’s like, ‘Oh, Trump, Trump, Trump.” The bankruptcies, or Trump’s belligerent defense of them, tend to belie the greatness of the acumen he seeks to project except insofar as he has used his acumen to advance his personal interests.

What next? Trump spoke with Ventura in a podcast late last year. The podcast is accessible on iTunes here. It is worth a listen. The Washington Post covered the podcast in the story it headlined “Today in bizarro world.”

In the podcast Trump explained to Ventura the prohibitive practical difficulties of mounting an independent candidacy for president. He claimed to have researched the question. Trump’s silence on this point last night is suggestive. It suggests to me that he seeks to hold out the threat for whatever advantage it will give him despite the cost it imposes on him as a Republican candidate, or to preserve the option of an independent candidacy as a means of attaining whatever his true ends are.