Quick question: Is there is any meaningful difference between Sarah Palin and Donald Trump?
There are probably a few distinctions worth mentioning. Several billion dollars in net worth, for one. Palin is (or was) a career politician, while Trump has never been elected to anything. Palin has held unyieldingly conservative views her entire adult life, while Trump has oscillated back and forth as it has suited him. Palin stars in reality TV shows, while Trump only hosts them.
On the whole, however, I am increasingly finding the two Republican stars interchangeable. The longer our present Trump hysteria persists, the more it conjures déjà vu for that period in 2008 when, thanks to John McCain, America was presented with a singular political phenomenon it could not ignore, however hard it tried.
Specifically, I have decided to approach the Trump question as comedian Lewis Black approached Palin. Asked in 2010 about his estimation of the one-time Alaska governor, Black quipped, “What I believe is she’s actually not real. That’s the only way my mind can deal with it, that she’s a fiction character come to life.”
Sounds about right to me.
Donald Trump may technically be a living, breathing human being—in possession of some semblance of a heart and brain—but to the tens of millions of us observing the presidential race from our respective couches, he is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon character. A TV-based caricature whose presence has no relationship to reality and who will never, ever, ever be elected president.
This has been true from the moment in 2011 when Trump, disposing of whatever dignity he had left, publicly converted to Birtherism by expressing doubt as to whether President Obama was born in the United States. Then, none of us actually took his rantings seriously, but we happily imbibed them nonetheless, because, hey, we all need to indulge our guilty pleasures now and then.
Now, of course, the circumstances are slightly different, insomuch as Trump is running for president and is currently the highest-polling candidate in the Republican primary field.
But here’s the weird thing: We still don’t take him seriously.
If I may be allowed a prediction: Should he win the nomination, we won’t take him seriously then, either.
And if he is elected president? To quote Basil Fawlty: “We’ll worry about that when we come to it, shall we?”
Of course he won’t win the nomination, let alone the keys to Air Force One. Up to now, his candidacy has been built on a foundation of sheer chutzpah, blissfully bereft of anything in the way of policy prescriptions, intellectual maturity or basic ideological coherence. While plenty of candidates have succeeded with one or other of those characteristics, Trump would be the first to pull off the hat trick.
But he won’t, because sooner or later, the utter ridiculousness of his existence will cease being a mixture of hilarious and appalling and be merely appalling, and his whole act will just plain get old. Sure, in the future he may experiment with actual legislative proposals—launching a drone war against China, perhaps?—but there is little evidence that this would have much effect on his core fans, who seem perfectly content with the substance-free specimen they have now.
A word about those supporters.
In most recent opinion polls, Trump is gobbling up endorsements from 20-25 percent of registered Republican voters—more than any of his competitors by far.
But let us realize how insignificant this data point actually is. According to Gallop, 23 percent of Americans today identify as Republicans. (Democrats are 28 percent and independents are 46 percent.) While it is certainly impressive for anyone to carry 25 percent support in a 17-person field, when we talk about one-fourth of GOP voters, we are only talking about one-fourth of one-fourth of the total American electorate.
Which means—if my calculations are correct—that, for all our shock and awe at Trump’s supposedly amazing popularity, the enthusiasm in question is felt by little more than one-sixteenth of all American voters—an amount that would be negligible if it referred to any other subject about which pollsters might bother to inquire.
We might refer to Trump supporters as a fringe group. Statistically-speaking, they are. Indeed, their number is less than half the percentage of those who currently approve of the U.S. Congress. (Presumably there is minimal overlap between the two.)
So when we—and especially our media—continue to treat this cretin as if he were a legitimate political figure, we are just being lazy, selfish hedonists.
We follow Trump’s antics for the same reason we eat junk food: Because it provides a temporary rush of pure primal pleasure, followed by a crushing sense of shame, guilt and emptiness, which in turn can only be cured with…more junk food!
No one in the journalism profession genuinely thinks Trump is worth covering. They cover him anyway—and we tune in—because of how morally superior it makes us feel. We see a grown man behaving like a petulant child and we think, “Well, I may not be rich or famous, but at least I’m not a complete jerk.”
Trump’s campaign has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with distracting ourselves from the deadly serious matters that, sooner or later, we will have to confront for real.
For now, it’s all one giant freak show, and—you know what?—we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.
In a priceless new Rolling Stone article titled, “Inside the GOP Clown Car,” Matt Taibbi argues that we probably shouldn’t be so flippant and blasé about Trump’s total media saturation, since its perpetuation could lead, in Taibbi’s words, to “the collapse of the United States as a global superpower.” Not to mention the generally poisonous atmosphere that his comments about women and immigrants have unleashed.
I see very little to worry about. The environment that Trump hath wrought is ugly now, but it will pass soon enough, and equilibrium will return to our system as it always does.
I began with a comparison to Sarah Palin because I think her own character arc is instructive here.
As you’ll recall, Palin totally shook up the 2008 race when she landed on the underside of the GOP ticket, galvanizing Republican voters with passionate speeches, snappy one-liners and her inspiring, wholesome family.
And then she lost the election by 8 ½ million votes, quit her job and was forever lampooned by Tina Fey and others because—oh, that’s right—she is a total flippin’ idiot.
Palin’s status as an unqualified clown is bleeding obvious to us now, but she made quite a mess before we finally, collectively, decided to treat her like the reality TV sideshow that she is.
With Trump, there are no ambiguities whatsoever. We know exactly how absurd he is—it’s confirmed every time he opens his mouth—and if he remains a role model for a plurality of Republican voters then, well, that’s because they’re absurd, too.
The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation. In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.
Naturally, Democrats are rooting for exactly that, and the liberal media have every reason to keep pretending that this man is a real story.
If I were a Republican voter, I would be horrified by this sordid state of affairs. As it stands, I can’t imagine being more thankful that I’m not.
That is, unless the Donald somehow secures the nomination and selects a certain former Alaska governor as his running mate.