Donald Trump is a superhero – but not in a good way

July 27, 2015
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends the Family Leadership Summit in Ames

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, July 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Hovering above all the brouhaha about Donald Trump’s bizarre presidential candidacy floats one critical question: Are we an electorate or are we an audience?

Trump has bet on the latter, while his competitors, even one like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has positions close to Trump on many issues, bet on the former. Trump has received a lot of opprobrium for his antics, but it isn’t clear that he is wrong. Even if much of the establishment and leading political analysts have already rendered their verdicts.

Trump certainly isn’t the first candidate to conflate entertainment and politics. When Ronald Reagan was asked if it was hard adjusting to being president after being an actor, he replied that he couldn’t imagine anyone being president without being an actor. Reagan was right. Performance skills, including the skill of drawing attention to oneself, are now intrinsic to political skills if one hopes to become president.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump stands in front of a statue of actor John Wayne during a campaign event in Winterset

Donald Trump with a statue of actor John Wayne during a campaign event at the museum and birthplace of the actor in Winterset, Iowa, June 27, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Frank

But Reagan was talking about communication, which is why he always invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another great communicator, as a model. He wasn’t talking about replacing substantive policy with performance.

Something has happened over the past 15 years or so that has radically altered the relationship between performance and politics. It is partly due to the U.S. political arena, in which a candidate must constantly try to grab attention. More subtly, however, it is also due to America’s ever-shifting popular culture, in which new kinds of narratives regularly push aside older ones.

Today it is comic-book superhero narratives that matter. We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar. And this has affected our political discourse.

Many pundits attribute Trump’s publicity domination to his celebrity and his ability to grab the spotlight, honed by decades of playing the media. To many of them, he is the political Kardashian. There is some truth in this. The public’s appetite for Trump seems limitless. And he understands that, in today’s culture, the shortest road to success might not actually mean being successful but portraying yourself as being successful. Which then results in success. In effect, he is a Mobius strip seamlessly moving from perception to reality.

But as much as Trump boasts about his wealth (and denigrates everyone else), that is not what has catapulted the New York real estate magnate to the top of the Republican polls. He has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In this superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over opponents.

FILE PHOTO OF FORMER U.S PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN.

President Ronald Reagan at a news conference in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon

What Trump offers them is his detestation of the very mechanics of politics — and of democracy itself. He has no time for the compromises, negotiations, consensus building, civility and seriousness required in a democracy. The aptly named Trump is telling them that he will trump the entire political system. He’ll replace the mess of politics with a clean sweep of super heroics.

Reagan, the one professional entertainer who did assume the presidency, never purported to be a superhero. Quite the opposite. As studio boss Jack Warner quipped when he heard Reagan was running for governor of California: “No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend.” That was exactly right. Reagan was genial — the happy face of conservatism.

Trump, on the other hand, is no one’s best friend. He intentionally irritates.

Sure, his disruption is entertainment. The Huffington Post has already decided to consign Trump’s campaign to its entertainment pages. But it is a particular kind of entertainment, not just nutty bloviation.

When Trump promises to build his wall across the entire Mexican-U.S. border (and make Mexico pay for it!); when he promises to tell off China; when he promises to blow Islamic State off the face of the earth, he isn’t propounding policy. He is creating scenes from a movie. A movie we have all seen now dozens of times. He is playing to an audience that has foresworn being an electorate. It is what all demagogues do, but most of them have not had popular culture at their back the way Trump does.

This may also be why Trump keeps doubling-down on his inanities — accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists or insisting Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a hero. Iron Man doesn’t apologize. He destroys. So does Trump. The more the political establishment rebukes him, the better.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump speaks during a news conference regarding issues on undocumented immigrants in Beverly Hills, California

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a news conference in Beverly Hills, California, July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

But if Trump has bet on the electorate as audience, and on his ability to turn the presidential campaign into a Marvel movie, he may not have fully gamed it out. He may not have considered that entertainment, which is fundamentally anti-political, inevitably loses out when it comes up against politics, which is fundamentally anti-entertainment.

In the past, at some point, the demagogues who make themselves out to be populist superheroes have hit a critical mass where their posturing can trigger the public to say the show is over and the jig is up. As pollster Stuart Rothenberg recently explained, Trump’s popularity is a product of his voicing the angry sentiments many Republicans feel. It is not a product of their really wanting him to be president.

Usually sooner rather than later, the lights come up in the theater, and the audience walks out into the bracing real world from which they had been escaping.

At least that is the way it has always been. Trump is in a movie. His competitors are in a primary. If he somehow manages to sustain his candidacy, if the power of popular culture has so embedded itself in Americans’ consciousness as to make the public re-envision the world, it will say less about Trump than about a sea change in U.S. political culture — from one that is about governance to one that is about putting on an exhilarating show.

Trump can’t be president any other way.

19 comments

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Trump is a wake-up call to the nation offering a choice of simplicity and directness to the public that’s fed-up with current politics of evasion. In fact, good number of traditional democrat voters are looking up to him. Perhaps, he is the only one to-date that had guts to bring-up root cause of job issue – China trade, to the fore-ground. You can’t bring greatness to America, without restoring manufacturing, protecting defense IP and the like – and he seems to have the passion and experience to put these things in order.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Trump and Clinton. We might as well rename them Domitian and Caligula.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

Compared to Obama or Carter he’s pretty favorable.

Posted by branchltd | Report as abusive

Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

name the last non-slimy politician elected…..

Trump is not going to take many contests – but he is pointing out the slim the rest of the batch – democrats, republicans, other – continue to spout.

we need another Bush like we need another Clinton. I had high hopes for Obama but he’s proven to be incompetent. his latest “disappointment” was the inability to implement meaningful gun control. sorry POTUS – I’ve never heard a single idea or thought of what _meaningful_ is to you. just more gobble-gook on heart wrenching massacres and how we need gun control. no idea / thoughts / proposals – nothing. same for all the rest of the politicians – they all spout, but there’s no substance.

the voters need to elect Alfred E. Neuman to send a message to the political employees of this country that enough is enough – stop with the bickering and get something done and do what is best for the country, not what is best for getting re-elected.

and that is why Trump is doing so well. he just spouting plain simple truths that anyone can see and understand. the solutions are neither easy or simple – but the non-solutions / non-actions of the last twenty years are not working.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

I hear tell when he’s done with this president thing he’s gonna to play the villain in the next James Bond movie, “Trumpfinger”. He pretty much plays himself… ‘Derrick Trumpfinger’ pretends to run for president in order to dilute one side of the voting pool… cause he’s got bets in all the casinos
on his opposition to win. Bond is sent to investigate…and ends up as Trumpfingers’ VP running mate when Bond realizes his plan is pretty good!
Plus… Bond is known to frequent casinos from time to time, and he’s getting older and that British civil servant pension might not keep him in babes, martinis and speedboats… not like Trumpfinger can!

Posted by CletusButzin | Report as abusive

Trump is winning the hearts of America.

Posted by Highlander1111 | Report as abusive

“I don’t think Ivanka would do that, although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”

-Donald Trump, on whether or not his daughter should appear in Playboy Magazine.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Before using word “Bizarre” presidential candidate,Mr.Donald Trump,the auther should have thought twice,more so Reuters before accepting such description.Any presidential candidate has some kind of credibility assets,otherwise officially he will not be registered as a candidate.
I am not fan of Mr.Donald Trump but I am impressed by his crystal clear thought and dynamism.He does not care for criticism and that is the aspect required in to days congress where presidents are trying to please all at the cost of some thing good for country.Intelligent minds can make any issue controversial but any president has to have firm mind and clarity to walk over them.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

My heart goes TRUMP TRUMPTRUMP TRUMP TRUMPTRUMP

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

If people’s voice is the ultimate in democracy (And not money/media)then Donald Trump will win the race.Surely.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I know 14 people who plan to vote for Donald trump. 11 of them are self-avowed racists, 2 of them have severe brain trauma, 1 has downs syndrome.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Donny Trump = Pompous Blowhard.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

You are wrong this guy is the savior for USA.

Posted by diomarco | Report as abusive

trump haters ,keep voting the same BSers in another bush another clinton ,whats next Chelsea Clinton .Build a castle for the new american royal family.

Posted by diomarco | Report as abusive

jj

Posted by diomarco | Report as abusive

Yet another CorpoReuters article (Thomson influence?), and no mention whatsoever of Bernie Sanders. Your bias is starting to become embarrassingly obvious.

But among all registered voters in these two presidential battleground states, the NBC-Marist polls finds that almost all of the major presidential candidates are unpopular – and that’s especially true for Clinton.

The favorable/unfavorable scores in Iowa among all registered voters:

Sanders +3 (30 percent/27 percent)

Rubio -1 (31 percent/32 percent)

Walker -1 (30 percent/31 percent)

Bush -12 (34 percent/46 percent)

Clinton -19 (37/56 percent)

Trump -28 (32 percent/60 percent)

Notably, Clinton’s fav/unfav score in Iowa among all registered voters mirrors what a recent Quinnipiac poll of the state found .

The favorable/unfavorable scores in New Hampshire:

Sanders +12 (41 percent/29 percent)

Bush -5 (40 percent/45 percent)

Walker -6 (28 percent/34 percent)

Rubio -6 (28 percent/34 percent)

Clinton -20 (37 percent/57 percent)

Trump -40 (27 percent/67 percent)

http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/nb c-marist-polls-show-donald-trump-running -strong-iowa-nh-n398401

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

We need Trump! The rest of you can now go home!

Posted by rachelrc | Report as abusive

I like some of trumps ideas. He has decalred bankrupt with may of his deals. He continues to keep his personal money out of bankruptcy. I cant imagine him making a good president. His hair is a bad joke :)) He would make us even more broke then the current president. Just say no. unless u want the equivalent of a Kardashian or Jenner in office. Hell no

Posted by pulltheplug | Report as abusive