P.T. Barnum runs for president.
He’s vowed that he’s taking a presidential bid seriously. He’s sent aides on “exploratory trips” for his nascent campaign. He’s pledged millions of dollars towards his candidacy. And what’s more, he’s taken seriously – by the media, the punditry, and the polls.
Of course, all of that was in 2000.
When it comes to the media’s political fascination with eccentric billionaire millionaire massive debt holder Donald Trump, few could argue that the Donald is the rightful heir to 19th century showman P.T. Barnum. For Trump’s multiple aborted presidential candidacies, ranging from 1988, to 2000, and now, prove Barnum’s misattributed cultural epitaph that indeed a sucker is born every minute.
Like Charlie Brown convincing himself that this time Lucy will not pull away the football, much of the media has engaged Trump’s third would-be presidential bid with increasing seriousness. And why not? Trump polls surprisingly well against the expected Republican field, placing fourth with 11% just days ago in a Fox News national poll. Even Trump seems to be taking his latest political dalliance seriously enough to risk his most important attribute – his brand – by claiming to seek the nomination of one of the two major parties rather than another circa 2000 independent bid.
What remains harder to fathom is Trump’s appeal in the first place. For a man known for his super ego, getting to the id of Donald Trump is vexing for many in the punditry. Some view Trump as a symptom of the weak Republican field. George Will likewise dismissed Trump as part of the gaggle of “spotlight-chasing candidates of 2012.” Charles Krauthammer looked pained to even have to discuss Trump’s candidacy. Others view Trump as the closing argument in their case of the failure of the political class:
Trump is suddenly “winning” as a political figure because the political class has failed. The authority of our political institutions is weak and getting weaker; it’s not that Americans ‘lack trust’ in them, as blue ribbon pundits and sociologists often lament, so much as they lack respect for the people inside them.
There is a lot of crazy surrounding the Trump phenomenon — some excellent, some embarrassing. But the massive fact dominating it all is that never before has such a famous outsider jumped into national politics with such an aggressive critique of a sitting president and the direction of the country — and never before has the response been so immediate and positive.
Um, not quite.
The novelty of Trump 2012 isn’t that novel. The celebrity politician is nothing new – nor is Trump’s anti-Obama bravado. Trump’s “aggressive critique” has largely been an ad hoc foreign policy mixing neo-conservative bluster and paleo-conservative isolationism with a chaser of paranoia that Obama is the country’s first super secret Nigerian sleeper agent. Perhaps the only true novelty of Trump’s “candidacy” is that he would link his image to “birtherism.” Or maybe Trump is merely projecting and he’s the sleeper agent sent to undermine the GOP. After all, he did call Nancy Pelosi “the best.”
Understanding how an arrogant, over-the-top self-promoter has risen in the polling ranks of the GOP field doesn’t require searching for some sort of meta answer. After a number of political cycles in which the presidential race started incredible early, for once the field is not settled nor is any candidate dashing out of the gates. Trump represents a known name whose actively in the news – for better or for worse. Few other contenders or pretenders can claim the same.
The Donald wouldn’t mind being president but would rather use his candidacy as a perpetual trump card whenever his media image needs a boost. Once the more serious candidates get underway and the early measures of success – fundraising, debate performances, endorsements and volunteers – become the most important yard markers, attention towards Trump will shrink. With fewer and fewer onlookers to his latest political act, in Barnum like fashion, Trump will fold his tent and move on to his next show.