The Trump Balloon
BY DAVID REMNICK
When I was very young, my family went on frequent Sunday trips to Coney Island to visit my great-grandmother. A tough-minded woman in her nineties, she had emigrated from Europe, married a fabric salesman who was surely among the last of the Jewish Adolphs, and raised ten children in various cramped apartments in Brooklyn. Now she lived in a modest, well-kept high-rise overlooking the factory where they made Bonomo Turkish Taffy. The reward for passable behavior during these visits was the promise of a ride on the Cyclone (this occurred precisely zero times) or a warning-laden "stroll" on the beach: "Careful! You'll step on a syringe!" The building in which my great-grandmother lived was named for its developer, a master builder of the outer boroughs: Frederick Christ Trump.
Fred Trump was an old-school promoter, who, in summer, set loose colored balloons near the beach; each balloon contained a fifty-dollar discount coupon for one of his apartments. At his office, on Avenue Z, Fred Trump taught the business to his sons. Fred Trump died in 1999. One son, Donald Trump, took up his father's example, slathered it in gold leaf and topped it with world-class cubic zirconia, cultivated a head of pumpkiny, multidirectional hair, accumulated billions of dollars (though likely fewer billions than he's claimed), and, by the eighties, became the P. T. Barnum of his generation. My colleagueMark Singer once called Trump's ascent a form of "performance art—an opera-buffa parody of wealth."
For decades, the many institutions of the press—high and low, left and right—have fed off Trump's unapologetic vulgarity, his willingness to say absolutely anything. What did it matter to Trump if Jon Stewart used him as nightly cannon fodder? It was, as we now say, good for the brand. And what is the Trump brand? Over the years, we have been treated to Trump hotels, Trumpmagazine, Trump Airlines, Trump apartment buildings, Trump golf courses, Trump reality shows, Trump University, Trump the Game, Trump Chocolate, Trump the Fragrance, Trump Model Management, Trump Ice, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka.
The personal brand is, depending on your inclinations, a gilded jackass or an up-from-nothing tell-it-like-it-is-type-a-guy (without the up-from-nothing part). But it's always been more than buffoonish entertainment. The sheer number of people and peoples who Trump has managed to insult, bully, and mistreat is, in its way, awe-inspiring. He congratulated Alejandro González Iñárritu for winning numerous Oscars for "Birdman" with this gracious remark: "Well, it was a great night for Mexico, as usual in this country." He once told Bryant Gumbel, in an interview for an NBC program on race, what he thought about affirmative action: "If I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really do believe they have the actual advantage today." In the seventies, the Trump real-estate company was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in its rental practices in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens. After settling the case with Trump, the Justice Department sued yet again for non-compliance. In 1989, Trump took out an ad in the DailyNews, and three other newspapers, about the Central Park jogger rape case, in which he declared that the "criminals of every age" who had been arrested twelve days earlier—five African-American and Hispanic teen-agers—were "crazed misfits," part of "roving bands." "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY," the ad read. "BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" Years after it turned out that someone else had committed the crime, and the young men had finally been released from prison, Trump wrote an unapologetic op-ed for the paper in which he called the city's push for restitution payments to the men "a disgrace." He made it plain that, to him, their lives were nothing, and, besides, "These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."
Trump's blithe moral contempt has many targets. Women? He once toldEsquire, "You know, it doesn't really matter what [the media] write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass." Climate change? Here's a tweet, circa 2012: "It's freezing and snowing in New York—we need global warming!" Trump has been among the country's foremost (i.e., loudest) "birthers," constantly prompting the idea, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in some other country and, therefore, is constitutionally unable to hold the office.
Trump is now running for President of the United States. His platform appears, in the early stages, to be a smelly soup of billionaire populism and yahoo nationalism—all flavored with a tangy dollop of old-timey racism. OnMexicans: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." (When challenged that a report he cited concerned immigrants who had been raped, he said, "Somebody's doing the raping!") Donald Trump is currently polling second among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and nationally.
Trump has polled impressively, and fleetingly, before. His name recognition is high (thanks to his frenetically cultivated "brand"). His moment will pass, the experts say. And it probably will—or, at least, the current moment will. His miserable comments about Mexican immigrants have already cost him business. NBC, which came under heavy pressure from a Hispanic media-watchdog group and many viewers, severed ties with him, as has Macy's, which carried his clothing line. Trump's political and ideological forays have generally been promotional brand extensions, lasting only as long as they were, in his view, good for business; the whole con might end well before the first snows in Sioux City and Manchester.
William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and an ideologist of the neoconservatives, is quick to say that he does not support Trump, but counsels the Republican Party to learn from his blunt political themes: pro-toughness, pro-winning, anti-Obamacare, etc. Kristol's goal is to avoid the nomination of a mumbly centrist who refuses to attack head on the Obama legacy and, presumably, Hillary Clinton. If the Party fails to find an aggressively conservative candidate, he believes, Trump or someone like him might play the role of Ross Perot, siphoning away right-wing populist voters from the G.O.P.
Trump's Republican opponents seem wary of calling him out in anything like harsh terms. They handle him as they would a live grenade. Jeb Bush, the one Republican in the mobbed field who is running ahead of Trump in New Hampshire, waited a few weeks before commenting on the latest outrage about Mexican rapist-immigrants storming our southern borders. Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American woman, did say the comments were "ugly," and added that he was "absolutely" offended on a personal level. And yet his remarks, like those of other candidates, were calibrated to assure the public that Trump's comments were "not reflective of the Republican Party." As if this had been a misstep, an aberration, and not typical Trump. Some are unwilling to go even that far. Chris Christie distanced himself from Trump's rant, too, but he was quick to add, "I like Donald. He's a good guy."
Christie is not alone in his affection. Recently, on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart gave Bill Clinton plenty of room to tee off on Trump. Clinton declined. Trump, he said, with a wily smile, "has been, believe it or not, uncommonly nice to Hillary and me." Perhaps. Not long ago, on MSNBC, Trump said that Clinton was "probably" the best of the four most recent Presidents. Then he added, "Frankly, had he not met Monica, had he not met Paula, had he not met various and sundry semi-beautiful women, he would have had a much better deal going." That "sundry semi-beautiful" bit was an especially, even uncommonly, nice Trumpism. Hillary Clinton, for her part, could not bring herself to do anything more than tap Trump on the wrist. She told CNN that she was "very disappointed" in Trump's remarks about Mexican immigrants—which, considering the fact that the Clintons attended one of Trump's weddings, seems quite polite. But very disappointing.
It's a wonder, though, that Kristol is so concerned. In large measure, when it comes to issues like marriage equality and Obamacare, the Republicans have come through with Spenglerian stir-the-base rhetoric. After the announcement of the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, Ted Cruz declared, "Today is some of the darkest twenty-four hours in our nation's history." Rick Santorum said that the Court's decision "put the nail in the coffin" of the institution of marriage itself. "The climate is changing," the milder Jeb Bush has allowed, but adds, against nearly absolute scientific consensus, "whether men are doing it or not."
History is replete with joke candidates for high office. Will Rogers ran for President, in 1928, as the standard-bearer of the Anti-Bunk Party, and wrote a book about his experience: "He Chews to Run." One Yetta Bronstein, an (imaginary) citizen of the Bronx and the creation of a hoax artist named Alan Abel, was on Presidential campaign posters, in 1964 and 1968, promoting fluoridation, sex education, and, oddly, bingo. ("Vote for Yetta and watch things get better.") At the 1968 Democratic Convention, in Chicago, the Yippies put forward their candidate: Pigasus. And, for a brief time in 2007, Stephen Colbert entered the race, promising "truthiness" for all.
Donald Trump is a joke, too, but of a different sort. His intention is not to inspire laughter or relief; his targets are not the powerful. He doesn't punch up. He spews forth ugliness everywhere he goes. It would be nice, and maybe wise, simply to ignore him, in the hope that he will, after all these many years, just go away. But he never really does, and the most immediate concern is not that he will win the office he pursues but that he will get in the heads of the candidates around him. Trump's father was a self-promoter who dispersed discounts in his balloons. The son offers only toxic gas.
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