• The Star Staff

The next Trump


By Jamelle Bouie


Most Americans want Donald Trump out of sight and out of mind after he leaves office Wednesday. Most Americans except Republicans, that is.


In every recent poll on Trump, Republicans stand apart. Ask whether Trump should remain a “major national figure for years to come,” as the Pew Research Center did in a survey taken just after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and 68% of Americans say no, whereas 57% of Republicans say yes.


Or ask whether Trump should be disqualified from future office. A majority of adults — 56%, according to a recent poll conducted for ABC News and The Washington Post — also say yes, whereas 85% of Republicans say no.


Of course, the reason the Republican rank and file doesn’t think Trump should slink away is because they think he won the election. Among his voters, 75% say he received enough votes in enough states to claim victory. For them, there’s no reason Trump should leave the field as a pariah or relinquish his claim on the party itself. It’s no surprise, then, that most Republican officeholders are sticking with the president and that the most loyal among them hope to harness the pro-Trump energy of the base for their own personal ambitions.


This dynamic is part of what spurred Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to amplify the lie that the election was tainted. It’s what kept Mike Pence from turning on the president that made him the target of a deadly mob, and it’s what led Mike Pompeo to turn on his former administration colleague Nikki Haley, for criticizing Trump’s rhetoric since the election.


Each of them (to say nothing of the party’s other presidential contenders) all hope to be, in one way or another, the next Trump. The problem for each of them is that this may be impossible.


In 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump wasn’t just an unconventional politician with a direct appeal to the prejudiced attitudes of the Republican base, and he wasn’t just a fixture of conservative media and entertainment. He was a bona fide celebrity and household name, with 30 years on the public stage as the embodiment of wealth and luxury. And for more than 10 of those years, he was star of “The Apprentice,” a popular reality television series in which he played the most successful businessman in America, whose approval could turn an ordinary nobody into an extraordinary somebody. His was a persona that rested on the valorization of entrepreneurship and the worship of success.


This wasn’t a dour or self-serious performance. Trump wasn’t Ebenezer Scrooge. He was a winking, cheerful vulgarian who knew the show was an act and played along with the viewers. From his cameos on the big screen in films like “Home Alone 2” to his parodic appearances in professional wrestling, he was affable, even charming.


It’s hard to overstate how important this was for Trump’s first campaign. If modern American politics is entertainment as much as civics, then Trump was its star performer. And his audience, his supporters, could join in the performance. This is crucial. Trump could say whatever they wanted to hear, and they could take it in as part of the act, something — as one sympathetic observer wrote — to be taken seriously, not literally. Words that might have doomed any other Republican candidate, and which have in the past, meant nothing to the strength of Trump’s campaign.


When he finally ran against Hillary Clinton, celebrity helped him appeal to those voters who hated politicians — who sat at the margins of politics, if they participated at all — but could get behind an irreverent figure like Trump. Did he lie? Sure. But the shamelessness of his lies, and his indifference to decorum, was its own kind of truth. Celebrity was his shield and his sword, and his life as a reality television star primed his supporters to see his presidency as a show that would never end.


Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has struggled to win a majority of voters nationwide in a presidential election. They’ve done it exactly once, in 2004, with the reelection of George W. Bush. Trump’s path to victory — a minority-vote Electoral College win with high turnout in rural and exurban areas — may be the only one the party has left. As one group of House Republicans said ahead (and in support) of the vote to confirm the results of the 2020 election, “If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes — based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election — we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.”


The big question is whether it took a Trump to make 2016 happen in the first place. Given the Republican Party’s struggle to build a national majority, was he the only candidate that could pull off a win? And if so, was his celebrity the X factor that made it possible? The fact that Republicans lost when Trump was not on the ballot is evidence in favor of the case.


If celebrity is what it takes, then there’s no Republican politician who can carry Trump’s mantle. No one with his or her hat obviously in the ring — neither Cruz nor Hawley, neither Tom Cotton nor Haley — has the juice. There are the Trump children, of course. But the Trump name doesn’t actually stand for success, and there’s no evidence yet that any of them can make the leap to winning votes for themselves.


Perhaps the next Trump, if there is one, will be another celebrity. Someone with a powerful and compelling persona, who traffics in fear and anger and hate. Someone who “triggers the libs” and puts on a show. Someone who already has an audience, who speaks for the Republican base as much as he speaks to them. Republican voters have already put a Fox News viewer into the White House. From there it’s just a short step to electing an actual Fox News personality.

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