Yes, Donald Trump is back. His elevation as a moderator of a pivotal debate in Iowa on December 27—the Republican candidates’ final joint appearance before voting begins—provides a sad but fitting coda to this unhinged primary season.
When the news broke over the weekend, the media largely reacted with lighthearted derision. The Times led the Trump news by announcing, “It’s officially a reality television Republican primary now,” while several commentators said the debate is basically an SNL skit that writes itself. I’m all for mocking The Donald, but these waves of satire do risk obscuring the dark side of this news.
Let’s be clear. In Republican politics this year, Donald Trump’s signature issue, and narrow-but-intense constituency, was built on a race-baiting effort to dislodge the president’s long-form birth certificate from the Hawaii Department of Health.*
When that succeeded, Trump dredged up other tired, obvious racial attacks, demanding that the president “get off his basketball court” (really), and advocating an “investigation” into how Obama, a “terrible student” (sans evidence), got into top schools. “That’s just code for saying he got into law school because he’s black,” said CBS journalist Bob Schieffer at the time, condemning the “ugly stain of racism” in Trump’s publicity tour.
Trump’s self-appointed role and enduring appeal is built on these racial attacks, not mere celebrity. In fact, he is far less influential among the broad Republican electorate than your average celebrity billionaire, precisely because Trump’s controversial buffoonery appeals to the narrow slice of conservatives who still feel, amazingly, underserved by the right-wing red meat on offer from a rather extreme primary field.
As the conservative National Review recently noted, a Trump endorsement would make twice as many Republicans less likely to vote for the Trump-anointed candidate, as compared to those who would be more likely to back Trump’s pick.
Among all voters, Trump is electoral antimatter. His endorsement drives away five times as many people as it would attract (31 to 6 percent). Trump’s largest negative bounce, if you’re wondering, is among non-white voters. (All these numbers are from a poll by Fox News, where Trump appears in a branded weekly segment.)
So yes, Trump is a reality star, which fits our narrative of made-for-TV political phonies like Herman Cain and Sarah Palin. And yes, as Jay-Z once said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m A Business, Man!“—which captures Trump’s preternatural ability to insert himself at the nexus of media entertainment and politics-for-profit, an erogenous zone of visibility that most candidates feel powerless to oppose. (Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman are commendable exceptions, although a near-certain loss tends to clear the mind.)
At bottom, however, Trump is a fleeting power-broker in this Republican primary for the very same reasons he repels most of the American electorate: Mr. Trump is an irresponsible, race-baiting phony exploiting the worst tendencies in our politics for personal gain. And there’s nothing funny about that.
* P.S. At this point, it seems unnecessary to detail the evidence that for many adherents of Birtherism, though not all of its leaders, the birther obsession draws on racism. For more development of this point, see my Nation article about Trump’s birther campaign in April, “Confronting the Coded Racism of Donald Trump.”
Photo: Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Convention. Credit: Gage Skidmore.