Donald Trump begins Crippled America, his will-to-power tract about recovering American greatness, with an uncharacteristic apology of sorts. “The picture we used on the cover of this book”—a glowering shot of the real-estate and reality-TV mogul—is “angry,” even “mean looking,” he writes. He assures the concerned reader that this was deliberate. There were plenty of “beautiful pictures” of an upbeat and smiling Trump. But these would send the wrong message for his dark diatribe: “In this book we’re talking about Crippled America. Unfortunately, there’s very little that’s nice about it. So I wanted a picture where I wasn’t happy, a picture that reflected the anger and unhappiness that I feel, rather than joy. Because we are not in a joyous situation right now.”
The scowling, belligerent image of Donald Trump is by now something of a campaign cliché. It’s the face of an insurgency of aggrieved middle-class and working-class Americans—fed up, as their leader loudly is, with the tortured public etiquette of “political correctness,” and determined to wrest back the bulwarks of American opportunity from the malign neglect of our incompetent political class. It’s the countenance of a movement that wants to eradicate all illegal immigration, bar Muslims from entering the country, and bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age. And it’s the image of Spenglerian doom that we witnessed during his speech at the Republican National Convention.
But as Trump himself acknowledges, there is another side to him. Flip forward to the photos illustrating Crippled America, and you’ll see the other, far sunnier Trump: color images of the extended family, interspersed with promotional photos of his towering and luxurious properties. Go back to the endmatter of the book, and you’ll see an “About the Author” note that runs 17 pages, featuring tidbits like “In March of 2013, Mr. Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in front of 25,000 fans at Madison Square Garden”; “Mr. Trump is one of only two people…named to ABC’s Barbara Walters special The Most Fascinating People two times”; and “In 2013, Mr. Trump received the T. Boone Pickens Award from The American Spectator at the Robert L. Bartley Gala.”
This cheerful, self-congratulating Trump, of course, is the one who’s ruled New York’s tabloid-media scene for the better part of four decades, building a career as a real-estate mogul, reality-TV personality, and retail-brand-for-hire. In fact, despite the visage on the cover of Crippled America, and the fusillades of insults and bigoted asides at his rallies, this wellspring of optimism nourishes the deeper roots of his appeal. Trump isn’t just a tireless doomsayer; he’s also an apostle of the upward-striving mantras of self-help, a lay preacher of the deepest fantasies and longings of the aspirational American soul. He draws his power from the age-old gospel of American success, the spiritual-cum-motivational faith that beholds the most lavish spectacles of unequal accumulation and pronounces them duly anointed blessings of the divine will.
Trump’s political genius comes from his deft rhetorical maneuvering between the poles of apocalyptic despair and spectacular optimism. Like the American jeremiad- preachers who stretch as far back as Jonathan Edwards, Trump understands that the specter of chaos and damnation only whets the wavering believer’s appetite for deliverance. Whether he’s scowling or beaming, invoking the immigrant hordes or the sensational ratings of The Apprentice, Trump comes bearing the tacit message that he is not merely the aggrieved voice of dispossessed Americans; he is also the embodiment of their greatest aspirations. He is, believe it or not, the nation’s premier positive thinker.