he best businessmen are shrewd opportunists. Why then should the rise of Donald Trump surprise 21st-century observers who’ve watched for nearly two decades as America’s conservative political environment deteriorated into a cabaret of internecine and partisan hostility, most of it vicious, hyper-opportunistic, and much of it husbanded by the shoot-to-maim strategies of Karl Rove?
Why is it astonishing that Trump, an amoral billionaire and a Republican of convenience, is running roughshod over a party that laid the groundwork for its own implosion? The politics of hostility began in earnest with Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s, gained momentum through the sexual witch-hunt that was the Starr Report, continued into the litigious acrimony of the 2000 recount, and was capped off in 2004, when George W. Bush won a second term thanks in part to the tawdry demolishing of John Kerry. It was a demolishment that prized rage, vitriol and self-righteousness, the same “correctness”-loathing forces that now fuel Trump — except that he lacks anointment.
Consider 2009, when South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, unable to contain himself, twice shouted, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address (he “disagreed” with Obama’s characterization of illegal immigration legislation). Wilson apologized, but the protocol riff ran far deeper.
Then there’s the Tea Party, that randy congregation of anti-establishment pseudo-Republicans who rallied around pickup truck governors hoping to make evangelical inroads in Washington. Hope ran high but expectations fell far short, further embittering already forlorn and frothing backers.
And what about the consecutive candidacies of John McCain and Mitt Romney (now drafted to resist Trump), two decent enough politicians who emerged from the mainstream Republican establishment and failed completely to embody grassroots wrath? Each ran unadventurous campaigns, even if McCain tried to win over the furious by briefly hosting wildcard Sarah Palin.
By the time of Obama’s 2012 reelection, Republicanism seemed in tatters, unable to coalesce around which stone to throw (was Obama a socialist, a closet Muslim, both?) Important midterm victories in 2014 came at a state and local level, not nationally.
Enter Trump, an outrageous boardroom vulgarian who pledges allegiance to himself and parries ridicule into self-aggrandizement, a lifelong mission. Comparisons to Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi are shallow — the two Italians toiled to create movements, suffering setbacks along the way. Backroom conniver Mussolini schemed for years before gaining outright power. Berlusconi shot to the top but collapsed after eight months, only to play phoenix for the next two decades (governing for nine years in all). They were opportunists plying a population that delights in hosting them.
Trump is a solo artist, at least for now. He’s winning not because he’s smart, cogent, different or eccentric, but because he has nothing to lose, at least not politically, and because he has no previous vested interests in a party that’s been treading presidential water for some time, and which is now coming openly and variously unhinged. He’s a parody of a reactionary promoter borrowed from the late 19th-century big-top era, a gargling huckster who’s always known a thing or two about disrupting the correct for the sake of attention.
Unlike semi-broke Tea Party predecessors chained to their pickups, mucho bucks Trump has a realistic chance of turning everything upside down, even if the upside downed-ness offends political orthodoxy and a considerable number of conservatives well to the right of him (who ironically consider him a moderate).
For now, he’s a man armed with a pickax, has an intellectual chip on his shoulder, and loves swinging at anything that moves. Innocent civilians can duck, run for cover, or just watch, rapt. Trump’s malleable muckraking — a thumping mixture of the sentimentally progressive and rudely the Neolithic— is ideally suited to the chaotic, distracted lot that is the American disenfranchised, loud and proudly reckless, lost but looking.
He commands a pulpit, his own, doesn’t seemed “owned,” a fashionable if not essential trait among the livid. He’s also an absorbent towel, a sponge of sorts, someone who promises to clean the slate. His imprecision is a virtue in that it invites contradictory disdain to huddle together.
Say what you wish about Trump. Do not suggest his ascent is a bolt from the blue, or unfathomable. Take a broken assemblage — the Republicans, give its denizens a wrecking ball, and anything can happen. The anything of choice is Trump, and why not? He’s a force of nature that can’t get enough of its own swirl. Welcome then to Hurricane Trump, who shows that political forecasting, unlike storm forecasting, lags far behind the curve.