n 2008, for those disposed to Camelot-style political romances, Barack Obama was a gift: dashing, luminously eloquent, endowed with a winner’s smile — and yes, black. The racial component, for its unlikeliness, pumped further oxygen into the drama.
Now, seven years later, another gift has emerged, at least for those who choose to see it that way, a shoot-from-the-hip candidates who says what he wants to say, breaks all rules of decorum, revels in self-importance, and champions a host of conspiracy theories he’s far from alone in swearing by. Whatever Donald Trump has on his mind, you’re likely to know about it, the more outrageous, the merrier since he’d larger than life and the star, or so he sees it, of his own traveling reality show.
It’s important not to trivialize Trump because to do so negates the separate but equal shine once attached to Obama. Just as one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so a second man’s “Yes we can” can be a third’s “We’re in trouble deep.” Just as right-wingers found the passion around Obama distasteful, if not hateful, so moderates and liberals find Trump and his orations threatening if not lunatic.
The American political scene long ago veered away from the constructive, becoming a demolition derby. Trump is a demolition messiah unfettered by old party ties and eager to spew truth as he sees it. It’s a truth largely based on hunches and dependent almost solely on villains. Where Obama, a constitutional scholar before he was a politician, invested hope in the institutions he knew, Trump, a deal-making businessman, responds to institutions as handcuffs. He dreams of blockages and walls, of exclusion and segregation, of deals that work in his, and America’s, favor, hoping these acts of defiance and negation can literally reformulate a sense of greatness he thinks has been lost to excess patience, tolerance and reasonableness.
Such defiance has rage and resistance stitched into its lining, and rage and resistance is at times an American forte. He riles up people who enjoy feeling part of a stripped-down insurgency they can understand, one that defies the intellectual undercurrent Obama brought to his 2008 “can-ness,” and which resonated most along so-called Blue State coasts.
Trump’s show is a loud stage act in which coherence matters less than bluster because bluster just feels better and is easier to say aloud and to repeat, and it draws cheers.
His haters can find all this ludicrous and irresponsible. They can declare him uninformed, unhinged, unfit. But craving change, as Obama demonstrated, allows even for the once-unthinkable — a black president in a country in which racial harmony is very much unresolved and closet resentments persist.
When Trump calls Russia’s Vladimir Putin a more effective leader than Obama he’s of course comparing apples and oranges, since one runs a semi-authoritarian state. Yet the point is about decisiveness, and Putin is decisive because he can be, and Trump wishes to imitate him.
He can’t and most likely won’t, since his election remains improbable, but his rage at the machine (though he’s very much a part of it) transcends the need for factual accuracy and again shows that campaigns for high office, stripped of what’s left of their dignity, are a free-for-all in which shooting first (never mind asking questions later) is not an option but a necessary strategy. All the more so among candidates eager to fire up supporters who believe they no longer have anything to lose, and neither should their candidate. As for Trump, he was rich before and will remain rich after. His show will go on. But for now he can shout as he pleases. Yes he can.