How does a loud-mouthed business guy with a bright orange comb-over go from being a narcissistic, often embarrassing politico-entertainer to the clear leader in the current national contest for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency?
I’m referring to – you guessed it – Donald Trump.
When he announced last spring he was running for president, nobody took him seriously. Even though his campaign took off like a rocket, everybody figured he’d fade over the summer.
He’s done anything but. Here it is almost fall and there he is, the subject of round-the-clock media coverage, the object of passionate support from his fans, the leader of the pack.
Something very odd is going on in the bowels of the American political system –if not America itself.
I’m thinking there are three causes.
First: Trump ranks as a comparative giant on a stage otherwise crowded with dwarves. Each might in a smaller field look like a plausible candidate for national office. But today they seem lifeless cardboard cutouts next to The Donald.
His performance skills – sharpened by his long TV experience – just blow his competitors away.
Second: Trump may be lots of things to lots of different people, but there is no question he loves letting it all hang out for all to see.
Those who support him say he’s the only guy in the race who has the guts to tell it exactly like it is. Most of the other candidates seem like puppets, scripted by consultants skilled in homogenizing clients into carefully calibrated, poll-driven, lifeless figurines.
Not Trump. As Maureen Dowd put it in the New York Times on Aug.29 “It’s deeply weird, but the jeering billionaire reality star seems authentic to many Americans. Trump is a manifestation of national disgust – with the money that consumed politics, with the dysfunctional, artificial status quo…”
Third: Over the last 20 years or so, the American political system has ossified into one largely fenced off to ordinary folks. If you’re not the boss of a big company or the head of a powerful union, nobody’s going to listen to you. Got a billion bucks, politicians clamor for your advice. Run a big interest group, the doors are open.
But if you’re an ordinary citizen with a gripe or a good idea, it’s tough to get anybody on the inside to listen.
Lots of Trump supporters – who polls tell us are largely white, lower income, often lacking college degrees, irregular voters – feel particularly excluded by the political system. For these folks, Trump’s posture resonates: Alarm at the drift of the country. Anger at the system and the stupidity of those politicians in charge.
Not surprisingly, he’s calling for a return of the “silent majority,” a term first used by Richard Nixon as a code word for mostly white people unhappy with minorities and intellectual and cultural elites.
I worried about many of these things back in 2006, when I started the Center for Michigan. Our “democratic” political system was simply not open to ordinary people. So the Center was specifically designed to provide a route for citizen entry to the halls of power. We do that by holding a series of community conversations all over the state, small (10-20, typically) groups of ordinary citizens who gather for a couple hours to talk over the big issues of the day.
Scribes carefully note the discussions; conclusions are captured by “clicker” technology; results are published as annual “Citizen Voice” reports. Since the Center started doing this, nearly 40,000 Michiganders have participated – the largest public engagement campaign in state history.
And this isn’t just idle chatter. Politicians are listening. As a result of our citizen engagement work, for example, Michigan now leads the nation in increased public support for early childhood programs aimed at poor and vulnerable four year-olds who need extra help to succeed in school.
There are two basic approaches to fixing our ailing political system. Trump’s trying to bust it wide open. The Center’s trying to focus and mobilize public concern.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider Trump utterly unqualified for the presidency. He offers no remedies that make sense.
But maybe, just maybe, we needed a loud-mouthed narcissist with impossible hair to smash away at the bad parts of an increasingly broken political system.