The release of President Obama’s birth certificate has been hailed as a victory for the unlikeliest of Presidential candidates. This candidate, I’m sure you’ve guessed, is none other than Donald Trump—CEO, real estate developer, and star of NBC’s The Apprentice.
Of course we don’t really know if Trump is running for President. This age of frivolous celebrity seeks all routes to garnering attention, however fleeting; such a stunt could amount to little more than a few reels for a reality show.
In commenting on the possibility, I could certainly add to the swelling chorus of disapprobation, disdain, and disgust shaking the blogosphere, Facebook, and Twitter. I could recount the ridiculous statements, post the embarrassing interviews, and seeth at the utter inanity.
But in the end I think these reactions are a mistake. The mistake’s core rests in taking him seriously. Do we truly believe this man will ever win a single party primary, much less an electoral vote? The current polls are no defense. It is early 2011. Apart, of course, from the incumbent, almost no serious person has officially announced his or her candidacy. Excepting the political junkies (myself, sadly, included), the rest of the populace currently pays passing attention at best to Presidential election politics. A vote to the other end of a telephone survey 18 months before an election in a field where most of the names are indistinguishable from American Idol contestants is hardly to be taken seriously. In fact, it would be interesting to see how many Trump voters laughed to themselves as they said it into the telephone, knowing full well the gravity of a poll.
Furthermore, to what constituency does Trump play? Aside from the very few willing to take the joke all the way to the ballot box, Trump’s posturing only seems to placate those who genuinely despise President Obama in his entirety. Such was much of Howard Dean’s attractiveness in the 2004 Democratic primary. Despite his fairly moderate positions when Governor, his sails caught the wind of the far Left in his utter disdain for President Bush. Yet he had no real chance to win the nomination, as his onstage Iowa meltdown soon proved. Trump’s antics will garner him massively less consideration than Dean, whose political skill and message discipline at least existed.
Media coverage, too, is no standard to judge. Twenty-four hour news networks compete for viewers in a market well beyond saturation. With hundreds of channels from which viewers can choose, these news networks must find a way to get the average voter’s attention. Yet voters, as I said, realize that it is 2011 and would rather spend their tv time watching the NBA playoffs, TLC’s Kate Plus Eight, or MTV. They would also rather go to Church, enjoy the company of friends, and myriad other activities that involve minimal to no politics. Americans, interestingly, often see the delegation of their governing power to elected officials as a means to remove themselves from the day-to-day grind of politics. Leaving it to the career government personnel allows them to claim self-government while concentrating most of the time on other things. Therefore, if you want more than minimal voter attention in 2011, one means to garner it is entertainment.
Our celebrity culture is high on cynicism and shallow on substance. We like to watch train wrecks, the sensational, and the just plain silly. Donald Trump fits them all. What he does not fit is a serious Presidential candidate. A February primary or an August general election voter might still find Trump amusing, but he would most likely vote by watching The Apprentice, not by checking Trump’s name at the ballot box. Americans may indulge celebrity culture, but they’ve shown little patience with it in Presidential politics.
Money is not the issue, either. President Obama will be swimming in it for next year’s re-election bid. Money can get out a message. It can frame issues and opponents. It cannot make a man so perpetually unserious as Donald Trump appear Presidential.
A good question to ask is why we might take his candidacy seriously? Not in the fact that we think him a reasonable choice, but in the possibility that he could actually contend. Certainly the prospect is bad enough that even the minuscule hypothetical could be worthy of concern. At the same time, could a touch of arrogance be at play? For if we really think Trump has a shot at being a player next year, then we think a large section of the American people can be convinced that he is more than worth watching, but worthy of a vote. Of course, that section does not include us. We are too enlightened to ever contemplate such foolishness. Nor does it include the circles in which we run; our friends, family (well, the good ones), and the co-workers we like get it, too. But out there, the stupid people I see on YouTube, I fear their choices cancelling out mine. Too often righteous condemnation is well-masked prideful condescension.
As Christians, we should certainly take account of the fallenness of the world. But on points like these we often seem to exclude ourselves as above it all, casting too wide a net in our disdain. In so doing, we often miss the virtues of those whose interests, speech patterns, and dress differ from our own.
In speaking of our own circles, perhaps the condescension is particularly intense in my own. Being in academics, intellectual and cultural pride can rise to nauseating levels. Yet even if condescension is not the issue for you, consider the wisdom in giving a man like Donald Trump excessive negative attention. Fools often are best answered by being ignored.
Such ignoring might go further and quicker in removing this charade from our political landscape. In fact, even without doing so, I would be surprised if Trump is any less than a laughable footnote six months from now, much less in November 2012. But until time makes his improbable success probable, let us use our precious attention spans on those who seriously contemplate the common good in our political discourse.