Does Donald Trump represent us?

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: The career of Donald Trump has long reflected the excesses of the Baby Boom generation
  • Now America has to decide if it can tolerate his extreme views and opportunism, he says

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the new book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Like everything about his campaign, Donald Trump's success in the New Hampshire primary defies the usual political analysis. He dabbled and failed in previous presidential cycles and this time around he has offered no political philosophy, other than a promise to make America "great again," and his only significant original idea calls for the cruel, mass deportation of Mexican immigrants that would likely spark violence across the country.

Michael D'Antonio
But while Trump's success might puzzle political regulars, those who have followed his lifelong pursuit of attention, money, and power recognize a reliable formula at work.
From the very beginning of his public life, as a businessman and then a politician, Trump has used raw emotion to sell himself to the world. And during every phase of his life he has managed to both reflect, and exploit, the values of his generation.

    Emblem of a generation?

    The ultimate baby boomer, Trump has always embodied the "culture of narcissism" identified by the writer Christopher Lasch and embodied by a generation that came to maturity in the "Me Decade" announced by Tom Wolfe.
    Trump's father, Fred, had to be talked into putting his name on one of his many developments. Donald writes his on everything, in capital letters. His parents married once, for life. Donald, who is thrice married, was an active participant in one of the most lurid infidelity scandals of the 20th century.
    Like many in his generation, Donald's No. 1 project has always been himself. A gushing profile published before he had built a single building in Manhattan described him as a real estate tycoon-in-the-making who just happened to look like Robert Redford. From there it was on to People magazine and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Rarely did he turn down a request from a reporter, TV producer or photographer. He kept score, in life, by counting his press clippings.
    At every turn, skeptics viewed Trump's ever-more-extreme behavior and pronounced him beyond the pale. They were right when it came to majority public opinion, which has always run against Trump, but they were wrong about the solid minority support he enjoyed.
    Whenever Trump has seemed to go too far, he had discovered that people are amused by his preening, bragging, and bullying. Celebrities have always enjoyed wide latitude in their personal affairs, and this self-made celebrity was forgiven for betraying his marriage vows and humiliating those he was supposed to love.

    Narcissism gets normalized

    Gradually even Trump's narcissism became normalized. Where self-promotion was once unseemly, Facebook and Twitter have made them acceptable, if not required for success. With everyone offering the world a brochure self on the World Wide Web, Trump's obsessive hunt for fame seems perfectly normal. To many, he's not extreme, he's a trailblazer who bides his time until the world is ready for him to host a reality TV show -- or seek the presidency.
    Of course there's more to Trump's good showing in New Hampshire than a case of generational appeal. The man is also a brilliant demagogue who has spent decades perfecting his ability to tap the emotions of crowds as small as a gathering at a conference table or as large as the audience for "The Apprentice."
    Like many successful salesmen, Trump offers an electric appeal to emotion. In neurological terms, he bypasses the prefrontal cortex, where we make deliberate "executive" decisions, to target the amygdala, which controls our instinctive responses to stimuli such as fear and threat. Commonly called "lizard" brain, the amygdala harbors the drive for dominance and survival.
    We are all equipped with amygdalas which means we all feel, at some level, the same fears and aggression found in Donald Trump's words. Add his uncanny ability to channel the national mood and you realize that Trump is, especially for baby boomers, a lot like us.
    The difference is that most of us strike a different balance between our darker impulses and our better angels. We understand that sometimes we must resist instinct and emotion and think carefully before we speak or act. The same is true of societies, which must respond to challenges and crises with just the right combination. Lean too much on the executive and you might get sucker-punched. Tip too far in the lizard's direction and you are the one delivering the violence.

    Throwing off restraints

    Fred Trump and his generation exercised lots of executive-level restraint. This is what the 50s were all about. Commitments were honored. Conformity was expected. Gratification was delayed. Donald and his fellow baby boomers loosened and sometime broke the constraints of their parents' conventions. In some cases this rebellion was a matter of liberating idealism. In others it was self-serving and destructive amygdala-driven behavior.
    In politics, candidates and leaders jolt our amygdalas whenever they offer us hype about threats like ISIS or turn some of us -- immigrants and Muslims for example -- into enemies. In the past, candidate Richard Nixon's famous Southern Strategy tapped the dark side power of emotion when he called for federal tax subsidies for private whites-only schools.
    Ronald Reagan did a similar thing when he kicked off his bid for the White House in Mississippi at a spot just miles from where civil rights workers were murdered in the 1960s.
    Yet Nixon and Reagan calibrated the voltage of their language to avoid inciting violence. Old enough to recall World War II, perhaps they understood they were playing with fire. Certainly they understood that they might one day have to govern and their success depended on a united country.
    Trump was born after the war. So he doesn't recall the demagogues of that age, and he admits that he was disengaged in the civil rights era. An amygdala kind of guy, Trump was a leading "birther" who played on racial fears to attack President Obama. He kept it up long after others abandoned the cause, signaling his willingness to carry the Southern Strategy to a new extreme.

    Crossing boundaries

    In his presidential campaign Trump regularly crosses the boundaries others honor, even calling on his supporters to physically eject protesters from his rallies. Trump spoke approvingly after his loyalists manhandled one protester, saying, "Maybe he should have been roughed up." No one who has come close to serving the country as president had been so ready to adopt such a snarling attitude. But then unlike Nixon and Reagan, Trump has never served in elected office, never answered to the people.
    Speaking directly to our lizard selves, Trump inspires those who are frightened and discouraged, promising aggressive action unencumbered by delay and indecisiveness. Polls -- and the results Tuesday in New Hampshire -- suggest that one third of the GOP seems to feel this way, and for them, Trump provides such a cathartic and vicarious thrill that they may never give him up. As the candidate said himself, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn't lose voters."
    Those who find Trump frightening recognize the danger in his method. For them Trump's 5th Avenue statement, which seems true enough, is the sound of an alarm. Lizard people who are ruled by their baser drives become dangerous to themselves and others. Lizard leaders do too.