Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio says the presidential candidate has an effect on voters akin to that of some classic fictional characters
He says Trump survives missteps and edgy attacks more successfully than nearly all politicians
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the new book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). He is appearing on CNN’s “New Day” in the 6 a.m. ET hour Thursday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Though posed in different ways, the question people ask when they learn I have written a new biography of Donald Trump is a variation on a single theme: How do you explain this guy’s appeal?
Trump is, after all, a man who lobs insults of the sort that most of us never utter. His self-regard is so over the top – “I’m, like, a really smart person” – that he gives new meaning to the word braggart. The turmoil in his personal life (three marriages) and his business life (four bankruptcies) is unrivaled for a major presidential contender in the history of American politics.
Nevertheless, he is favored by many evangelical Christians and pro-business conservatives. Similarly, he attracts considerable support among GOP women even as he comments snarkily about the appearance of the one woman in the Republican race, candidate Cary Fiorina.
Indeed, in his long and colorful life, and more recently during his campaign, Trump has said and done things that would have derailed most other Republican candidates. He has supported abortion rights and the equivalent of today’s Obamacare.
He remains a strong voice in favor of a substantial hike in taxes on investment income and higher taxes in general for the rich. And last week, the press reported on Trump’s claim, made in my book, that his experience in a military high school made him feel like he understood military life even though deferments and a medical exemption allowed him to avoid service during the Vietnam War.
How does Trump glide past trouble that would make others stumble? In a phrase, it is the charm of a rascal.
Say what you will about Trump, he is possessed of mischievous traits that many Americans find irresistible.
Trump’s public persona resonates with people the way Jay Gatsby, Archie Bunker and Harold Hill of “The Music Man” capture people’s imagination in three highly popular works of fiction.
His image has been carefully crafted since he rose to prominence in the 1970s and began presenting himself via the mass media.
In fact, in the very first feature article ever published about Trump, The New York Times noted that he resembled Robert Redford in the title role of Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and four films, used his charisma and style to achieve unimaginable wealth in a romantic but criminal enterprise known as bootlegging.
Throughout his life, Trump has been appreciated as a super salesman of the Harold Hill type. Hill became a household name in Trump’s youth as “The Music Man” by Meredith Willson won both a Tony award in 1957 for best musical and an Oscar in 1963 for best score. The character of Hill was a flim-flam salesman who alerted people to a false threat (pool) and sold them a defense (music) that wound up making them feel happy to be snookered.
And in his cruder comments about people he reviles, Trump has often equaled Archie Bunker’s outspoken style even if he doesn’t use the word “meathead.”
The central character in the 1970s TV series “All in the Family,” the fictional Archie was, like Trump, a son of the borough of Queens. As played by Carroll O’Connor, he turned insensitivity into an art form as he expressed the anger of certain white American males who felt threatened by the rapid changes wrought by feminism, the civil rights movement and post-Nixon politics.
Like Archie, Donald Trump holds Richard Nixon in high regard and wears his feelings on his sleeve. Archie showed genuine affection for the people he knew well, even if they belonged to groups (liberals, Democrats, intellectuals) that he railed against. Trump, too, treats the individual people he encounters well, even if he hurls insults at public figures who tangle with him.
Like Gatsby, Trump seeks every advantage in his pursuit of success and exerts a special influence over many women. (In 1987 a woman who saw Trump speak in New Hampshire said he possessed the “aphrodisiac” that is power.) Trump is every bit Harold Hill’s equal as a salesman, issuing an alarm with just the right mixture of ominous words – drug dealers, rapists, murderers – and then saving the day with what he has to offer, namely “leadership” and “management.”
In reality, Trump is more formidable than any of these three characters depicted in fiction. For all his reverses, he has presided over a business empire for decades and made his family name a long-lasting brand name. His history of politically incorrect statements hasn’t slowed him down.
And of course Trump has updated the methods of Hill, Gatsby and Bunker for the modern age, presenting himself on screens across the country in an almost constant stream of images, comments and Twitter posts. Today’s charmers mostly offer themselves in two-dimensional form. “Authenticity” now comes to us in manufactured form through the filter of mass media.
Every public figure is, in large part, only the image of a man or women seen at a distance and we factor this truth into our assessments. Voters understood this and consider assertions by politicians on a par with the claims of advertisers. They discount both.
In Trump’s case, the public’s enthusiasm is something like the affection other characters of fiction, and by extension the audience, feel for Archie, the admiration they lend to Gatsby and the delight they feel when confronted by the Music Man.
Today’s polls are likely measuring Trump’s charming persona as much as his appeal as a potential commander in chief. Will his numbers hold up? Consider whether you can imagine a President Gatsby, Hill or Bunker, and you will find your answer.