04.13.11

Why Candidate Trump Is Leading the Polls

It’s not just that weird birther thing. Matt Latimer examines why The Donald, in his unlikely bid for the GOP presidential nomination, touches a chord with the electorate.

It’s not just that weird birther thing. Matt Latimer examines why The Donald, in his unlikely bid for the GOP presidential nomination, touches a chord with the electorate. Plus, got a question for Trump? The Daily Beast will ask him one questionsubmit yours.

My first clue that Donald Trump was serious about this president business was when he fired Dionne Warwick. No one escapes accountability in Trump’s America, not even a 70-year-old music icon who casually informed actress Marlee Matlin that deaf people are “sad.” As one reviewer of this season’s Celebrity Apprentice put it, “ Who would have thought Dionne Warwick would be the ignorant bigot on this show?” But I digress.

Donald Trump, the reality-TV star, wants the country to know he is a serious candidate for the GOP nomination. And his dramatic rise in the polls over well-known establishment retreads like Mitt Romney (who ranked fourth!) has given him a credibility that no one, except Trump, probably expected. In Washington there is no funnier sight than bewildered political consultants trying to make sense of something they didn’t foresee. And of course not one of them, even for a moment, is considering the possibility that Trump’s rise (like Sarah Palin’s and Ron Paul’s) is really a reaction against them.

Full disclosure: I love Donald Trump. For me, he ranks second only to William Shatner in terms of pure television joy. I love his over-the-top pronouncements about sponsors (Snapple is the greatest drink in the world), his friends (Meat Loaf is probably one of the best singers in America), and himself (I have the most-watched television show in America, my bestselling books are extraordinarily popular, I went to the best business school in the country). I love the irony-free sobriety he brings to every episode of Apprentice as he moderates ridiculously petty celebrity disputes, then fires the person who helps ratings least, then pats himself on the back for his good judgment. I love how he brazenly insults celebrities he recruited for his show on their plastic surgeries. I love how he makes corporate suits on Apprentice introduce themselves, the clear implication being that he can’t be bothered to remember their names or products. I love his resistance to the “barbaric” custom of handshakes. None of this means he should be president, but frankly the cupboard of exciting presidential candidates is Arizona-desert-bare.

What accounts for Trump’s (likely temporary) spot on top of the polls? It is not, contrary to conventional wisdom, his loony indulgence of the Obama “birther” movement. No one really takes that seriously, probably not even him. I suspect something larger is at work.

Americans long for a straight-talking businessman who can save the country from the political class that fouled everything up.

As they did with Lee Iacocca in the ’80s and then with H. Ross Perot—who might well have become president in 1992 if he hadn’t appeared to be a lunatic—Americans long for a straight-talking businessman who can save the country from the political class that fouled everything up. The recent budget battle is only the latest sign of the cluelessness of Washington culture. Only in the nation’s capital could a group of people bicker for weeks over reducing the federal budget by either 1 percent or 2 percent, agree to do nothing about entitlement programs that will soon bankrupt us, and then get hailed by each other and by much of the media—from MSNBC to Fox—as courageous budget cutters. Trump appears to offer something more than yawn-inducing grandstanding to a fed-up populace.

He drew wild reviews for his debut speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference from a savvy, if eccentric, batch of political junkies who’d become accustomed to a procession of wax-museum dummies as potential nominees. Washington is full of Mitt Rombots now: the calculated passion, the dreary buzzwords, the obligatory homage to Ronald Reagan, the by-the-numbers attacks on Obama and liberals. Trump did something else at CPAC—he told people what he thought, apparently without making any use of a pollster. Even as he was booed, he merrily informed fanatic Ron Paul supporters who have turned CPAC into their personal fiefdom that their beloved candidate can’t win.  And jeepers, he didn’t mention Reagan once!

Why is Trump considering a bid for the White House? Because, he told his audience, “the United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world ... I deal with people from China. I deal with people from Mexico. They cannot believe what they’re getting away with.” He calls out nations, including close American allies, by name for ripping America off. “Countries like China, like India, South Korea, Mexico, and the OPEC nations view our country as weak and ineffective, and have repeatedly taken advantage of them to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.” He says the United States is “rebuilding China” because American consumers are buying its products at an artificially low price, making it “almost impossible for [U.S.] companies to compete.” The mogul has the gall to demand that our rich allies—who have benefited for decades from our security guarantees and spend a scant percentage of their own GDP on their defense needs—actually chip in for the security our military provides. On South Korea, one of the richest nations in the world, he notes,  “We go over there, we protect them, we protect them with our ships. Did anyone pay us for this? No!”

To oil-rich Arab potentates, Trump sends a message that Obama would never utter, and in a tone that Obama can apparently never manage. (Even the nuance-loving president’s condemnation of Muammar Gaddafi was delivered with Obama’s customary slightly-above-room-temperature cadence.) Nuance is not a problem for Trump. “OPEC will cut the price of oil, and if they don’t they’ve got problems,” he says. “We are protecting Saudi Arabia free of charge. The Arab League asked us to go into Libya and we go in and we don’t say, ‘Are you going to pay for it?’ ”

None of this is diplomatic, much of it is likely impractical, but there is not a single thing in the above pronouncements that most Republicans, and many Americans, wouldn’t agree with. And Trump makes his case with rare relish. On the campaign trail, he would blithely make a gaffe a day and not give a damn. In the last few weeks, he’s insulted Palin supporters by discounting her chances and told a well-regarded New York Times columnist that she was, basically, a talentless hack with “ the face of a dog.”  Just wait till Ivana and Marla start talking.

As Trump put it at CPAC, he has a good life. He doesn’t need any of this. This is why his springtime flirtation will likely come to nothing. Perhaps his greatest service will simply be to teach a thing or two to some of the other candidates seeking the White House (and maybe even its current inhabitant). So far the greatest irony of the 2012 election is that the man so often accused of lacking authenticity is the realest person on the national stage.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.