The Trump apotheosis, which climaxed last night in Cleveland, is a sign of the spectacular decline of American royalty as well as a symptom of the disastrous degeneration of American democracy.
Much was said a half-century ago about how charismatic John F. Kennedy was—“charisma” being a word that was relatively little used before JFK burst onto the scene. His charisma was rooted in a kind of American princeliness.
Other political figures had been intelligent and thoughtful and sage—JFK’s older rival Adlai Stevenson, for instance. Kennedy added impossibly dashing good looks, sophisticated sexiness, genuine wartime courage, and a crisply ironic wit.
He came across as a superior and idealistic young hero, one who would bring out the best in us and guide us with a sure hand. Thanks to Jackie, his White House was as glamorous as it was distinguished. The handsome brothers and sisters and the beautiful children, Caroline and John-John, rounded out the picture of small-r republican, big-D Democratic royalty.
In a word, Camelot.
The Trumps are the Bizarro World version of the Kennedys. Trump’s brand of charisma is irresistibly fitting for our times. His is the Kardashian Camelot, fueled by ostentatious displays of money, supermarket-tabloid celebrity, comprehensive fakery, indiscriminate access, and a preposterously (and prosperously) good-looking family.
The whole extended Trump family entourage—the sheer number of them, their blondeness, their glowing upper arms, their body-hugging white sheath dresses (with Melania as the slinky, counterpoint brunette), all lined up with the GQ sons and sons-in-law—radiated readiness for syndicated prime time.
Last night in Cleveland, when the cameras cut to the pleasantly normal members of the Pence family with their inexpensive haircuts, one was reminded, with a start, of what a standard political family usually looks like. The Pences were in a TV show totally different than the one that America is finding increasingly addictive to watch.
Trump’s own charisma is scarcely less powerful than JFK’s, but it’s the charisma of the third-world strongman—of Mussolini jutting his chin, of Castro free-associating, of Perón or Putin rousing the mob. Trump lives at the top of a gold tower, furnished in Baath party décor.
The appeal of his perfect family lightens the darkness and hate spewing out of his puckered sphincter of a mouth. In order to compete with him, all the other passé political stooges in Cleveland went over the top, too. Rudy Giuliani turned into the Phantom of the Opera, and Chris Christie is now just a circus character in enormous trousers calling on us all to “LOCK HER UP!”
Like all good reality shows Trump’s produces new characters just when you need them. There is the suggestion of delicious tensions, of rivalries not yet revealed. We now have 22-year-old Tiffany Trump, to talk about: she of the plump, duvet lips, hair cascade, and seductive voice who, as the daughter of the discarded beauty queen Marla Maples, is the West Coast edition of Trumpian pizzazz.
You can guess the superiority with which she is viewed by her father’s anointed favorite, the flawless Ivanka, whose almost patrician beauty and poise must infuriate all the other women in the Trumpian roadshow, most of all his third and current wife, poor Melania, whose moment in the sun was trashed by the careless infliction on her of a plagiarized speech.
Melania has probably had Ivanka’s Grace Kelly act up to here.
Meanwhile, the tan, oiled, Donald Trump Jr. appeared from nowhere as the political star of tomorrow—albeit who looks better cast in a Latin-American junta. (When does the next series start?)
Where Trumpworld intersects with the Kardashians and other reality-show phenomena is in its being entirely a projection of ego, a projection so strong that it demands either complete acceptance or complete rejection.
If you accept Kim Kardashian, you accept that she is a sexual ideal—that everything she does is interesting, that she is the height of cool. To reject any pillar of that structure is to topple the entirety of it. But to buy it is to buy the product she has made of herself.
The same with Trump. If you accept that he is the embodiment of can-do, that he needs to know no more about politics and world affairs than he does, that his problem-solving temperament is so supple that it will apply even to complex situations about which he hasn’t a clue, then you accept his projection. To reject any pillar of that construction is to topple the entirety of it.
The trouble with all this is that the Trumps present an image of what much of America aspires to. There is a reason that Kim Kardashian can reportedly command $700,000 to offer herself for selfies. The selfie world is a selfish world.
When you see Trump alight from the private plane with his name blazoned on the side, he’s the unreconstructed image of success circa 1984, when many of his voters still felt good about themselves. He’s the guy who’s got it all, the arm candy and the cars and the fuck-you money everybody dreams of. He created a business and a dynasty where everyone looks great. And he’s telling us we can all have it too.
For a public that is unsophisticated about politics and world affairs but knows what it fears, the acceptance of a charismatic projection is as reassuring as a religion. Even though Trump doesn’t have a religious bone in his body, what he is demanding of his followers is faith.
Perhaps that’s why evangelicals are undaunted by his adultery. He couches his promises in the language of faith. He will create miracles. “You won’t believe it, folks,” he tells his faithful. We’re going to have an “unbelievable” economy. He’s going to be “unbelievably presidential.” Everything is “unbelievable,” by which he means “Believe me!”
The world he portrays in his speeches—last night’s, for example—is eschatological and apocalyptic, a world of chaos and fear, with marauders who must be walled out lest they invade the paradise only he is capable of restoring. And what are the signs and wonders that prove his powers? The shiny women around him with their “incredible” hair. The plane from which he descends from the sky, the shiny gold and black lacquer world he inhabits, even the compunction he lacks. He is going to fix our miserable loser world. Just don’t ask how.
In a word, Shamelot.