The Year Trump Broke American Politics
Donald Trump glided into politics nearly one year ago—and since then it’s never been the same.
“That is some group of people—thousands!”
That was how Donald Trump began his first speech as a presidential candidate, on June 16, 2015, after riding down the escalator in the lobby of Trump Tower, to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World.”
Two days before, he’d turned 69 years old.
He was, then, a reality television star who’d been a celebrity since the 1970s, when he’d started in the real-estate business, following in the footsteps of his developer father.
He was, also, a bit of a joke—he’d publicly toyed with running for the office since 2000, to the extent that no one believed him any longer when he said he might. When I’d asked him, that December 2014, if he was planning on running, it was just to be polite. By that point, having spent the previous three years campaigning to prove President Obama was not an American, he was already a caricature.
According to those who know him, he wanted to run just to prove he could; he wanted to poll respectably, be taken seriously. Then, he wanted to go back to NBC’s The Apprentice, the popular program he’d hosted for 12 years.
It didn’t work out that way, of course.
“It’s great to be at Trump Tower,” Trump said then. “It’s great to be in New York. And it’s an honor to have everybody here—this is beyond anybody’s expectations.”
Little did we know.
Twelve months later, Trump looks like he’s aged in dog years.
His hair is no longer a shade of luminous gold, but a pale yellow. His skin has lost its vibrancy and elasticity, turning his face into a deflated balloon. His eyes are tired and puffy, like he has a sinus infection. He’s thinner now, but still fat. His suits hang from his bulky frame, making him look like an injured football player on his way to the junior prom.
He’s now the de facto Republican nominee. The leader of one of the country’s two major political parties. Trump—a birther, a truther, a tabloid fixture and celebrity who once shaved Vince McMahon’s head and sparred with Rosie O’Donnell—is the face of the same conservative movement that claims as its own such refined entities as the Bush family, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell.
On Sunday, as those politicians offered their thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, which left at least 49 dead at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Trump used the tragedy to congratulate himself on his prescience. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted, “I don’t want congrats. I want toughness and vigilance. We must be smart!”
He then called on President Obama to resign, and Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race for the presidency.
Everyone has a theory for how this happened.
The country is angry, a popular one goes, and voting Trump is like saying fuck you to the ruling elites. And that’s true enough. The ruling conservative elites, at least—Speaker Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump, for instance—are now stuck with a spokesman who openly derides women and nonwhites.
They’re stuck with him during the election that they had planned to use to evolve the Republican brand. In the aftermath of Romney’s crushing 2012 defeat, remember, the Republican National Committee had cautioned that unless they broadened the tent to appeal to new (i.e., non-white) constituencies, they would continue to lose, would fade further into irrelevance.
But irrelevance, it turned out, is not quite the result of evolving in reverse.
On that day, a year ago, Trump stood before a blue curtain and eight American flags. He wore a blue suit, with an American flag pin on the left lapel. His tie was shiny and red.
TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! his lectern read.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again… I will be the greatest jobs president that god ever created.”
It was funny then, to a certain class of people who observe this kind of shit for a living, or who revel in the sport of politics.
It was the first time we’d heard refrains like, “I beat China all the time, all the time.” Or, “I have so many websites. I have them all over the place. I hire people, they do a website, it costs me three dollars.”
It was funny, even, to some of the people who support Trump. At his rallies, they laugh. This is a joke they’re in on together.
Very much not in on the joke is the entire industry of experts and pundits and analysts and commentators who laughed so hard and for so long that it drowned out the Republicans who wondered how they could stop him.
In the end, of course, they didn’t.
A lot can happen in a year. Life can end, or begin; love can be lost, or found; the democratic process as we know it can be fundamentally changed; the Republican Party damaged beyond all recognition.
But in some ways, it’s hard to grasp that we’ve only lived this way for a few hundred days. It’s hard to recall a time without the constant stream of insults and scandals and protests and tweets—so, so many tweets.
Perhaps it’s because in a single year, Trump created a lifetime’s worth of news.
He said undocumented Mexican immigrants are “rapists”; said McCain is “not a war hero”; suggested Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions because she was menstruating; mocked a reporter for having a physical disability; lied about Muslims cheering in the streets of Jersey City on September 11, 2001; christened his every opponent with a degrading nickname; hated lobbyists but hired them; blamed George W. Bush for the 9/11 attacks.
He claimed he would save the country $300 billion a year on prescription drugs, which would not be possible; claimed he would both raise and lower taxes for the wealthy; claimed, wrongly, that we are the highest-taxed country in the world. He offered to pay the legal fees of his supporters who violently attack his protesters; lied about donating $6 million to veterans; converted his enemies into supporters.
I could go on and on.
As a feature of most of his speeches—particularly on nights where he wins a contest, though they’re all his to win now—he looks back and he marvels at all he’s accomplished.
Who could’ve imagined, he says, that he would end up here?