The same cultural elites that are mystified by the appeal of Donald Trump the presidential candidate have been mystified, for decades, by the appeal of Donald Trump the developer.
A key secret to Trump’s success, in business and in politics, has been his willingness to sell people things they are not supposed to want.
His competitive advantage is that he does not overestimate his customer’s virtue.
You are not supposed to want an apartment that is covered in pink marble and dipped in brass. This is tacky. It is gauche. And yet, Trump apartments sell, because lots of people have terrible taste — worse taste than other developers might like to admit.
Consider the mini-businesses Trump felt compelled to defend after Mitt Romney attacked his business record. Trump Steaks. Trump Vodka. Trump Wine. These are not luxury items so much as they are indulgence items. His is a brand that says, screw your cardiologist, have a steak. You earned it.
Even the one sport he is associated with, golf, has far more to do with displays of wealth than with cardiovascular exercise.
There would never be a Trump cold-pressed juice cleanse, or a Trump ecotourism lodge, or Trumpcycle.
There is a lot of money to be made selling virtue-signalling goods and services to affluent people, but Donald Trump is not Martha Stewart and he is not Gwyneth Paltrow. The appeal of Trump is not just that he’s rich, but that because he’s rich he gets to do whatever he wants — and he does not want to drink kale juice.
What people love about Donald Trump is that he gives them licence not to feel guilty about guilty pleasures.
So long as this phenomenon was confined to the worlds of business and reality television, it was amusing or, at worst, annoying. Horrifyingly, it turns out there is a deep market for a similar approach in politics — to the surprise of many pundits, but not Donald Trump.
So what’s a guilty political pleasure? In part, it involves big promises without any notion of trade-offs. Cut taxes $10 trillion without touching entitlements. Make Mexico pay for a border wall. Knock the hell out of ISIS without sending ground troops. Don’t worry, we can afford it because I’ll make us so rich.
But for a lot of Trump’s voters, the biggest forbidden pleasure he has unlocked is the licence to express resentments and hatreds that have long been suppressed by standards of decency and politeness, more commonly referred to by Republican politicians as “political correctness.” Trump has even indulged the desire to act out violently, or at least to watch acts of violence, against political opponents.
“Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore,” Trump said at a rally last week, lamenting how long it takes to remove protesters without injuring them. This sentiment — that liberal and African-American protesters should be put down with violence — has more support in white America than most of us would care to admit. Trump’s competitive advantage is that he is the only candidate with the indecency not just to speak this idea out loud, but to invite violence with a promise to pay his supporters’ legal fees.
While most Trump supporters will not get the opportunity to personally punch a liberal black protester in the face, the campaign provides them vicarious wish fulfillment not unlike what viewers of The Apprentice got from watching Trump fire people.
There has been a lot of discussion of what institutional failures allowed Trump to rise to the top of the Republican field. But one institution that should not be let off the hook is the voters themselves, who I think have failed in a way that is unique to this election cycle.
Usually, people feel guilty about guilty pleasures. People make some effort to suppress their racist and violent impulses. Trump’s voters are not pure evil; they have chosen better in the past and I believe they can do so again in the future. But as discussed, Trump is unusually good at appealing to people’s desire to be bad. If it were not for his impish joy — the clear fact that he is having a lot of fun setting the country on fire — more voters would see his malevolence for what it is.
Eventually, gambling at Trump’s casinos went out of fashion. His line of steaks ceased to be available at The Sharper Image. His wines, allegedly, are pretty good, but the brand name is too undesirable to stock in restaurants, says one sommelier near his winery.
Fortunately, the general election-polling seems clear that a majority of Americans will reject Trump the candidate as soundly as they rejected Trump Steaks. And fortunately, the next candidate who tries to match his nationalist, populist, racist appeal likely won’t be able to summon the good-to-be-bad ethos that has helped so many voters lose their way.
If we are lucky, some enterprising Republican candidate in 2020 might even figure out how to address working-class economic concerns without taking too much of Trump’s ethnocentric baggage along for the ride.
But if nothing else, this campaign will have taught us not to overestimate the good judgment of the voters. Donald Trump is not a stupid man, and he was right that this crap could sell to a lot of people.
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