In the Year of Trump, the Joke Was On Us

How the campaign's biggest laugh turned ugly in 2015

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It started out as a joke: Donald Trump running for president! What better way to spoof the thinness of the Republican field than to shove a bombastic reality star with orange hair, a sixth-grade vocabulary and no behavioral filter onto the debate stage with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and Lindsey Graham? The only thing more perfect would have been to add a head of lettuce and Koko the signing gorilla to round out the candidate slate.

Trump seemed like a perfect foil in particular for Jeb Bush, a hesitating, gelatinous aristocrat who lacked the cocksure brainlessness the previous Bush used to sell himself as a "regular guy." In an era when Republican voters were more distrustful than ever of the Same Old Politics, stiff, birthright-bearing Jeb was exactly the wrong candidate for the party elders to back.

And they seemed to realize it, too. Once the Republican race got going, the party appeared too disorganized and fractured to throw its institutional weight behind anyone. This left a comically enormous cast of hopefuls to duke it out in the equivalent of a schoolyard rock fight. And without the gravitas of party and media support, the candidates on the Republican side turned out to be just a bunch of chattering, defenseless, fourth-rate flesh-bags, exquisitely vulnerable to any strong personality. The entrance of Trump into the race on June 16th therefore offered the potential of an entertaining car wreck of awesome proportions.

But things turned ugly less than 45 minutes into his run. In his announcement, Trump told the world that Mexican immigrants were "rapists" who needed to be stopped. Then, in an interview with CNN's Don Lemon, he doubled down on the remark instead of recanting. "Well, somebody's doing the raping," he seethed. A week later, Mexicans, to Trump, were not just rapists but "rapists and killers," and he was now adding a proposal to build a giant wall across the Mexican border to stop the Army of Darkness-style invading rape-murder horde. The wall would be "tall" and building it would be "easy," he said, adding that he would get Mexico to pay for it, because he knew the "art of negotiating" and wasn't a "clown."

To the astonishment of most observers, Trump soared to second place in Iowa and New Hampshire, and was the clear frontrunner by mid-July. Except for a brief surge by crazy-ass Ben Carson in the fall, he's remained there ever since. Heading into the holiday season, he was pushing 40% in some national polls, more popular than ever.

The appearance of a onetime Spy magazine punchline and WWE performer as the real leader of a real screwball nationalist movement has been at least partly an accidental phenomenon.

The ancient report that he used to keep a book of Hitler's speeches by his bedside notwithstanding, it's very likely that Donald Trump never in his life thought seriously about things like nativism, fascism, eugenics, or any kind of ideology at all. This was not someone who likely ever dreamed of cattle cars and rivers of blood. Trump is a narcissist, not a demagogue; his pathology is himself, not politics. 

A pre-2015 Trump fantasy was probably something like romping with models after simultaneously winning the Nobel Prizes for Peace, Literature and Physics (they love me in Sweden – scientists were amazed by the size of my skyscraper!). He almost certainly would have been grossed out by a Ghost-of-Christmas-Future-style image of his 2015 self being feted by crowds of rifle-toting white power nerds.

But shortly after Trump jumped into the race, he stumbled onto a secret: whenever he blurted out forbidden thoughts about race, ethnicity or gender, he was showered with the attention he always craved.

A sizable portion of the country seemed appalled at the things he said. But at the same time he was suddenly attracting huge and adoring crowds at down-home sites like Bluffton, South Carolina and Mobile, Alabama, pretty much the last places you'd ever expect the Trump brand to take off.

Trump had spent his entire career lending his name to luxury properties that promised exclusivity and separation from exactly the sort of struggling Joes who turned out for these speeches. If you live in a Trump building in a place like the Upper West Side, it's supposed to mean that you're too cosmopolitan, stylish, and successful — too smart-set — to mix with the rabble.

But the rabble — white, working-class, rural, despising exactly those big-city elites who live in Trump's buildings — turned out to be Trump's base. They're the people who hooted and hollered every time he said something off-color about Muslims or Mexicans or Asians ("We want deal!" Trump snickered earlier this year, in a Chinese-waiter voice) or "the blacks."

It was a bizarre marriage, but it made sense from from a clinical point of view. Attention is attention. Patient with narcissistic personality disorder discovers massive source of narcissistic supply, so he sets about securing its regular delivery.

So one comment about Mexicans turned into another about Megyn Kelly's "wherever," which turned into a call for a Black Lives Matter protester to be "roughed up," which turned into an insane slapstick routine about a Times reporter with arthrogryposis, and so on. By December, you had to check Twitter every few hours just to see which cultural taboo Trump was stomping on now.

The presidential campaign Trump began as just the latest in a long line of zany self-promotional gambits has now turned into the long-delayed other shoe dropping from the American civil rights movement. This goofball billionaire mirror-gazer has unleashed a half-century of crackpot grievances about the post-civil rights cultural landscape that a plurality of seething white people felt they never had permission to air, until he came along.

White America has been talking about race in code for more than half a century. You can trace the practice back to Barry Goldwater's 1964 acceptance speech, when he talked about "law and order" and the need to restrain "marauders," after a series of race riots in east coast cities. The speech struck a chord with white voters.

Goldwater's discovery that you could use crime as a proxy to talk about race helped define the next half-century of major-party politics in America. Later generations of pols used other issues like immigration, tax reform and "income redistribution" to achieve the same end.

We called it "dog-whistle politics" because after the Civil Rights Movement, the party line was that we were now all partners in Dr. King's famous dream of racial harmony. So there were certain things you were no longer supposed to say out loud.

You couldn't just come out and say black people were lazy anymore. But you could talk about how "good people" in "small towns" do "some of the hardest work," as Sarah Palin did in 2008. And you could hint that there was another group of people who preferred just to get "free stuff," as Mitt Romney said in 2012. 

But people get tired of talking in code. In this sense Trump's campaign isn't repudiating the Civil Rights Movement per se, but the Republicans who give fake lip-service to it. Even the worst race-baiters of the recent Republican past conceded that racial appeals had to be cloaked.

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger,'" strategist Lee Atwater, the creator of George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton ad, once said. "By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights."

Trump made the Republican field look weak by blurting straight-out what they would only say in code (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie all parroted Romney's pathetic "free stuff" line this year, for instance). This part of Trump's act has to thrill Democrats, since he's stealing away from Republicans the illusion of centrism. Future Republican nominees will have a tough time remembering how in the world George W. Bush ever won 44% of the Hispanic vote, as he did in 2004.

But Trump's act isn't all about race. He's also scoring points by mining the same mainstream frustrations over language-policing and political correctness that made Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay famous. Trump's broadsides about Megyn Kelly aren't that far off from the Dice-Man's "Pattycake" routine.

The difference is, Clay and Kinison and comedians like them were trying to make a point about the absurdity of policing away forbidden thoughts, while Trump is basically a cretinous dinosaur who doesn't understand why slurs about periods or the disabled or "the blacks" were ever made taboo in the first place. He's not pushing back with a laugh, from a nightclub. He wants to do it from the Oval Office. Even Dice Clay thinks he's nuts.

All comedy is about misunderstandings. A little town gets word that a government inspector is coming, so it mistakenly rolls out the red carpet for a visiting drunk on a gambling spree.

2015 was the same kind of mistaken-identity tale. The Silent Majority has been waiting 50 years for a prophet, but this year it settled for a billionaire loudmouth with a comb-over and a personality disorder. Like all comedies, this one is bound to end with an explosion of unintended consequences. What we won't know until 2016 is whether this joke will end up being on all of us — or just those of us who waited too long to take Trump's accidental war seriously.