What is Trump?

We have been deluged with coverage of Donald Trump and his campaign. There are the seemingly endless articles on his pronouncements and his behaviour; each story expressing barely suppressed disbelief that such a person is running for the office of President. And then there are the other pieces, in which reporters earnestly pursue Trump’s voters – the left-behinds of the mid-West and elsewhere, who, despairing of a political system that has failed them, turn to ‘the Donald’ as a saviour who ‘speaks their language’. 

But hidden within this coverage is another theme, one that has received less attention, but which runs through both types of story. This is not about who Trump is and who his supporters are, but what he is. It is a truth almost universally recognised that he is not a ‘politician’, either because he fails to meet the standards expected of a democratic representative or because he expresses no desire to be such a figure. But if he is not a politician what is he? What role is he playing?

This question stems, in part, from the notion that the contest for the presidency is not an exercise in straightforward political competition. As the writer George Saunders observed: “American Presidential campaigns are not about ideas; they are about the selection of a hero to embody the prevailing national ethos.”

But this begs a further question, if the aim is to be a ‘hero’, what kind of hero are we talking about? Mark Singer, in his book Trump & Me, twice quotes a Trump associate as saying: “Deep down, he [Trump] wants to be Madonna”. Quite what of Madonna’s many incarnations they have in mind is unclear, but Trump as rock or pop star is a theme taken up by other writers. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian described finding himself at a Trump rally, in the “standing area directly in front of the stage, a kind of Trumpian moshpit …”

Bob Lefsetz took the analogy one step further in a piece entitled “Trump is a Heavy Metal Band”: “Yes, Donald Trump is a rock star, if you go back to what that once upon a time meant, someone who adhered to his own vision living a rich and famous lifestyle who cared not a whit what others said.” And for Lefsetz, it is the genre that holds the key to Trump’s ability to command an audience: “Metal… Sold out arenas when no one was watching. Ain’t that America, where despite garnering dollars the establishment shies away from that which it believes is unseemly. And the reason metal triumphed was because it was the other, it channelled the audience’s anger, it was for all those closed out of the mainstream, and it turns out there’s plenty of them.”

The music writer Simon Reynolds also sees Trump in the guise of a rock star. Not, though, that of heavy metal, but of glam rock: “Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention.”

For other commentators, the rock star comparison is swapped for the more traditional ideas of showbusiness. The New Yorker compares the democratic contest to “a long-running Broadway musical” and Freedland talks of Trump rallies as ‘sheer showbiz’. James Poniewozik of the New York Times sees Trump in terms of TV formats: “his tale has remained a kind of ‘80s prime-time soap of aspiration and ego. …. [H]e cited his TV ratings the way another candidate might boast of balancing a state budget. Mr Trump’s primary win was like having a niche hit on cable. …. In programming terms, his campaign is nostalgia based content – that thing you used to like, I’m gonna bring it back again! He’s a classic TV show rebooted for Netflix: that old stuff from back in the day, but edgier and uncensored.”

And, of course, Donald Trump is a reality television star. His role on The Apprentice is key to understanding his ability to play the role of presidential candidate. As David Von Drehle wrote in Time: “the craftier characters of reality TV experience a different kind of stardom from the TV and movie idols of the past. Fans are encouraged to feel that they know these people, not as fictional characters but as flesh and blood.”

In research that colleagues and I conducted we found that young people in the UK saw figures like Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell as credible political leaders. They were seen as tough and decisive, attributes that were seen necessary to effective political leadership. And other political scientists have noted the rise of ‘superstar political celebrities’ in the era of ‘anti-politics’.

It might be said that the analogies on which commentators draw are just that – analogies; no more than a literary device. But equally it might be that the role of the politician is indeed becoming that of the rock star. And the answer to the question ‘what is Trump’ is that he is indeed ‘a politician’ after all. 

A version of this piece was also published by The Conversation