Although he has been in the headlines for almost a year, not always for the best of reasons, Donald Trump still remains something of a riddle in American politics. There are several reasons for this.
To start with, he is not a professional politician in a system dominated by professionals at least since the 1960s. As a result he doesn’t know how to practice the art of political correctness, preferring to say the first thing that comes to his mind. At times he has difficulty finding his tongue, and when he finds it he loses his head.
Next, Trump is a celebrity in a country where celebrities have replaced the gods of Olympus as objects of curiosity, admiration and envy. The difference is that while most celebrities are known and followed because they have made a name in a single domain, Trump has been a jack of all trades or, to put it more elegantly, a Proteus of versatility. He has been a property-developer, casino owner, airline operator, travel agent, salesman for university degrees, television show host, patron of golf tournaments and adviser for American, Hispanic, Russian, European, Chinese, Iranian, Turkish and Arab investors looking for a piece of the often elusive American cake.
Also, Trump is not the product of any of the top, often overrated, American universities that have churned out the nations’ elites since the 18th century. It is perhaps for that reason that the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee sounds more like the average hamburger-munching blue-collar American worker than the sophisticated nouvelle-cuisine loving lobbyists and politicians in the Washington DC Beltway.
Trump is different from the American ruling elite for yet another reason. He does not operate within a fixed cultural context atrophied by too much memory and ideological posturing. The best he can do is to peddle that most banal of shibboleths “making America great again”.
Trump knows by instinct that in a democracy an electorate is easy to please but hard to satisfy. This is, perhaps, why, when tackling complex issues, he goes for shortcuts. If people are suffering from rising crime and unemployment and falling purchasing power why not go for the primeval human device of finding a scapegoat, or in Trump’s case two scapegoats: the Hispanics and Muslims?
That attitude has enabled many to label Trump as a racist. However, I am certain that Trump isn’t a racist if only because he is incapable of sustaining any position for any length of time. If he persists in his position, it is because, over the course of months of primary campaigns, he has learned that pointing the finger at Hispanics and Muslims wins him votes. In any case neither Hispanic nor Muslim designates any race.
Deep down, Trump knows that talking of building a “wall” does not create a new style of architecture let alone a new school of politics. He also knows his plan to ban Muslims from entering the US has as much chance of success as President John Adams’ ban on bigamists and President Harry Truman’s ban on Communists. Trump insists on his theme because it resonates with his support base. If that makes him unpopular with the elites he doesn’t care.
Where the traditional American politician is proud of his popularity, Trump is proud of his unpopularity. Where the traditional politician seeks kudos by apologizing to all and sundry, as President Barack Obama has been doing around the world, Trump cultivates impenitence as a virtue. Though others dismiss him as master of braggadocio and fanfaronade, Trump sees himself as the courageous voice of voiceless Americans.
A visit to the famous Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue where Trump first made his name in the 1980s may offer some clues to the character of the maverick who could become the next US President. I first visited the tower in 1983 when my former publisher wished to buy an apartment there, and did. I found the tower rather kitsch with a lot of glitter and flourish used to introduce a note of Oriental exoticism.
With 58 floors it wasn’t among the highest skyscrapers in Manhattan but neither could it claim the charm of less elevated buildings. It was clear that the architect had tried to make maximum use of the relatively small land surface available; dollar had diced design.
Facing north it didn’t catch any of Manhattan’s sun without developing chiaroscuro as its main theme. To introduce a note of class, Trump had hired a blonde harpist with golden hair to exercise her fingers massacring pieces by Bach and Hayden. A “continental-style” restaurant, which meant food was mediocre and bills bright, was added for the same effect.
Last week, passing through Manhattan with a journalist friend I visited the Trump Tower again. It has aged, rather less than gracefully to put it mildly. The blonde harpist is gone and the whole place is dotted with bulky security gorillas with wires in their ears mumbling things in miniature microphones.
On entering the building one is subject to an airport security search, whenever the nominee is in his penthouse or office. The narrow escalators, unchanged for years, are creaking and the system of lighting has been adapted to economize on electricity, producing a deeper note of somberness.
The restaurants have shed pretensions of sophistication, offering pizzas, hamburgers and a range of ice creams to please any teamster. The building’s kitsch effect is reinforced by piped background music, mostly songs by Doris Day, the average American’s singing idol in the 1950s, notably her famous “Che Sera Sera” (What Will Be, Will be!).
The tower has a back exit, leading to Madison Avenue, which I hadn’t noticed in 1983. It opens on to a street-level terrace with metal tables and seats occupied by low-level office workers munching their Mexican “wraps”, many of them dreaded Latinos who cannot afford the neighborhood’s pricey restaurants.
Just off the terrace there is a food kiosk that has attracted a long queue reminding one of potato queues in the old Soviet Union. A little tape-recorder broadcasts Arab music, creating the image of an oasis in Manhattan right next to Trump’s towering oasis. The kiosk is run by a young man from Cairo, sporting the mandatory Islamist beard, selling Egyptian “beans” (fool). His customers, a rainbow of ethnicities and religions reflecting America’s amazing diversity, say they appreciate his presence and love his food which is tasty and cheap.