If you can get past Rick Perry — in his ranch coat — accusing Barack Obama of waging “a war on religion”, the most ludicrous and self-debasing storyline in the “Celebrities Gone Wild” circus of Republican presidential candidates (right now) is the dilemma of whether to appear on Donald Trump’s debate, a week before the Iowa caucuses. So far only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are in. Perry is saying he’ll be on a bus tour — in Iowa, where Trump will descend to moderate the “debate” and then, he says, endorse a candidate. Perry doesn’t know if he can work it in. Traffic in Iowa, you know, can be a bitch.
Mitt Romney, advised by the likes of Karl Rove to stay away, first bravely declared he would not be able to make it … then apologized to Trump for any perceived disrespect. Michele Bachmann, who has made several pilgrimages to the Trump Tower suites (without raising even a breath of scandal, odd considering Trump’s repeated pronouncements of himself as one of the greatest lovers in modern history), is now concerned about this endorsement business. Trump called her a “worker bee” the other day, which is kind of a long ways from endorsing the next queen.
In normal, healthier times the spectacle of major party candidates … for President of the United States, not Chippewa County commissioner … truckling and showing obeisance to a Page Six reality TV personality would be the lowest depths of sketch comedy absurdity. (Let’s imagine George H. W. Bush, Jack Kemp and Bob Dole publicly soliciting the endorsement of Jerry Springer.) But’s where the post-pride modern GOP has delivered itself. Donald Trump matters.
But why? Unlike Grover Norquist, who is the public face for serious, undisclosed money that can and has wreaked havoc on Republicans who violated his anti-tax pledge, all Trump can do is phone in to Howard Stern or Sean Hannity and say nasty, dismissive things about you, specifically that unlike him you’re a loser.
I am not being facetious when I say it may be worth factoring in the pop-cultural touchstones of the Republican base to understand both the influence of Donald Trump and the re-re-re-surgence of Newt Gingrich.
A consumer survey earlier this week tried to identify the entertainment TV-watching preferences of people of different political persuasions. The distinctions between lefties and righties could not be more stark.
Liberals gravitate to stuff like “30 Rock”, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, “Saturday Night Live”, “Cougar Town” and … “Masterpiece Theater”. No big surprises there, right? Liberals can’t get enough snark and irony.
Conservatives on the other hand really, really like … reality TV. Satirical farce holds no appeal. Their faves? “The Biggest Loser”, “The Bachelor”, “Dancing With the Stars”, “Swamp Loggers”, “Man vs. wild” and, believe it or not, one PBS show in particular, “This Old House”.
So what’s the connecting tissue? Well, a significant part of the appeal of reality TV is the audience identifying with the contestants, ordinary people competing for … self-renewal (“Loser”), acceptance and bonding (“Bachelor”), acclaim for otherwise hidden talent (“Dancing”), recognition for facing danger (“Loggers”), primal survival (“Man vs. Wild”) and self-sufficiency/respect for tradition (“Old House”).
In a world like this, mated with previous studies laying out conservatives’ comparatively more active response centers for authoritarian leadership, a guy like Trump matters. There may be a flutter of suspicion that he is over-inflating his resume. But gosh, he has big buildings (and casinos!) named after him and he really truly is the guy who fires people on network TV. He must have something going on. Enough that rather than spit coffee through your nose when he says he’s disappointed Obama hasn’t called him for advice, you’re inclined to think that’s not such a bad idea. Trump gives advice on TV every week, so why doesn’t Obama call him and ask how to out-bluff the next tinpot dictator? Why is Obama so proud? Is he afraid of Trump?
Gingrich and Trump have a lot in common. Both are in no small part products of their shameless willingness to sell themselves — to a certain credulous market segment — as not just authorities on every manner of cultural complexity, but the ultimate authority. And in a world where the singular maxim of advertising — repetition — remains indisputably true, they say it so often, so convincingly and without even the slightest tremor of doubt that it settles in … with certain psychological sub-set of the public.
I still say Gingrich’s appeal to the base is less a factor of their “distrust” of Romney for all his comical pandering, but rather his unwillingness/inability to present himself as the bold authoritarian they expect their leaders to be. Romney is incapable of bald-faced self-glorification. He has no ability to project an air of omni-authoritativeness, like a successful talk radio host, or Donald Trump.