One reason I failed to see Donald Trump coming is that I never saw even a single episode of “The Apprentice.” Indeed, I’d be hard put to name a single “reality TV” program I’ve watched from beginning to end. The hallmark of the genre, of course, being its sheer artificiality.
For entertainment, I mainly watch ballgames.
So everything I knew about Trump came from the New York tabloids: He was a vainglorious blowhard with more garish taste than Liberace. A publicity hound who’d inherited a whole lot of money; a playboy and an epic fabulator.
(Good grief, the guy even lies about his height. He claims to be 6-3. Did you see him hanging a medal on basketball great Jerry West the other day? Even at age 81, West stands an athletic 6-2. He’s got at least two inches on Trump, who’s maybe 6-0, tops. What kind of guy does that?
(Maybe the kind of guy who phones tabloid gossip columnists pretending to be his own press agent, bragging about all the sexual favors he’s scoring. Your commander-in-chief.)
But I digress. Because I’d watched a lot of pro wrestling from Sunnyside Gardens in Queens during middle school, which my friends and I found hilarious, I was quick to recognize Trump’s trademark WWE campaign style. The phony feuds, fake threats and endless boasting were telltale features in a televised “kayfabe” campaign — a term of art for the make-believe dramas of professional wrestling. (Also, I suspect, what Trump meant when he tweeted the nonsense word “covfefe” during a ritual attack on the press. He just couldn’t spell it.)
He even appears to have stolen his pompadour hairdo from the swaggering bleach-blond “heels” of the era — notably Dr. Jerry Graham. The Graham Brothers regularly sold out Madison Square Garden back in the ’50s when Trump was a lad. He was a master of the balsa-wood chair and fake blood capsule.
And what kind of Ph.D. did Dr. Graham hold?
“He’s a tree surgeon,” his manager told a TV announcer.
Just so Donald Trump. What took me by surprise was how many viewers out there in TV land fell for it: the political equivalent of those poor souls who believe that professional wrestling is real. Or who don’t care, so long as Trump is insulting people like me, who think they’re so damn smart.
Even now, while he’s spending his days feuding with the National Weather Service and denouncing refugees from the devastated island nation of the Bahamas as terrorists and criminals.
It’s called “owning the libs,” and to a certain nihilistic subset of Trumpists, it’s the only thing that really counts. To them, the president’s erratic governing style isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Indeed, it’s pretty much the whole point.
I come by this insight courtesy of Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times. Edsall devoted a recent column to a scholarly paper by two Danish and one American political scientists entitled “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.”
The authors surveyed thousands of voters in the U.S. and Denmark, seeking individuals “drawn to chaos” by their positive responses to statements like “I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over,” and “Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.”
Actually, starting over has been a staple of popular fiction since “Robinson Crusoe,” and of movies like “On the Beach,” “The Postman” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” series. What the researchers found, however, was a strong correlation between an appetite for chaos and support for Donald Trump. Also, to a lesser extent, for Bernie Sanders.
Such persons also eagerly consume and disseminate conspiracy theories like the Comet Pizza story (aka Pizzagate), the “QAnon” fantasy, and Alex Jones’ lunatic claim that the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a government hoax to promote gun control. Trump’s promotion of the “birther” conspiracy theory of Barack Obama’s illegitimacy was another.
The authors write that it’s not so much that alienated individuals traffic in such absurdities “because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
The internet and social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and the rest — have “mainstreamed” political pornography much like the sexual kind. Isolated individuals can share their destructive fantasies with like-minded others from the privacy of their own homes. Their enemies are smug “elitists” symbolized by Hillary Clinton and every girl wearing eyeglasses who ever looked down her nose at them.
To such persons, facts mean nothing. Scholars, scientists and experts of all kinds — even local TV weather forecasters — are the enemy.
Truth isn’t literal; it’s tribal.
And then, every once in a while, Trump brings his road show to town, and they can all get together.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org