Why Donald Trump's charm is working on America
[Book extract] The US Republican president frontrunner understands that even while people may suspect the economic game is rigged to favour the rich, they still want to be rich themselves.
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By repeated measures, the majority of Americans don't like Donald Trump. In 2011, experts at the firm that issues the celebrity Q Score ratings said that for every one person who liked Trump, more than four did not.
More recently, in 2014, 61 per cent of New Yorkers responding to a Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll said they had an unfavourable view of him.
In liberal corners of the internet, Trump's image is used to illustrate the biggest problem in the economy, which is the steadily widening gap between the superrich and everyone else. Yet, people continue to watch his TV show and purchase branded products from him in numbers sufficient to make his fortune grow.
What Trump understands is that anyone he might offend by, say calling Obama "Psycho!" rejected him long ago, and those who like him draw nearer when he does this sort of thing. In a nation of 300 million people, following as small as 20 per cent is such an enormous market that he doesn't need anyone else.
This is the same calculus that the Fox cable news network uses as it designs its programming. For many businesses it is better, in a world of almost infinite options, to cultivate a proportionally small but intensely loyal following of repeat customers (or viewers) than to win the mild approval of everyone else.
Trump also understands that even while Americans may suspect the economic game is rigged to favour the rich, they still want to be rich themselves. His rise to prominence in 1978 coincided, almost exactly, with the moment when median wages stopped growing and the earnings of those in the highest ranks took off.
At that same time the mass media became swollen with the lifestyle and celebrity "news," a kind of pornography of wealth and fame.
As the public feasted on images of excess, Trump's face was associated with all the tantalising pleasures that money could buy.The Truth About Trump, Pan Macmillan; Rs 499.
Obscured by hype, the facts of his life didn't matter as much as the idea of him. Anyone who tried to grasp the "real" Trump was likely to fail. As the 92-year-old doyenne of gossip Liz Smith tells me, "I've known him forever, and I can't figure him out."
Boyish, even at his advanced age, Donald Trump can charm in a way that invites kind concern. He once said to me, as he spoke of a good deed, "See, I have a heart." We were standing at his office door at the time, and I reflexively touched his shoulder and said, "I know."
In that moment I wanted to believe that the bombast is all a joke. Then I remembered the language he uses to attack people who disagree with him. They are, in his words, "ugly" (many, including Arianna Huffington). They are "stupid" (many, including Obama). They are "scumbags" (Graydon Carter and others). They live like "pigs" (Scottish farmer Michael Forbes).
And they are "losers" (George Will, Rosie O'Donnell, Cher, Mark Cuban, Rihanna, Karl Rove, etc., etc.) The name-calling is more style than substance. Sticks and stones.
More significant are all those who have lost money, or peace of mind, in their dealings with Trump. They may not think he has a heart.
Donald Trump's cardiac status is an element of an overarching question that writers and filmmakers and even psychologists have long tried to answer. In 2011, William Cohan of The Atlantic magazine explored the puzzle in a piece titled "What Exactly Is Donald Trump's Deal?"
Cohan properly credited Trump as "a skilful developer, a highly creative thinker, and an extraordinary deal maker," motivated by money as a method of scorekeeping.
A year later, writing in the Chicago Tribune, columnist Clarence Page said Trump shows how to turn "audacious and even obnoxious narcissism into pure gold."
Although his detractors are repulsed, Trump would say that in his aggressive pursuits he is a true expression of the American ideal.
He does represent aspects of well-established cultural norms. Repeated studies have determined that Americans do value individualism more than other peoples and are more willing to call attention to themselves.
We revere those who take risks in pursuit of the big score, even when they fail, and we tolerate wide gaps in wealth, health, and even life expectancy to preserve our chance to become winners, no matter the odds. We are also inclined to brag and promote ourselves at a level that would be unseemly anywhere else. Donald Trump may blow his horn a little louder than other Americans, but he is playing the right tune.
Eric, the youngest son of Donald and Ivana, says, "There's no more all-American guy than him." He says that his father is a "super genius in a very, very practical way" who could be compared with Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, and John D Rockerfeller.
More careful in her replies to my questions, Ivanka interprets her father's id-driven behaviour as, not meanness, but candour.
Donald Jr is more expansive: "Listen, he's a polarising guy. Okay? There is no question. There are not guys out there that probably say, 'Yeah, Trump's okay.'
There are guys that say, 'I love Trump! He's the greatest guy in the world!' Or he's their least favourite human being in the whole world. That said, that person who hates Trump the most still wants to get his picture with him when he walks by. That person still wants to shake his hand. That person is still sort of mesmerised by him in his presence."
(Reprinted with the publisher's permission. Courtesy of Mail Today.)