Howard Dean makes a weird noise? Dire political consequences. Chris Christie’s allies collude to create a traffic jam? Dire political consequences. Donald Trump suggests banning an entire religion, brags about sexual assault on tape, refuses to release his taxes, defrauds students and investors, and [insert 1,000 other scandals]? Over 60 million Americans choose to elect him president. Why?
It’s a little fascinating in a “hey, what’s this new lump on my body” sort of way. Trump once said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose.” It’s a ridiculous statement and it also rings terribly true as we look back on the 2016 campaign season. But, why?
Watching the election unfold, there came a point at which Trump’s scandals and shortcomings started to seem more like a protective shell around the candidate than any sort of liability. During the Republican primary, both ends of the political spectrum mocked the very idea of a Trump presidency. It felt like a ludicrous candidacy, a stunt, a bit of reality TV leaking onto the political main stage. Trump is, after all, the only president in the history of the country to have zero public service or military experience. And yet… he won.
It’s almost as if Trump has so many shortcomings it’s impossible to focus on a single flaw. It’s the “too many people through the door at the same time” principle of politics (a thing I totally didn’t make up).
Trump doesn’t have one signature flaw or scandal that sticks in the mind, defining and tarnishing his brand. His brand is scandal. His brand is a grinning sucker-punch to established protocols. Framed like that, it even sounds kinda sexy, right? He doesn’t talk like a politician. He doesn’t act like a politician. He isn’t accountable like a politician. Political scandals don’t touch him because his one and only political virtue is in being outside our traditional image of a political behavior. He’s a businessman. He’s a locker room guy. He’s just your average Joe billionaire who shoots from the hip and isn’t terribly concerned with facts or figures or inciting bigotry and violence. He gets to say whatever he wants, right or wrong, true or false, and that characteristic has made him a hero to millions of Americans.
Trump is an asshole and a con. I really think his supporters know that. I think they are looking for an asshole and a con. The thing that they are taking on faith is that Trump will be their asshole, their con.
I have my doubts.
The problem is that Trump’s scandals aren’t just window dressing. They aren’t calculated aesthetics used in the service of building an outsider, anti-hero brand. Trump’s scandals are things of substance. They have consequences. I’ve heard Trump described as “a brick through the window of the establishment.” That may be true. I just worry we’re in for four years of treading on the broken glass and wishing we had a way to shutout the wind.