The Insulation of Ordinariness


In company with our readers, I have been thinking about the election results and reading articles left-right-and-center for a week. How did Donald Trump manage one of the epic upsets in American political history? Why did so many people who analyze government and politics for a living miss what was going to happen?

I get the appeal of his blunt talk about making America a “winner” again, in economic and military power. I get the effectiveness of pinning the blame on certain groups of people for the troubles on Main Street in Middle America. Aside from that, however, Trump benefited, in my view, from his massive exposure as a TV personality, a TV character, really, which I believe provided a kind of insulation of ordinariness. In other words, the obnoxious uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner and says gross things and acts weird may get excused as “That’s just uncle Sherman” because he is so familiar and is known for saying and doing thousands of things over the years, many of them not so bad. The out-of-bounds behavior is diluted in all the other stuff that has been seen and heard by people who know him. Years of weekly TV exposure made Trump, for some people, a person/character whom they could relate to in an almost non-judgmental way, a family way. He just “was” or “is.” My family regularly watched his show “The Apprentice” because my son liked it when he was about 12 years old. Around our house somewhere is a Donald Trump action figure in a suit. When the string in the figure’s back is pulled, you hear “You’re fired!”

Has Trump done something to change the campaign paradigm with his success or was he simply a “perfect storm” candidate who was the right person for this combustible moment competing against an opponent with lots of baggage? Will he be the start of more celebrity politicians with 100 percent name recognition going in to a contest? There are precedents such as Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, and even General Eisenhower in the 1950s, all outsiders in their own way coming in to the political sector from the entertainment world or for “Ike” the military. Trump’s Republican opponents were relative nobodies compared to his celebrity status. Jeb Bush is a Bush, but who really knew much about him?

I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that his ultra-familiar presence is the reason he was excused for statements and actions that would have finished a conventional candidate. Trashing a P.O.W? Disrespecting a Gold Star family? Refusing to release tax returns? Bragging about sexual assault? Somewhere I read that his followers “took him seriously but not literally” while his foes took him literally but not seriously. That may be too glib a way of describing what happened, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. Otherwise, how did he get a pass from so many people? It’s too broad to say they were all “deplorable.” I know some good folks who chose him because he held out the possibility of blowing up the hardened political spoils system. And some people just felt, “Let it fly,” I’m sick of the whole thing in Washington, D.C. And for most of them the other choice was a non-starter. Not everyone spends a lot of time thinking about politics. But most people know they can vote, take action, and maybe make a difference once in a while. Tens of millions of people are happy about the outcome. There is something to be learned here.

At the start of his administration, however, it does not look like he is going to “drain the swamp” of influence peddlers and cash-distributors and will instead blow up social and environmental programs with the assistance of the Republican-controlled Congress.

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