Running for President of the United States is an exercise in using the right words. It’s about saying the things your base wants to hear in a way that doesn’t put them completely to sleep in a way that won’t come back to bite you in the ass when your opponent starts putting together attack ads. You play it safe, because no matter how much you want to appeal to the far left or far right, there are lines you don’t cross if you want to keep the base secure. Individuals may vote for a mad man, but The People won’t. Everybody knows that.
This is what makes Donald Trump a breath of fresh air in American politics.
Donald Trump doesn’t have anything to lose running for President. It’s probably largely a game to him, one he’s just happened to play perfectly this time around. A loss in Iowa or a defeat in the general election aren’t going to harm him any more than a flat tire or a missing cufflink. He’s not a politician, he doesn’t have a seat in Congress to worry about or state office elections to prep for. Nothing he does will hurt him in the long run. He’s a showman doing what a showman does, and if the things he says in the meantime are idiotic or dangerous, well, at least people are paying attention.
That freedom to not be harmed by his words is important, because it, along with ample media coverage, has allowed him to become the most important force in American politics in 2015.
If you care about politics, this is likely infuriating. It’s a mockery of the American political system, a perversion of everything about how we distribute power that makes our country great. This is a point of view I can sympathize with. Deep down all any of us want is for our country to be great, and I can see how people would find Trump’s dog and pony show disheartening.
And that’s why I love it.
Recently, I wrote a bit on the politics of fear, which I believe is the engine that drives all modern political campaigns. But like I said at the start, there have always been these lines that politicians knew not to cross, even if they wanted to. It’s the difference between hinting that all Muslims are potential terrorists and saying the only way we can stop terrorism is to ban all Muslims from coming to America; a politician might believe the first and think the second is the solution, but not even the most right wing Republican is going to push that idea because no one is going to vote for someone who says that out loud.
Enter Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is the answer to the question of “What would happen if someone ran for President on a platform of uncensored hate and fear?” He is modern American politics taken to their logical conclusion. He is the candidate that until now only existed as a thought exercise because no one is that crazy to actually run a campaign the way he has.
There are those out there that see this as a good thing. Some people on the left optimistically believe that Trump’s campaign will be the thing that galvanizes smart but apathetic voters to get more involved with politics, because no one with a brain on their shoulders is going to let this mad man get near the White House, right?
What they miss, and what goes often ignored when we talk about Trump, is that he’s doing a great job of galvanizing a part of the electorate that has been waiting for someone to come along and pander to them. If you’re the type that believes the best course of action in the Middle East is nuclear annihilation, is deeply afraid someone is coming to take your guns and genuinely believe deep inside that #AllLivesMatter, you’ve probably not seen a national candidate that truly spoke to you. Politicians can advance some of those ideas on a state level because most Americans foolishly believe states have no power, but national level politics are a different game.
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It’s easy to forget, because American exceptionalism is drilled in to our heads the moment we can have thoughts, but America is still not a more perfect union. Electing a African-American man as President didn’t create a post-racial society; it likely made the racial divide in some people even worse. And sure, those people are probably on the fringes, but when you believe the vote is the only power you have that doesn’t have a trigger and someone like Donald Trump comes along, it’s inspiring. Who wouldn't want to vote for the guy that talks like those memes you share on Facebook and then doubles and triples down on them when people tell him he's wrong?
But we as a society need a reminder that those people exist, if for no other reason than that it keeps us honest about who we are and how far we have to go. Elections shouldn't be about making America great again; it should be about asking if we've ever been truly great, and how do we get to that point?
Not a single vote has been cast for Donald Trump yet. I have no idea how Iowa and New Hampshire and the rest of the race will play out. But we should all be paying attention, because this Trump experiment could be a game-changer for American politics. This is the most exciting Presidential politics have been since that time in 2000 when Florida couldn't figure out how to count, and way more interesting than an election that looked like it was going to be a referendum on Obamacare and gay marriage. As a bonus, it saved us from the nightmare that is Bush vs. Clinton.
It is watching a car crash in slow-motion on the grandest scale imaginable, and I can’t look away.