A favorite columnist, E.J. Montini of the Arizona Republic (read his column here), has persuaded me that Donald J. Trump has more than a reasonable chance to become President of the United States. Montini’s point is that Trump is not a mystifying phenomenon. We elect (and re-elect) mini-Trumps all the time to state office in Arizona. And we do so not in spite of their most outrageous political statements or social behavior, but because of them.
Trump says “illegal” Mexican immigrants are drug traffickers and rapists? We can do one better: a federal judge has ruled that the office of Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio (elected to office six times) routinely engaged in racial profiling in the past.
Trump raises questions about Senator John McCain’s war record? We can top that too: the Republican President of the Arizona Senate once delivered a speech in a forum in which McCain was called a “traitor” who should be “executed.”
Trump wants to build a fence? Calls McCain a “dummy” and Senator Lindsey Graham an “idiot”? All politicians in Arizona say they want to secure the border, with a fence or through some more drastic means. And McCain recently called anti-war protestors at a Senate Hearing “low-life scum,” without regrets.
In our cultural history, we have a shining tale of an American megalomaniac who entered politics as the culmination of his career in order to save ordinary citizens from the depredations of corrupt politicians. Charles Foster Kane owned newspapers and media outlets, but was also a populist at heart. Less ambitious than Donald Trump, he set his sights not on the presidency, but only on the governorship of New York. He was defeated not by external forces, but by an extra-marital affair (a “love-nest”) made public on the eve of the election.
American was the original title for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Among other things, the film is a compelling portrait of an American plutocrat, and an investigation of what motivated his need for love and greed for power. In the U.S. we worship multi-millionaires the way other countries worship saints, great teachers, artists, martyrs or gurus. We bow to them, wish to serve them, look to emulate them, and want to replace our lives with theirs. It was once said of Ronald Reagan that he never met a millionaire he did not like; this was not a Reagan idiosyncrasy—it was merely a projection of our own.
There is no mystery to Donald Trump’s riches. Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s close associate in Welles’ film, reveals: “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money.” There is no secret either to Trump’s popularity, or even his possible election as President. Jorge Luis Borges once compared Citizen Kane (the film) to a labyrinth without a center or a Minotaur. Similarly, Trump is merely an empty vessel, the willing reflector of our basest desires, the idol to whom we pray for the fulfillment of our most vulgar aspirations.