Trump resonates with voters’ inner Howard Beale
It’s hard to find a fitting analogy for the candidacy of Donald Trump, or for the voters who continue to support him no matter who or what he attacks. We’re in uncharted territory, but with some hauntingly familiar refrains.
No matter who Trump insults — immigrants, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, other Republican presidential candidates, women in general — Trump, the real estate mogul, former reality TV host, and professional blowhard, is still ahead in the polls. He’s Teflon with a subset of voters. Every time Trump makes one of his remarks that would sink anyone else’s campaign, the political punditry class — especially those in the Beltway media — declares that the latest outrage is the beginning of the end of Trump’s candidacy.
Except it never is. Trump keeps sailing along at the top of the GOP polls. Voters who tell pollsters they back Trump keep supporting him. And nothing he says or does, no matter how offensive, how ridiculous, how contradictory, how obviously false, how empty of substance, seems to dissuade them.
Tweets from Trump supporters repeat the same general message: He “tells it like it is.” He “isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect.” He’s not afraid to “take on the politicians.” It’s the Tea Party, and it’s also the distrustful American voter.
I’m reminded of Howard Beale, the mentally disturbed news anchor played by Peter Finch in the 1976 film Network. Beale’s network capitalizes on his illness by letting him rant on the air with his famous line, “I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!” He sparks a national anger movement and drives up his network’s ratings. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t end so well for Beale. Or for Finch, who died and won a posthumous Oscar.)
Beale rants that things are awful in today’s America, mentioning many things on the Trump checklist. He cites crime (check; Mexicans), losing jobs (check; the economy), punks running wild in the streets (check; thugs), and other general complaints. I hadn’t seen the movie in decades, but watch the clip. It holds up well.
Of course, as a news anchor, Beale (even if he were mentally stable) wouldn’t be expected to come up with solutions. Apparently Trump isn’t, either; there are literally no policy proposals or positions on his campaign website.
The normal rules of covering presidential campaigns seem to have gone out the window. Trump has very little staff and isn’t making the usual multiple visits to early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. He doesn’t have to bother to actually go on a show to be interviewed — he’s reached by phone, and the hosts are glad to have him. Instead of even pretending to give other candidates equal coverage, whenever reporters do ask questions of other candidates, those questions are often about the Donald.
The new line of reasoning by the political chattering class is that, well, sure, those people might say they like Trump now, but when it comes time for actual voting in six months, they’re not going to be so likely to cast their ballots that way.
Remember: Billionaire H. Ross Perot got more than 19 percent of the vote in 1992. And pro wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998.
It would be much harder for Trump to run as a third-party candidate in 2016 (see this story from Vox that highlights “sore loser” laws in several states). But if we’ve learned one thing from this crazy election cycle, it’s this: Never discount the overpowering ego of Donald Trump.