In a sixth season episode of The Simpsons, Springfield’s Republicans gather to discuss their next mayoral candidate. Mr. Burns insists on “a true leader, who will do exactly as he’s told.” A political strategist says the next mayor of Springfield is just behind the door. When it’s opened, there’s nothing there but a water cooler, prompting a round of applause. Moments later Sideshow Bob, a former TV personality, steps into frame, and the Republicans decide he’s even better.
Three of the last four Republican presidents – Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump – could have easily been devised in such a meeting. In real life, as on The Simpsons, the Republican Party has shown a preference for presidential candidates who lack substance but put on a good show. It seems they don’t want a president so much as they do a mascot.
Reagan’s Hollywood career is most notable for his portrayal of college football folk hero George Gipp. The role earned Reagan the nickname “The Gipper” and his presidential campaign used it to establish him as a triumphant, all-American icon. Bush lived a life of unimaginable privilege, but his handlers carefully constructed him as an everyman. Set against Al Gore’s uptight intellectualism, the Bush campaign forced voters to think not about policy, but about who they’d rather drink a beer with.
Branding is important in any political campaign. Unfortunately, having more brand than substance is a winning formula in the GOP. Even unsuccessful candidates have become popular party mainstays on brand alone, including Sarah Palin, Ben Carson and Herman Cain. But none have ever taken it to a crazier extreme than Donald Trump.
For Trump, brand is everything. He writes his name in giant letters on his buildings and political placards. His fortune is derived largely from licensing that name for others to use. But that name only has value if Trump maintains his image as a wealthy businessman. The value of the brand therefore fluctuates with Trump’s presence in the media cycle and, according to Trump, his personal feelings. Media prominence keeps Trump afloat financially and spiritually. His primary jobs are promoter and professional celebrity.
This has remained true even as he’s come to occupy the highest office in the land. Trump’s speeches and tweets are seldom used to communicate policy; instead, they are used to exact vengeance and rally supporters. As author Neal Gabler writes, “Trump doesn’t really see himself as a president, despite his constant vaunting that he is… the media still treat him more as a celebrity than as a world leader because it is near impossible to take him seriously.”
Such a man could only reach the nation’s highest office as a symbol. His success was used as a stand-in for the success dreamed of by every hard-working, lower-class American. He used vague words, describing America’s future under him as very great and tremendous and wonderful, and without him, as disastrous, falling apart, carnage.
What Trump and Reagan, in particular, represent to their supporters is a masculine ideal: no-nonsense tough guys who will straighten out undesirables like foreigners, liberals, the inner city, feminists and the media. They were “real Americans” – white, male and, supposedly, Christian. It doesn’t matter that they are, in reality, pampered ignoramuses and corporate sellouts. Supporters are trained to ignore contentious facts for the sake of playing along with the nationwide game of make-believe.
Presidents all become symbols and the position is largely ceremonial. But the last three Democratic presidents had lifelong careers in the public sector and appreciated, to varying degrees, government’s potential to do positive things for people. Clinton and Obama held law degrees and brought an extensive knowledge of civics to the office. All three took an active role in the day-to-day operations.
Republican presidents largely delegate responsibility, increasingly to representatives from the private sector. Trump has no fewer than five Goldman Sachs alumni in his administration, including the company’s former COO. Yet “drain the swamp” remains one of his great applause lines and regularly appears in headlines at pro-Trump propaganda outlets like Breitbart. His job is to make a certain sect of right-wing sentimentalists feel good and direct their hatred at liberals while his staff enacts policies that harm us all.
Reagan and Bush, for all their far-right zealotry, did adopt a vaguely presidential bearing. They’re ultimately not there to run the country, they’re there to attend funerals, hand out awards, and address the nation. What’s so alarming about Trump is that even on that level he’s utterly monstrous. The fact that this vindictive, petty, narcissistic, racist, greedy egomaniac is a reassuring symbol to any American is one of the saddest commentaries we can make on this nation.