Donald Trump’s Place
From the beginning of his campaign, commentators and historians have been like the proverbial blind men with the elephant, trying to guess at what or who Mr. Trump really is. The usual suspects, by way of comparison, have been the leaders of the right-wing, neo-populist parties now on the march in Europe — “He’s the American Marine Le Pen!” — or the autocrat Mr. Trump himself openly admires, Vladimir V. Putin (“In terms of leadership, he is getting an A.”) Others have included business magnates turned politicians, Silvio Berlusconi and Ross Perot; Latin American strongmen like Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez; and radio calamity howlers from Father Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh. Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a former Republican candidate for governor of California, reportedly even went so far as to use the H-word.
It’s not true. Donald Trump, as Frank Rich put it in New York magazine, “lacks the discipline and zeal to be a successful fascist.” He has espoused a repugnant racism and xenophobia from the first moments of his presidential campaign, which began a year ago last Thursday, when he castigated Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, and he has a fascist’s instincts to smash up convention, to shock and unsettle opponents with his cutting, personal insults — “weak,” “sad,” “low-energy,” “stupid,” “lyin’,” “little,” “crooked,” “Pocahontas.”
But for all that he likes to stoke the dangerous theater of violence at his rallies, Mr. Trump doesn’t hail from Europe’s far-right traditions of blood and soil. He has no elaborate theories of race or economics. Unlike countless Latin American dictators, he has no connection to the military (even if he does think being shipped off to a military high school is the equivalent of serving in the armed forces). He would be the most irreverent individual ever nominated by a major American political party, barely cognizant of the most basic tenets of Christianity, forgiveness and grace, or the rite of communion.
He likes to portray himself as a major player as a developer, which must serve as a source of constant amusement to New York’s actual real estate dynasties, all those Dursts and Rudins, LeFraks and Zeckendorfs. Contrary to what many of his followers insist on believing, he is not a self-made man. Over the course of his career, Mr. Trump appears to have been more of a grifter than a businessman, as recent investigations by The Times and USA Today have shown, racking up four corporate bankruptcies while continually enriching himself at the expense of stockholders, contractors, employees and customers.
For that matter, he doesn’t seem to even come from anywhere very specific. Mr. Trump’s mannerisms and patois are ineluctably those of New York, something he plays up at times, but he came of age on the mean streets of Jamaica Estates, a wealthy, exclusive, lily-white enclave in Queens, and seems to most enjoy the ambience of his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago.
All of which is working fine for him so far. The lack of any deeper ties allows Mr. Trump to move free and easy in our fissured political world, in this year of our unease. He has been able to run down one taboo after another with impunity, mocking Senator John McCain for having been captured by the North Vietnamese, shrugging off his complete irreligiosity, flaunting his womanizing and libertinage while seducing a party that claims to hold nothing in higher esteem than our veterans and family values.