My most memorable near encounter with Donald Trump happened in the 1990s. I was attending a business meeting in a conference room of his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, when we were summoned to leave the building along with all the other hotel guests to assemble on the boardwalk.
At first, I thought it was a fire drill. Then I noticed a giant birthday cake surrounded by some of the casino’s staff. There was a thick fog rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean, and the scene had an eerie feel — then we were all asked to sing happy birthday to Donald Trump.
What made the scene really surrealistic is that Trump wasn’t actually there. He was en route to some bankruptcy court hearing.
I’m sharing this anecdote because it is the closest physical connection I have personally had to Trump, and aside from the authoritarian aspect of forcing business executives and hotel patrons to pay tribute to the man -- even when he wasn’t there -- the foggy ambiance of the experience nails Trump for me.
It’s really hard to pin him down. Whether it is as a businessman, as a birthday celebrant, as a reality TV star, or as a presidential candidate. He is more about allusion than any fixed reality. He is, in fact, more of a brand than a product of any substance I have yet to see.
So when he began running for our highest office, my initial reaction was bemusement. I remember visiting my mother when the news of his candidacy broke and she said, “This is going to be a flash in the pan.” To which I replied: “Stay tuned. Trump is a great showman, and his campaign will build.”
For the next several months, I continued to be bemused, because as I told my mom, he is a great showman. He is the P.T. Barnum of our post-reality TV era.
But the real reason I was entertained was that I had spent much of my career covering presidential campaign seasons as a media reporter, and I had long ago grown bored and inured by the prefabricated nature of it.
So when Trump began to surface in a meaningful way, I saw it as an entertaining diversion. When he started resurrecting some of Reagan’s old campaign playbook -- the nostalgic appeal of making America great -- again! -- I thought, well, at least he’s got some good advisers on his team.
This could get interesting.
Then I started paying attention to what he was saying. I’m not sure when I shifted from his campaign being diversionary to genuinely alarming, but I think it’s time to shift gears and recognize this is no longer a joke.
I still find it hard to believe that Trump actually believes much of what he says, and the industry journalist inside me says it’s just part of the script for getting attention and building momentum. But there is some truth to the idea of the end justifying the means.
Especially when the means is just about being mean.
Being an authoritarian. Being what appears to be a hate-mongering neo-fascist. Normally, I don’t like to spew politics, but I believe Trump’s campaign has jumped the shark of campaign sloganeering and rhetoric. It has devolved into some morally repugnant rabble rousing that needs to stop.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about free speech, political opportunity and democratic processes. Right now, I’m just exercising mine -- for anyone who cares to hear it. I think it’s time we move past Donald Trump. He’s no joke. And, even if he is, I don’t want to find out what the punchline is.