CAMBRIDGE, Ma. -- It’s not as though this is all new, this Trump insanity. We’ve seen it all before. You just have to know where to look.
Don’t waste your time rooting around the history of American electoral politics. If you’re looking for the template for the Trump campaign you will not find it in the rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Father Coughlin, Millard Fillmore or any of the populists, nativists, nationalists or demagogues who dot the nation’s timeline.
Nor the philosophers and schemers behind the commotion. Not Karl Rove. Not Thomas Paine. Not Saul Alinsky. And if you’re looking for martial analogs, don’t bother with that, either. Sun Tzu has no dog in this fight. If you wish to understand Trumpmania, pay attention instead to Brooke Shields.
“You know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she notoriously asked in a 1980 TV commercial. “Nothing.”
Yes, before there was clickbait, there was jailbait. Shields was 15 when the camera creeped lasciviously across her splayed legs and tight be-jeaned crotch. Whether you imagined the child’s purred words to be a graphic double entendre or a mere statement of underwearlessness, it was deliberately incendiary -- and I use that word advisedly.
Calvin Klein isn’t a marketer so much as an arsonist. He sets blazes, then stands by and watches patiently as the media ladder trucks and pumpers race to the scene, sirens wailing. And, of course, a world of onlookers steps onto the porch in their bathrobes to see what all the excitement is about. Over and over and over.
Menage a trois in 1985. Mark Wahlberg’s skivvies crotch grab in 1992. Child pornography in 1995. Orgy in 2009. Sexual violence in 2010.
Never does the outrage fail to outrage. Never do the media have the self control not to be manipulated. Because who can resist a conflagration?
Now, go to March 2011. Contemplating a presidential run, Trump war-gamed the Calvin Klein strategy by resurrecting the imbecilic “birther” theory: that Barack Obama was born not in Honolulu but in Kenya. Sure enough, even though the official birth records were clear, and though such a conspiracy would have had to begin when Obama was a fetus (a phony birth announcement planted in the local paper!), the mouth breathers latched on. And the media with them, offering blanket coverage of a paranoid delusion.
And for the last year, more of the same. Over and over and over. Mexican wall. Ugly Carly Fiorina. Banning Muslims. Menstruating Megyn Kelly. Torturing suspected terrorists. Killing terrorists’ families. Beating up peaceful protesters.
And we cannot avert our eyes. It isn’t just spectacle, it’s become Obsession by Calvin Klein. Except for one thing -- one very important thing, which happens to be the difference between brand marketing and electoral politics. Calvin Klein never had, nor ever needed, more than a few points of market share. If all you require is a modest slice of an enormous pie, you can infuriate as many people as you wish. Offend the many in order to impress the few. It’s bad manners, but demonstrably sound niche marketing. Luckily for the republic, presidential politics are not niche marketing. And the Calvin Klein strategy at some point triggers the law of diminishing returns.
Which suddenly dawned on me here, at (ahem) Harvard. Moderating a panel at the Center for American Political Studies Political Analytics Conference 2016 here at Harvard, we were considering what the media should have done with an arsonist such as Trump, knowing that each appalled description of him would yield more fires. The question -- did I mention this took place at Harvard? -- was “Have we created a monster?” and the answer, manifestly, is yes. The epiphany, though, is that before it is all over with, we will have destroyed it.
To be given exposure, after all, is to expose. When Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews “There has to be some sort of punishment” for women who have abortions, suddenly the benefits of media attention were swamped by the liabilities. No, it was no more incendiary than any other asinine thing he has said in public during his campaign, but it happened to set fires in both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps. The so-called pro-life movement demonizes Planned Parenthood and abortionists, but not the patients themselves.
Naturally, Trump keeps on yapping. He has issued five conflicting statements on the subject over three days, reported by the press in headlines such as “Donald Trump took 5 different positions on abortion in 3 days.” Will this be the fatal conflagration? If not this, surely the next, or the next. The presidency is not selling jeans and underpants. It is not a niche business. You need 270 electors to win, and Trump is burning his bridges to them one outrage at a time.
Come to the porch and watch. Next you will see the arsonist consumed in his own blaze.