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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Donald Trump and the Remaking of America

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

As a child of the 1980s, certain touchstones, figures, and moments are seared into my brain: Pac-Man and Michael Jackson, the personal computer, Yuppies, crack hysteria, AIDs, the Challenger disaster, and in the waning days of the decade, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two newsmakers also stand out in my mind. From my local area, there was Mafioso John Gotti, the "Teflon Don," who always seemed to be mugging for the camera and beating the rap. On the national front, there was Ronald Reagan, the "Teflon president," who slipped and slid (and maybe slept) through one scandal after another: the Iran-Contra Affair, influence-peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development , the Ill Wind Pentagon fraud scandal, Sewergate at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Inslaw Affair, and so on.

Something else stands out from those years, a commercial that always seemed to be playing on TV, perhaps even between stories about the two Teflon newsmakers. It began with a team of horses charging through the night pulling a carriage. As the coach comes to a stop, a clone of Henry VIII steps forth, his eyes wide, his mouth open, awed by the utter 1980s opulence arrayed before him. "You're the king, you're the king of the castle," sings a woman with a cruise-ship-quality voice. "Trump Castle, hotel and casino, and baby, baby, do we know how to treat a king!" What follows is a barrage of a montage: a tux-clad maître d', Vegas-style showgirls, a cork popping from a bottle of champagne. And then Henry's back. "Now this is a castle!" he booms, his arms lifted to the sky as the camera pans to take in the gaudy "elegance" of Donald Trump's Atlantic City pleasure palace.

For decades, that commercial, or at least the horrible jingle sung by Trump's sequin-clad chanteuse, never quite left my brain. Still, who could have imagined that the man who sired that ad would emerge as a "serious" presidential candidate of the party of the Teflon president and prove to be, at least to this moment, more resilient, more Teflonesque, no matter what he says or does, than Dutch Reagan and John Gotti combined? What started as a joke has become a disaster-in-the-making and the wink offered by a tiara-wearing cocktail waitress at that ad's end has taken on a new resonance for me.

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Trump's Castle was rebranded out of existence in the 1990s and The Donald's Atlantic City empire -- the Trump Taj Mahal (now owned by activist investor Carl Icahn), Trump Plaza, and the Trump Marina (the old Castle) -- crumbled. But Trump himself has somehow emerged stronger than ever. The man who sought to lure all aspiring monarchs to A.C. ("welcome to a kingdom where everybody's treated like a king") has whipped up a heady mix of xenophobia, political bromides, and so-light-it-floats policy proposals into a movement. Call it Trumpism, or maybe even Trumpismo. And should he ride this populist wave of fear and loathing to the Republican nomination for president, the American political system will never be the same -- so says TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich whose monumental new book, America's War for the Greater Middle East, is due out this April. If the Teflon doesn't wear thin soon, you might want to start preparing yourself for this once-improbable candidate to become, as Bacevich suggests, America's very own Juan Perón, though he might prefer to be called the king of the castle. Nick Turse

Don't Cry for Me, America
What Trumpism Means for Democracy
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Whether or not Donald Trump ultimately succeeds in winning the White House, historians are likely to rank him as the most consequential presidential candidate of at least the past half-century. He has already transformed the tone and temper of American political life. If he becomes the Republican nominee, he will demolish its structural underpinnings as well. Should he prevail in November, his election will alter its very fabric in ways likely to prove irreversible. Whether Trump ever delivers on his promise to "Make America Great Again," he is already transforming American democratic practice.

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Trump takes obvious delight in thumbing his nose at the political establishment and flouting its norms. Yet to classify him as an anti-establishment figure is to miss his true significance. He is to American politics what Martin Shkreli is to Big Pharma. Each represents in exaggerated form the distilled essence of a much larger and more disturbing reality. Each embodies the smirking cynicism that has become one of the defining characteristics of our age. Each in his own way is a sign of the times.

In contrast to the universally reviled Shkreli, however, Trump has cultivated a mass following that appears impervious to his missteps, miscues, and misstatements. What Trump actually believes -- whether he believes in anything apart from big, splashy self-display -- is largely unknown and probably beside the point. Trumpism is not a program or an ideology. It is an attitude or pose that feeds off of, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.

The pose works because the anger -- always present in certain quarters of the American electorate but especially acute today -- is genuine. By acting the part of impish bad boy and consciously trampling on the canons of political correctness, Trump validates that anger. The more outrageous his behavior, the more secure his position at the very center of the political circus. Wondering what he will do next, we can't take our eyes off him. And to quote Marco Rubio in a different context, Trump "knows exactly what he is doing."

Targeting Obama's Presidency

There is a form of genius at work here. To an extent unmatched by any other figure in American public life, Trump understands that previous distinctions between the ostensibly serious and the self-evidently frivolous have collapsed. Back in 1968, then running for president, Richard Nixon, of all people, got things rolling when he appeared on Laugh-In and uttered the immortal words, "Sock it to me?" But no one has come close to Trump in grasping the implications of all this: in contemporary America, celebrity confers authority. Mere credentials or qualifications have become an afterthought. How else to explain the host of a "reality" TV show instantly qualifying as a serious contender for high office?

For further evidence of Trump's genius, consider the skill with which he plays the media, especially celebrity journalists who themselves specialize in smirking cynicism. Rather than pretending to take them seriously, he unmasks their preening narcissism, which mirrors his own. He refuses to acknowledge their self-assigned role as gatekeepers empowered to police the boundaries of permissible discourse. As the embodiment of "breaking news," he continues to stretch those boundaries beyond recognition.

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In that regard, the spectacle of televised "debates" has offered Trump an ideal platform for promoting his cult of personality. Once a solemn, almost soporific forum for civic education -- remember Kennedy and Nixon in 1960? -- presidential debates now provide occasions for trading insults, provoking gaffes, engaging in verbal food fights, and marketing magical solutions to problems ranging from war to border security that are immune to magic. For all of that we have Trump chiefly to thank.

Trump's success as a campaigner schools his opponents, of course. In a shrinking Republican field, survival requires mimicking his antics. In that regard, Ted Cruz rates as Trump's star pupil. Cruz is to Trump what Lady Gaga was to Amy Winehouse -- a less freewheeling, more scripted, and arguably more calculating version of the original.

Yet if not a clone, Cruz taps into the same vein of pissed-off, give-me-my-country-back rage that Trump himself has so adeptly exploited. Like the master himself, Cruz has demonstrated a notable aptitude for expressing disagreement through denigration and for extravagant, crackpot promises. For his part, Marco Rubio, the only other Republican still seriously in the running, lags not far behind. When it comes to swagger and grandiosity, nothing beats a vow to create a "New American Century," thereby resurrecting a mythic past when all was ostensibly right with the world.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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