"Now with all this wind, at least you know it's my real hair," said Donald Trump, standing before the sun-washed masses of Boca Raton, Fla., at his first truly public appearance last weekend as a (possible!) 2012 presidential candidate. The crowd laughed heartily. Everyone was in on the joke.
So is it a joke, then?
The media certainly seem to think so. At some dark and cluttered desk, an underpaid J-school grad is already trying to come up with the perfect morning-after pun if Trump runs. Somebody is gonna get "Trumped" and/or "Fired," in a 56-point font and with an exclamation point. The joke could be on the media, though. Far from being a "joke" candidate, Trump has a kind of purity. His presidential campaign would reduce U.S. politics to its barest essence.
Like the maybe-candidate, polls "tell it straight," as many rally-goers said of Trump last Saturday in Florida. The polls like Trump. He makes things happen. He's a slasher—real estate mogul/author/ diviner/TV star/winemaker/ health guru/clothing designer/ WrestleMania aficionado. He's "the living, walking personification of the Gospel of Success." He's also "brazen" and "shows no regard for political niceties." Basically, he's serious about kicking ass and taking names.
The first piece of evidence in the Case Against the Seriousness of Trump is his obsession with the birther issue. Chris Matthews filled three bathtubs up with spittle Thursday on Trump, his supporters, and the birther issue. On CNN, Ali Velshi gave Trump a stern lecture on birthers. But in using the birther issue as a talking point to warm up the crowd, Trump is just following standard operating procedure for a politician. Trump is taking the fancy ride of any "serious candidate," stripping it down to the frame, painting some flames on the side, and revving up the crowd.
Consider that, nine years ago, another candidate's cold open to his base was a very serious, measured speech in which he came out against the Iraq war. It worked in firing up the rabid, anti-war, Republican haters. The serious candidate used it throughout his presidential campaign. Now Obama is president, but we're still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we've started a "kinetic military action" (don't call it a war!) in Libya.
The other broad accusation against Trump is that he could be using his maybe-candidacy for personal gain. That's a funny joke, because it's exactly what other candidates do, especially when they've finally decided to run. A campaign is a solo gig, and it's always about the candidate: "Nixon's the One," "[I'm] Putting People First," "It's Morning Again in America [Because as Leader of the Most Powerful Country in the World, I Instructed God to Turn on the Lights]." Obama's 2008 slogan, "Change We Can Believe In [Because I'm Bringing It]," ain't got nothin' on Trump, who offers something shorter, more honest, and more universal: "Me."
That's what the birther issue has been about. Does it say something about how many stupid racists there are out there? Yes. And it doesn't necessarily speak well of Trump that he confuses appealing to them directly with speaking to them honestly. But it also speaks to a consummate businessman's ability to sell his case to the first group that matters by putting his customer at ease with a joke and a smile. Trump doesn't just say his opponent "will almost certainly go down as the worst president in history." He says: Not only is Obama not good enough to compete against me, but maybe he shouldn't even be allowed to compete against me. I'm that awesome.