Trump: Triumph of the Permanent Campaign

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...
English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Less than a month into the first term of his presidency, Politico reports, Donald Trump appears to be back on the campaign trail, heading for Melbourne, Florida and one of his signature airport hangar rallies.

The Washington Post‘s Philip Bump speculates that Trump’s outing is motivated by the simple need for an ego boost. It’s been a rough month. Heck, it’s been a rough week, marked by the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and the withdrawal of Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder, under shadows of different kinds. Rallies feel like … victory. Trump knows how to pack a house and pump it full of feelgood, taking away even more energy from his performances than he brings to them.

I’ve got an alternative theory: Donald Trump is the consummate politician.

Granted, he ran for president as “not a politician.” But there’s less to that image than meets the eye. Beneath the hype, hard reality: Donald Trump whipped 16 rivals for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, then went on to best an “inevitable” former First Lady, former US Senator, and former US Secretary of State in the general election. Some “non-politician.”

One of the losing candidate’s long-time confidants, Sidney Blumenthal, identified an interesting modern political phenomenon in a 1980 book, The Permanent Campaign. Blumenthal’s thesis was that the political center of gravity has moved over time away from the smoke-filled party/patronage rooms — stable long-term concerns — and toward a constant short-term concern with more mercurial factors like poll numbers and public perception.

Trump is well-known for his hyper-sensitivity to being perceived as anything less than top dog in every respect. He decries negative press and polling as biased and can’t wait to tout his latest triumph, even if he has to invent it himself (see, for example “inaugural attendance figures”).

It’s time to stop thinking of that as a character defect and recognize it for what it is. Donald J. Trump represents the pinnacle of the “permanent campaign” ethos. He’s all politician, all the time.

Ironically, Trump’s authoritarian stylings may end up producing results closely tracking direct democracy — rule of the majority, or at least the plurality, albeit on a drunken moment-to-moment lurch.

If so, I predict that his presidency, whether one term or two in duration, will validate HL Mencken’s conception of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • Don

    All he’s doing is holding his base so far and that’s not going to be good enough. My guess is that his behaviour isn’t going to gain him any more followers. What is more likely is that his base will shrink as they get disenchanted because of his failures.

    You said: “It’s time to stop thinking of that as a character defect……………etc.”

    Yet the preceding paragraph which begins: “Trump is well-known for his hyper-sensitivity………..”

    Gives us a pretty good description of exactly his character defects, and is far from completely naming all of them.

    As opposed to contemplating Trump’s first term and perhaps his second term, It may be be more appropriate to contemplate his much shortened first! Be that because of his own doing, or one of his enemy’s doing.

    The permanent campaign, point taken, but I would question the idea of any triumph?

    • I don’t completely discount the possibility of a truncated first term. It could happen, in any number of ways and for any number of reasons.

      On the other hand, it’s pretty early to try to predict how he’ll fare as president in terms of public opinion. At this point I frankly don’t know whether he’ll go down on that metric as a Richard Nixon or as an FDR/JFK.

      • Yep. Donald Trump’s time in office is going to be quite the reality boxing match.