Twenty years ago this fall I started my first year of college. In the dorm room next to mine there lived another freshman, let’s call him Rick. Rick was a pugnacious kind of guy, short and muscular, a wrestler in high school. He could be charming when he wanted to, but he also had a tendency to cross into the territory of the obnoxious windbag. He wasn’t really sure what he was doing in college – I think he was planning to major in business - and I always imagined him eventually washing out and winding up selling cars or vacuum cleaners or insurance.
What I remember most clearly about Rick is that he loved to talk politics. He was the first real, hardline conservative I ever met, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh when Rush’s act was still confined to AM radio. Rick would poke and prod at almost anyone in an attempt to get them into a political discussion then overwhelm with a bull rush of numbers, policy positions, and odes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. If you weren’t prepared for it, he could leave you speechless. He’d answer every half-hearted objection to the free market’s distortion of everyday life or uneasy defense of the role government in giving people a chance to succeed with a torrent of sneering counters that came so quickly it was hard to single out any one crack to push back against. He knew the contour of the ideological positions on both sides and dared you to match yours against his.
The thing was, however, I never felt like Rick actually cared that much about the ideas themselves. Where I was inclined to take a position and chew on it some, tweaking the possibilities, looking for ways to make one group’s ideas work toward the goals of another, Rick wasn’t looking to actually solve a problem. He was looking for the confrontation that could be created by the problem. What Rick really wanted was the fight. He wanted to draw you in, punch you down, and walk away smirking. He wanted the power that came with winning. He liked politics for the sport of it and taking up a position on the angry right allowed him to come out firing at just about anyone.
When I see Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I can’t help but think about Rick’s approach to politics. Trump is showman, not a politician. His ideas about tax policy, immigration, social issues, and various other topics often lack any cohesive logic, are impossible to implement, or are just plain incoherent. He doesn’t have any allegiance to the broader goals of the Republican Party nor does he have a fine-tuned vision for what the future of America should look like. (I think a Trump presidency would ultimately be a giant money grab for those who have the right connections. He would actually make worse the very thing people are looking for him to change.)
What he does have is a fighting attitude. His appeal to voters is mostly based on the idea that as a rich guy he isn’t owned by anyone but himself and that gives him the freedom to say what he really thinks. To prove this, he plays a sensationalist game. He’s aggressive, mean, and rude. He’s a classic bully stomping around the playground calling other kids names, making fun of their clothes, and stealing their balls from them. He picks fights because he knows the other candidates are not prepared to face his aggressiveness. He can overwhelm them without having to know anything more than his chosen lines. It’s Rick’s playbook writ large.
And because of that, I can’t decide whether Rick would love Trump or hate him. Trump is essentially playing Rick’s game on a national scale. As a candidate Trump is the rhetorical spawn of Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the like - conservative personalities who have built up identities where attitude is much more important than thoughtfulness. Their political strategies are based on taking the frustrations many people feel in their daily lives and giving those people targets - liberals, women, gays, immigrants - for expressing that anger. They seek to create an emotional blowtorch and keep feeding it with whatever they think will generate more heat. It’s what drew Rick into political discussions in the first place.
But I wonder if Rick’s own sense of righteousness doesn’t go kick in when he actually listens to what Trump says. It’s so far off from the lines Rick used to spout that I wonder if Rick feels a disjuncture. Trump’s tone sounds right, but the policies Trump proposes don’t. Does this bother Rick? Does it prick his instinct to chomp down on anything that doesn’t align perfectly with his own? I don’t know. The answer to that question, I think, will go a long way to determining how far Trump will go in his presidential campaign.