WASHINGTON — Having Donald Trump in the presidential race gave it the feel of a carnival.
ABC News described his “roller-coaster flirtation” with a run for the White House. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote of the “circus-like speculation” about his presidential aspirations. The New York Daily News put Trump in clown makeup and called him “Sideshow Don,” while the Post’s Jennifer Rubin dubbed him “Trump the Clown.” President Obama himself used the term “carnival barker” in an apparent reference to Trump.
But I think a different theme-park metaphor might be more relevant to the last 90 days of the Trump pseudo campaign: the House of Horrors. He showed us how truly scary our political system has become.
Trump is no clown. At the end of Trump’s fanciful presidential quest, NBC was begging him to renew his contract with the network, reportedly offering him $60 million and telling him it had three years worth of sponsors for “The Apprentice.”
It’s not Trump’s fault for creating a circus: He is a showman, and he was merely reaffirming the age-old theorem about suckers per unit of time. “I will not be running for president. See you for a great season,” Trump announced Monday, ending his candidacy at — where else? -- an NBC presentation to advertisers in Manhattan.
The fault, rather, is in our political system, which rewards hucksters. Most of us knew that, as I wrote when Trump made his first campaign appearance, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “Trump’s gambit is almost certainly a publicity stunt.” Yet few could have predicted how successful he would be at exploiting the horrors of our process.
He made suckers, first, of Republican primary voters. The man who campaigned for abortion rights and universal health care in his last whimsical campaign suddenly proclaimed himself to be anti-abortion and anti-Obamacare — and conservatives bought it. An April CNN poll found Trump tied for first place in the Republican presidential field.
He made suckers, as well, of the overall American electorate. After two months of Trump’s furthering of the “birther” issue, a CBS News/New York Times poll in April found that a quarter of all Americans, and 45 percent of Republicans, accepted the demonstrably false proposition that President Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump suckered Obama into using the office of the president to counter allegations about his birth. After the president not only released his long-form birth certificate but appeared before the press corps to defend the facts of his birth, Trump pronounced himself “very proud.”
Most of all, Trump suckered the news media into treating his hoax candidacy as the real thing. In the first week of February, before beginning his phony run, Trump’s name was in 45 media headlines, according to Nexis. In late April, Trump’s name was in 768 headlines. Even many of us who thought him a fraud couldn’t resist the spectacle.
Trump pulled this off because he understood how to exploit our failing political system. Our celebrity culture equates name recognition with good leadership, and our Supreme Court, by forbidding any reasonable restraint on campaign finance, has turned money into political power. Trump had plenty of both.
Yes, he looked silly when Obama released his full birth certificate, and he looked small when Osama bin Laden was killed and when the speakers mocked him at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. But, as his suitors at NBC can attest, he did only good things for the Trump brand. “Ultimately,” he wrote in his bombastic announcement Monday, “business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.”
He never was, of course. For making so many people believe otherwise, Trump should be very proud of himself, to coin a phrase. The rest of us should feel like taking a shower.