Londonderry, N.H. — The final questioner at a deliberately understated Donald Trump town hall was a former United Airlines flight attendant who had almost been working on one of the doomed 9/11 flights. As she explained in her moving, but rambling, tale of survivor guilt, “I was so angry and so sad. And the two together, it was tough to function.”
Trump broke in, using a softer tone that he normally deploys in the campaign, to say, “Angry is okay, you know. We’re going to make you happy again. But being angry is okay.”
That brief answer — harking back to memories of Trump raging against Muslims — captured the twin facets of the bilious billionaire’s political appeal. Trump is both legitimizing fury at the world while simultaneously promising to bring back happiness to America.
And the dangerous thing is that Trump radiates certainty that he can do it. He is both demagogue and con man. But unlike cynical hate merchants like George Wallace running for president in 1968, Trump believes his own con.
His supporters — at least the ones who I’ve talked to here in New Hampshire — come across as good people swept up into the Trump mythology. They believe that he is a business genius; that he is entirely funding his own campaign (in truth, it’s mostly funded by the cable news networks lavishing free time on him); and with Trump in the White House no one is going to kick sand in America’s face as if the nation were a 97-pound weakling on the beach.
The hopes that surround Trump were expressed by Londonderry GOP state Rep. Al Baldasaro who declared in a warm-up speech during the long wait for the candidate, “Enough with the politicians. We’re tired of the promises from Republicans and Democrats. It’s time for a businessman who wants to take advantage of the American dream.”
But Trump — whose different-drummer musical selections include the Rolling Stones’ classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — represents the politics of irresponsibility. Being president is a harrowing job, an arduous challenge, in which you can’t always get what you want. But Trump, in his over-weaning certainty, believes that he is better than the “stupid people” who have run the country for the last two decades.
If Bernie Sanders traces all that is wrong with America back to the power of Wall Street money, Trump has an even more simplistic explanation. He blames it all on the pollsters.
Dismissively referring to his rivals for the White House, Trump said, “These people — in many cases, not very smart people — they can’t function with a pollster. They can’t function. Everything’s polled.”
In contrast, Trump bragged, he refuses to spend the money for a pollster. As he explained, “I say the truth … and many times it’s probably bad for me. But I don’t care. If I lose because I say the truth, I’d rather lose.”
Embedded in that comment is a new fatalism that Trump has expressed post-Iowa about his political future. But also it echoes the 19th century statesman Henry Clay who declared, “I’d rather be right than president.” Often Trump gives the impression that he’d rather be rich than president.
But running for president is a different matter. Trump, like Sanders, appears to be having the time of his life, unlike, say, the more dutiful Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton. Watching Trump play to a small room instead of a vast arena is a reminder of how much more adroit the former reality-show host has become as a candidate.
For a man who sees a statue of Narcissus and thinks of himself, Trump knows when to feign modesty. “We have a whole movement going on,” Trump said. “I say ‘we, we.’ It’s all of us. It’s a movement.” Trump has, in effect, embraced a cause bigger than himself — a movement of people who worship at the shrine of Donald Trump.
Despite all his cruel and crude attacks, Trump has also learned to emulate Bill Clinton’s “I-feel-your-pain” attempts at empathy. When the United flight attendant paused in her recital of her anguish after 9/11, Trump broke in to say softly, “I understand. Thank you, darling. I understand what you’re going through.”
New Hampshire has always prided itself on a sense of pragmatism — an attitude of “we’ll-muddle-through” realism that is on display whenever the roads get clogged with snow. This is not a state that naturally embraces demagogues and would-be men on horseback.
That may be why the gold-plated real-estate mogul has decided to tone down his act on the eve of a primary that will test the staying power of his self-made crusade to make Trump Great Again.
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