Back in 2000, my grandmother returned from visiting my uncle in Chattanooga to the Coles County Airport of Mattoon, Illinois. She flew as cheaply as possible, which meant she took tiny US Airways shuttles from Chattanooga to West Lafayette, Indiana, to Mattoon. When I picked her up from the airport, I was able to drive right up to the runway and watch the plane land—this was a small-town airport before September 11. When the plane came to a stop, my 80-year-old grandmother, carrying an overstuffed suitcase on her back like a pack mule, walked out of the plane...alone.
She had a grin a mile wide. “I was the only one on the plane!” she exclaimed. (Suffice it to say, the West Lafayette-to-Mattoon shuttle has since been discontinued.) “It was just me and the pilot. I felt like Donald Trump!”
On Tuesday morning, Trump will visit his natural environment, and speak to his natural base, by holding a press conference to announce his intentions about running for president in 2016. As with all things Trump, this will be a ridiculous, absurdist exercise in media manipulation that will, as always, work magnificently. Reporters will snort and snicker, but they will trudge over to the press conference anyway; Trump will say something outlandish and unreasonable; reporters will gleefully blast out every word of it (“Trump Says Obama Is Cheering For ISIS!”); we will shake our heads, that crazy Trump, and then we will all talk about Trump for a few more news cycles, whether he runs for president or not. Donald Trump often appears to be living in a loopy, cartoon world of his own imagining. He is also the foremost expert in how to drive the public conversation in America today, the pioneer of human being as #brand. We’ve spent years mocking Trump. (The late Phil Hartman lampooned him on Saturday Night Live 25 years ago). But he’s still here.
Trump’s signature achievement is to make certain, no matter what, that we are constantly talking about Donald Trump. The goal for Trump all along has not necessarily been to actually accumulate power and wealth as much as it has been to represent power and wealth to people; it’s why any time someone “underreports” his net worth (to use Trump’s classification), he makes such a public stink of it. How much money Trump actually has (current Trumpian arithmetic pegs it at $9 billion) is far less important than how much you think he has. I’m not sure anything in the world would make him happier than learning that an octogenarian Midwestern woman who never sent an e-mail in her life considered him the physical manifestation of wealth.
How has Trump, who has become such a comedic presence at this point that even Mitt Romney felt a little embarrassed around him, managed to achieve such a position? By being completely shameless at every opportunity. For years, it has been considered gauche, new-money-ugly for the rich to blatantly stamp their name on everything they see, to self-promote at the expense of everything else, to constantly scream into every camera how rich and powerful they are. Trump has always gleefully flaunted this, screaming “Trump” at everyone on earth for 30 years now: Trump Catering, Trump Vodka, or Trump the Fragrance (an actual thing that existed in 2004), along with whole swaths of Manhattan. If this compulsion seems gross and shameless to you now, imagine how it looked to the old-money real estate class in the mid-‘80s, when Trump began making his name. Remember, Trump was the son of a man who owned middle-class rental housing in the outer boroughs (and Trump nearly went bankrupt when he first went out on his own); Trump’s rampant self-aggrandizing must have been considered the ultimate in unrefined yokel bridge-and-tunnel behavior, exactly what the rich aren’t supposed to do.
But not anymore. The fact is: We are all Trumps now. Our entire culture is organized around the principle of one’s personal brand being more important than any other concern. (One would almost call it “Trumping.”) “No publicity is bad publicity,” the idea that if they’re talking about you, you’re doing something right—that has been the driving force behind Trump for three decades. And now it’s the driving force behind everything: We’ve all finally caught up to him. There’s a book full of selfies from a woman who has never had a job in her life…and not only is it a best seller, art critics love it! The entire structure of the business Internet—and the message behind every single airport capitalist manifesto—is about building The Brand Called You; social media allows us to quantify how many people are listening to us at any given second, and we have used this quantification to keep score. Regardless of your profession—real estate magnate, actor, journalist, politician, janitor—your ability to shamelessly self-promote is baked into the job description. Whatever you’re good at, that’s not enough: You need to make people look at you.
And few people have been better at making people look at him, even when he has nothing to say, especially when he has nothing to say, than Donald Trump. The idea that he is somehow not a serious presidential candidate, that he doesn’t bring anything to a potential debate—a point of some importance this presidential cycle, considering that Trump's name recognition is liable to qualify him for the debates—is completely immaterial. Trump flirts with running for president every cycle because he knows that it's America's greatest opportunity for personal branding, and if you think that’s somehow beneath the process, well, talk to the more than a dozen other people running for president this year who, like Trump, also have no chance to become president. They’re doing it for the same reason Trump does everything: They’re trying to increase their Q rating, whether it’s to angle for a veep slot or to push a pet cause or just to get a sweet lobbying gig in a few years. Why is Donald Trump’s fake-running for president to pump up The Apprentice ratings or to help him get a better table at Le Cirque any different, or worse, than Bobby Jindal doing it to get a Fox gig, or Martin O’Malley doing it to get Hillary Clinton to look at him as a potential V.P., or George Pataki doing it for whatever weird reason George Pataki is doing it for?
The fact is: You can make a strong argument that Trump is better at the one thing he wants to do—generate publicity for himself—than anyone running for president is at anything else. And he’s certainly more in touch with that electorate, the selfie-stick-ing, Snapchatting, Brand Called Me electorate that America has become, than anybody else that’ll take that stage. Trump is not a serious person, and he never has been. But we’re a lot more like Trump than we want to admit—and a presidential campaign is only intermittently a serious process. This a week, a passel of candidates will make some sort of policy speech about one issue or another, and if we notice at all, we will shrug and move along with our day. But after Trump’s press conference Tuesday, all we’ll do is talk about Trump. You can think the guy is a buffoon. But you can’t ignore him. He’ll make certain of that. He always has.