Trump's One-Man Show Is a Smash
The competing spectacles put on by Republican presidential candidates in Iowa on Thursday night should put to rest any remaining doubts that the party's 2016 nomination contest is a show business phenomenon, and has little to do with the boring realities of governing after Election Day.
Donald Trump adopted the role of the capricious lead singer who had quit his band in a huff and was playing a gig across town. First, he refused to take part in a Fox News debate with other candidates. Then he negotiated his return to the show until the last moment (Fox said he demanded a $5 million contribution to charity, but was told that money couldn't change hands under any circumstances). The other candidates were his jilted bandmates, haplessly trying to get through the show without their star and wisecracking about him throughout.
Drake University's Sheslow Auditorium, which Trump rented at short notice for his alternative event -- a hastily arranged rally/benefit for veterans -- can hold 500 people. As it filled with TV crews at 5 p.m., the roped-off media area overflowed, and reporters took seats designated for the public and roamed the aisles. Although the venue opened to the public at the same time, few people trickled in -- and those who did were immediately grabbed by the press pack for interviews. At 7 p.m., when the event was scheduled to begin and the national anthem was sung, there were plenty of vacant seats and about as many reporters as Trump supporters.
Trump staffers had come up with a creative idea to warm up the audience: YouTube personalities Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, better known as Diamond and Silk, performed their "Stump for Trump" act. Meanwhile, Trump himself, the self-professed star negotiator, conducted his unsuccessful last-minute talks with Fox. By the time he showed up on stage -- long after 8 p.m. -- the last empty seats had been filled.
"I didn't want to be here," Trump began, a faux-rueful reference to his absence from the debate across town. He announced that he'd collected $5 million -- no, $6 million, including the $1 million he'd donated himself -- for veterans in the short 24 hours he had to put together the event. Much of the money came from his friends, including activist investor Carl Icahn and several property developers. One of these -- casino owner and real estate billionaire Phil Ruffin -- joined Trump onstage. He was introduced by the presidential candidate as a sharp poker player and his top choice to negotiate with China. Ruffin's Ukrainian wife, the model Oleksandra Nikolayenko, was there to hug Trump, too.
Team Trump hadn't been able to say which veterans' charity the money would go to, but that became a little clearer during the event. After John Wayne Walding, who had lost a leg in Afghanistan, gave a practiced but sincere talk on the importance of gratitude to veterans, representatives of #22kill joined him on stage. The nonprofit is dedicated to raising awareness of a "suicide epidemic" that it says leads to the deaths of 22 veterans every day. The statistic, based on a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report, has raised questions (for example, veterans who commit suicide are, on average, almost 60 years old, older than other men who take their own lives). Yet Trump's embrace of it is not surprising: This campaign is not about facts and policies, it's about improvisation.
For an event thrown together at short notice, it was impressive, with all the elements of a successful show: society glitter, a dose of heartbreak mixed with patriotism, a worthy cause and YouTube stars. Finally, it had Trump himself, the reality show host with a message about "sticking up for your rights," fighting back against an attempt by "mainstream media" (Fox, in this instance) to slight him.
There is no other candidate who can work this kind of magic. Trump keeps repeating that his events have more cameras than the Academy Awards. There's no way of fact-checking this boast, but it reveals the heart of the Trump phenomenon: He is an expert producer of pure, joyous, top-league show business. His rivals are still in politics.
"It's much better than this debate, isn't it?" Trump said at one point.
There were some sniping at Trump at the Fox debate -- Ted Cruz mocked him for copping out, and Jeb Bush, seemingly at ease for once, said Trump had been "a teddy bear" to him. (Trump, for his part, mocked Bush with fake wistfulness. "He's probably looking for me," he said, getting laughs from his audience.)
No wonder Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, past Republican winners of the Iowa caucuses, showed up at Trump's event after taking part in an earlier debate of so-called undercard candidates. They both said they were there for the veterans. But the Trump bandwagon must be attractive to weaker candidates because they hope some of the magic will rub off. Cruz, Rubio and Bush arguing about which of them has historically taken a tougher, more unswerving line on immigration -- the theme that dominated the main debate -- may sound like an important discussion to have, except that all Republicans are promising a tougher stance on immigration and the nuances don't matter all that much.
The debate ran longer than Trump's alternative event, and it had fewer watchable moments, apart from some skirmishes between candidates and gnomic pronouncements from Ben Carson ("Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy"). The outcome of the ratings battle is easy to guess: Trump won.
The big question for Trump and his rivals is whether enough Republican voters want to keep watching the show -- and be part of it. This is a proposition that has never been put to them before, not even by Ronald Reagan, whose showbiz credentials were arguably better than Trump's.
Cruz, currently Trump's main rival in Iowa, is working on getting the core evangelical vote. His campaign managers suggest they are better organized than Trump's people. Yet even if Cruz pulls off a win, he only has to look at Huckabee and Santorum to know that it may not do him much good.
Trump's pro-veterans event was, in a sense, against another kind of veteran -- political veterans with their old-time tactics, techniques and understanding of voter behavior. It was designed to show that the game can be played differently. It succeeded: His rivals didn't score too many points for the conventional wisdom.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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