Perhaps the best title for a Donald Trump biography would be The art of getting away with it.
Thousands of authors have written millions of words about the Trump phenomenon, from his outlines to his motivations and endurance. It’s a theme rooted in racism, cruelty, nostalgia, status and vile showmanship. Fox News and other conservative media outlets play a key role, as do the social media algorithms that have empowered a slew of scammers and carnival barkers spreading ethnic and religious nationalism from here to the Philippines, Brazil, Russia, Hungary and beyond .
But the key element is that Trump has an indescribable “it” — charisma combined with brazenness and a clownish demeanor that has caused his opponents to consistently underestimate him and allowed the real estate tycoon to escape the consequences of a lifetime of abuse and crime. He blends a talent for media manipulation with a gangster’s intimidation tactics, skirting and sometimes crossing the line of crime. But so far, Trump has wriggled out of every predicament, despite charges of “harrowing fraud” brought by the New York State Attorney General appear to pose an existential threat to Trump. Even when he disobeys the law, he does so with such boastfulness that he often leaves his opponents disarmed.
When Trump behaves cruelly, it comes with such incompetence that it is difficult to hold him accountable. For example, it’s much harder to accuse the commander in chief of knowingly allowing a pandemic to spread when he’s proposing injecting bleach to kill the virus. In part, Trump has conditioned his audience—all the world is a stage—to have the lowest expectations of him. The members of his base, in turn, see themselves in him. Despite the gold toilets, he’s just another guy who watches Fox News and owns the libraries.
These unique traits make it difficult for his GOP rivals to emulate him.
Desperately trying to be the next Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis even goes so far as to mimic the former president’s hand gestures and brutal affect. But while the Yale and Harvard Law School graduate performs well on a podium, he’s notoriously stiff and uninteresting in smaller situations. He applies Trump’s performative cruelty, but lacks the charm to take the edge off. As Jamelle Bouie aptly pointed out The New York TimesTrump card
can be a bully in part because he can temper his cruelty and selfishness with the portrayal of a clown or showman. He can convince an audience that he’s just kidding – that he doesn’t really mean it. Ron DeSantis can’t do that. He may be a more competent Trump in terms of his ability to use state levers to amass power, but he’s also meaner and more rigid, without the soft edges and eccentricities of the actual Donald Trump.
When the Florida governor falsely sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, it was an inhumane stunt that would draw Fox News coverage and delight Trump’s base. It also backfired when the people of Massachusetts responded with compassion and caring. That hasn’t stopped Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire from indulging in a narrative of liberal hypocrisy, even as Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker directs the state’s handling of the migrants and is helping the criminal investigation into the stunt. But the lie may not be playing outside the far-right echo chamber. Without understanding the clue, DeSantis is doubling the shipping of more migrants than so many packages, exposing itself to President Joe Biden’s ridicule.
Confused and annoyed, Trump whines that DeSantis stole his idea of sending migrants to blue states. (When it comes down to it, we know boxcars were Hitler’s idea.) But the twice-impeached, often-investigated ex-president shouldn’t worry, because DeSantis’ actions lack Trump’s panache. The pale imitation of the Floridian comes across not as vaudevillian fascism but as mere brawling.
And that’s why Trump keeps getting away with it. As Greg Sargent wrote The Washington Post, the Republican Party is desperate to lose Trump’s base, which stretches far beyond typical GOP reach. In return, Trump expects that a future GOP-controlled Congress will do everything in his power to protect him from the law by defunding and harassing federal and congressional investigations into his alleged crimes. It’s a hell of a deal that Republicans can’t do with DeSantis or any Trump wannabe because nobody but Trump has what it takes to pull it off yet.