When Trump announced his presidential campaign last June, many who would otherwise be very worried took solace in the improbability of its success: a crowded field of contenders, no political experience, and a reputation as a reality star seemed to prohibit forward movement for the tycoon.
Now that's changed. The Trump candidacy is real, here, and powerful. Blogs, editorials, and pundit panels are abuzz with accounts of how such a grotesque figure has ascended to the top of the Republican primary filed.
Amid the outcry, it's easy to forget that Donald Trump wants to be the President of the United States. This may be the oddest aspect of the extraordinary Trump candidacy, for next to none among his class share the ambition. They prefer instead to work behind the scenes, where influence can be effective without being easily scrutinized. In the age of Citizens United and the one percent, behind the scenes is exactly where private power wants to be.
Trump is different. Why does the billionaire want to be not just center stage on reality TV, but President of the United States, with all that entails?
Trump says he wants to restore America to its former glory. "We need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again," he told supporters upon announcing his candidacy last summer. We've heard the phrase now ad nauseam, and it's been surprisingly effective. But do we really believe that Trump wants to make America great (again)? Does he have any idea what that entails? His campaign has made that doubtful, to say the least.
At his campaign announcement, Trump said something else: "I don't need anybody's money. I'm using my own money. . . . I'm really rich." Indeed, this was not only the most genuine statement he made, but perhaps the most revealing.
Trump's money tells us a lot about his wish to be President. No, this is not a story of "corporate greed" or "crony capitalism." This is not even a story of plutocracy. No "Wall Street power" paradigm fits. This is not the Koch brothers. This is different.
This is about the overt extension of private ambition into the public realm. The super-rich and corporations represent the inordinate presence of private power in American political culture. The unwarranted if largely unseen influence of such forces is a pernicious threat to the republic.
Behind-the-scenes private power has played a major role in the national politics of the Republican Party (and a significant one in the Democratic Party). But ever since Reagan left office, many leading Republicans have wished for a presidential candidate that could cash in on Reaganesque celebrity power too. For Reagan was a powerful televisual spokesman for a conservative agenda, as well as its chief executive.
Donald Trump is every bit the celebrity Reagan was, but while he clearly represents the sentiments of a portion of the electorate he can hardly be called a "spokesman" for any agenda. For nothing exists in his political world outside of himself. Fuse self-centered private power with self-centered celebrity power and you get to the nature of Donald Trump's ambition.
What does this mean for the American republic?
Public life is fertile soil for ambition, and always has been. For this reason republicanism, the cluster of political principles and ideals that helped form the basis of the U.S. Constitution--and from which the Republican party gets its name--seeks to put limits on the effects of ambition in politics.
The Renaissance republicans who laid the intellectual ground for the American republic personified Ambition as the towering, grasping figure--one that could be easily contrasted with the figure of Justice. Whereas Justice typically lacked a crown, Ambition wore many crowns, an indication of an unquenchable thirst for power. Whereas Justice held in her hand the famous scales of justice, Ambition's hands were busy propping up the symbols of her power and grasping for more. And whereas Justice was blind for the sake of impartiality and equity, Ambition's blindness was an indication of a total disregard for others, a blindness to the common or "general good," as it was called.
Not surprisingly, Renaissance republicans believed ambition had to be checked, sometimes ruthlessly so. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar offers just such a tale of the ruthless cutting off of ambition from the republic. In the play, Julius Caesar's private ambition gets the best of him. He wants to not only be famous, but to be king. Worried about the fate of the republic, Caesar's friend, Marcus Brutus, joins with other conspirators to slay Caesar. After the murder, Brutus gives a speech to the people of Rome to justify the act: "There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor for his valor, and death for his ambition." Brutus believed you had to slay ambition to save the republic.
We need not be so severe about ambition today. In fact, limited political ambition is a good thing, a sign of the relative health of a republic. It means that there are rewards for public life. All presidents and presidential candidates are ambitious--they want the glory, and sometimes the riches, of public life. It's part of the general political personality of a presidential candidate. But as a rule if they do not keep their ambition in check, they at least hide it from public view.
Trump is different. He makes no effort to keep his ambition at bay. He all but flaunts it. Indeed, he is a modern-day version of the caricature of Ambition drawn in Renaissance books. He's clearly looking for another crown, busy propping up his triumphs, and blind to citizenly virtues and anything like the common good. He's out to wreck the republic under the pretense of making America great again.
But more significantly, Trump's ambition is different because it is not born of republican soil at all. Trump is not someone seeking the rewards of public life, other than further celebrity. Nor is he akin to the Koch brothers, who use their wealth to influence public policy while they hide behind the curtains. Rather, Trump's story is the story of the extension of an aggressive capitalist mentality and a celebrity complex on to the center stage of the public arena. Trump is "really rich." But the story of his richness has been part and parcel of his celebrity. Think Henry Ford or Howard Hughes, not David Koch or Sheldon Adelson.
But Henry Ford and Howard Hughes never ran for President (though some people wanted Ford to).
In the last thirty years, five men have ridden to the White House on one of two powerful waves in American political culture; celebrity appeal (Reagan, Clinton, and Obama) or strong connections to private wealth (the Bushes). Trump has built his private empire around both, and his presidential campaign is but the extension of this empire into the very heart of the republic. The Republican Party is structurally incapable, it seems, of checking Trump's ambition. It will be up to the broader American electorate to do so. If we don't, Trump is sure to destroy the republic.
Ned O'Gorman, a professor at the University of Illinois and a Fellow this year at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, writes more about the rise of private power in American political life in The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11, published by the University of Chicago Press.