CBS said it, so it must be true: Donald Trump now leads the rest of the dozen-odd Republicans who’ve announced their presidential ambitions.
And I do mean “dozen-odd.”
An implied horde of Americans on the political right are vigorously bobbing their heads as he expounds, pounding the bar and invoking the time-honored rebel blessing, “an honest man who really speaks his mind.”
If only he had one. But while cooler heads are soothing us by noting it’s far too early to take polls seriously … and while my Democratic friends are almost literally drooling over his prospects for running against their candidate (anyone at all) in 2016 … some of us back here in the sober Northland feel a chill breeze from deep in our political past.
All America seems to be having a Jesse Ventura moment.
Yes, Jesse — the blustering stage-named hero of the common man who, to the amazement of the great calm majority of Minnesotans, topped two excellent traditional candidates in 1998 to become perhaps the weirdest governor in American history.
Though their actual politics are almost entirely different, Trump and Ventura (née George James Janos) share more than a few similarities. As young men, Jesse and the Donald laid foundations for their legends as tough, take-no-prisoners, bare-knuckle fighters — Jesse as a Navy SEAL, Trump as a merciless mogul. Each is the spitting image of his parents, Jesse raised by Minneapolis military vets, and Trump sired by an uber-rich real estate tycoon in New York City.
Both men made their chops in the entertainment world, abetted by network TV’s penetration — Jesse as a cartoonish professional wrestler, Trump as a cartoonish business titan. Both mastered the art of talking loud and fast first, and seldom later spitting out the feet they’d planted firmly among their molars.
Both are deeply entrenched in arcane fringe conspiracies. Trump still clings to his birtherism nonsense and seems to believe his rapist/murderer/disease-vector rant about undocumented Latinos, to the approbation of far-right broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh. Ventura earns a substantial part of his ample livelihood promoting far-out theories about 9/11, secret government plots and the Kennedy assassination in popular books and among talk-radio outliers like Alex Jones.
Both are blunt, crude and lawsuit prone, from Jesse’s successful libel suit against “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle to Trump’s currently threatened actions against most everyone who’s dumping their business connections with his companies.
Their coiffures even draw commensurate attention. Jesse’s shaven crown came early in the tough-guy trend toward glamorizing bald and beefy. Donald’s hair? Need I say more?
What the two really share, though, seems to be an absolute gift for energizing the angry white men of America.
Historians point out that we’ve always had a taste for outlandish firebrands who “speak the unvarnished truth to power,” even when the facts are entirely otherwise. When you multiply their charismatic personalities with television … and now compound it daily via the Internet … you’ve set the stage for breath-taking political theater.
The Donald, like Jesse, taps into the deep vein that made Archie Bunker a sensation 50 years ago. When “All in the Family” debuted on CBS back in 1971, its creator and cast believed they’d created a tidy little satire of know-nothing blue-collar bigots. It ranked No. 1 in the TV ratings for five consecutive years, but perhaps not for the enlightened reasons that Norman Lear imagined: It resonated mightily in those days of social turmoil not so unlike our own. When ignorant, narrow-minded Archie was skewered for his anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay, pro-Vietnam dogma, a huge wave of support rippled skyward independent of Hollywood among cheering middle-American males: “You tell ’em, Arch.” (And it did always seem to be men.)
Archie was performing the same magic that would later carry Jesse to the statehouse and Trump to the top of the polls. He tackled topics that normal people avoided. He dared to shout in bare, black-and-white terms what cooler heads discussed in better-informed and more nuanced conversations. He pounded the arm of his recliner with his beer and spewed the darker venom that reasonable people (no matter what their political inclinations) would never be so foolish to express, at least in such easily debunked bumper-sticker aphorisms.
Archie-Jesse-Donald is an interesting character, all right. I’d suggest, though, that rather than reveling in the chaos Trump is bringing to his party, Americans of the liberal persuasion heed the lesson of Minnesota: Sometimes, just sometimes, the long shot hits the target.
Minnesota was pretty much stunned with its election results in 1998. Thirty-seven percent of Minnesota voters chose Reform Party Jesse over Norm Coleman (Republican, 34 percent) and Skip Humphrey (Dem-NFL, 28 percent). The people I know who voted Ventura protested after the fact that they’d only cast their ballot as a protest against what they perceive as “business as usual.” They certainly hadn’t expected him to win.
Some of Ventura’s libertarian ramblings turned out to be positive. His views on LGBTQ equality, reproductive rights and ending the Drug War, for example, resonate better today than during his single term in St. Paul, and we all happily spent our tax rebate checks. His legislative impact, though, remains minute compared with his legend. The Legislature, split between the two established parties, mostly worked around him until his interest flagged and he went away.
Trump may get some things right, too, beneath the swagger and circus-ring bravado of his blowhard proclamations — at least among Republican voters. But unlike Jesse’s, his candidacy for a major party nomination entails genuine threat to reasonable government
The danger is that, in cheering the rabble-rousing instead of real substance, voters could enact another Minnesota “miracle.” Voting for a blunt, charismatic loudmouth because he’s refreshingly honest (though xenophobic, egotistical and utterly free of logic) may make a dash of sense in the moment. But as our history documents, it just might backfire big-time.
Sometimes, the dark horse wins. Just ask a Minnesotan who remembers Jesse: Yep, those were the days.