Election 2016

There's Never Been a Presidential Candidate Like Donald Trump in American History

A fabulously wealthy reality television host with a belligerent social media presence is something entirely new.

Is there any candidate in American history like Donald Trump?

The real estate mogul’s bombastic entrance into American politics has become a cultural phenomenon. His populist, nativist rhetoric has struck a chord with many voters and his wealth allows the billionaire to show a striking disregard for the norms of party politics. The result was that Trump’s appearance in the first presidential debate led to sky-high ratings with a viewership higher than the World Series or the NBA Finals.

Most recently, the controversy over his comments to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that she has “blood coming out of her wherever” has become front-page news around the world. The statement, which was widely perceived as a reference to menstruation, set off a media feeding frenzy which was covered as intently by supermarket tabloids as by wonky journals of policy.

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Yet his rise has left pundits scratching their heads. There are plenty of archetypes in American politics like the young idealist orator, the grizzled veteran of Washington or the ideologue who inspires the party faithful. But the fabulously wealthy reality television host with a belligerent social media presence is something entirely new.

It is difficult to find parallels to Trump in recent American history. As Roger Stone, Trump’s former political advisor told the Guardian, “no one is Trump. Trump is unique.” He noted that while there may be elements of Ross Perot’s 1992 race in the real estate mogul’s candidacy, there are still big differences. After all, “Trump is much, much richer than Ross Perot and he is also far better known”.

But that hasn’t stopped academics and historians from trying to find a comparison.

David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, sees difficulty in comparing Trump to anyone who has sought the GOP nomination in recent years. He noted the comparison to Pat Buchanan’s insurgent run in the 1992 Republican primary was problematic because the former Nixon speechwriter and CNN television personality “had a long history with the Republican party and held responsible positions in Republican administrations”. Further, Karol pointed out that although Steve Forbes, who ran in 1996, was extremely wealthy, he was also extremely boring.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, who wrote Rule and Ruin, the definitive history of the collapse of the moderate wing of the Republican party, saw the real estate mogul’s politics as emerging from an entirely different political tradition than the GOP. “Trump is not really a Republican, he’s a populist”; in his opinion, Trump has “all the hallmarks” of populism. “He’s anti-establishment and anti-politics,” said Kabaservice. “He doesn’t pretend to be a man of the people yet he is speaking for them and they find him to be an appropriate tribune.” The historian also noted that one can draw analogies between the Trump phenomenon and European populists like the Le Pens and Nigel Farage.

One longtime observer of American politics reached back more than half a century for a Trump analogy. Walter Shapiro, a columnist who has covered nine presidential elections, saw Douglas MacArthur, a former general who flirted with presidential runs in 1948 and 1952, as the best comparison to Trump. Shapiro noted MacArthur’s polling numbers against Harry Truman in 1951, shortly after he was sacked as the leader of US forces during the Korean War, closely mirrored Trump’s today. He further pointed out that both men fit the image “of a man on horseback – a business leader or a general who will make things all right and cut through all the crap in Washington”.

Yet all of these comparisons underrate the celebrity factor in Trump’s candidacy. He’s not just a television host but a full-fledged media personality who has been fodder for tabloid journalism for decades. He’s likely the first presidential candidate to have had his own board game. While celebrities have sought political office before, they’ve worked their way up. Jesse Ventura was mayor of his Minnesota town before running for governor of Minnesota; Ronald Reagan was governor of California before running for president – and both were long past the heights of their fame.

The closest parallel in terms of celebrity may be John “Goat Glands” Brinkley, a radio doctor famous for implanting goat testicles into men suffering from impotence in the 1920s. After Kansas authorities took away his radio station and medical license, he decided to run for governor as a write-in, third-party candidate and almost won in 1930. Even then, the parallel is somewhat forced: Brinkley was not a national figure, nor did he have the influence or resources that Trump has been able to bring to bear.

At this point, there is no historical parallel that captures the emergence of Trump on the scene. There have been populist firebrands before and there have been candidates who have tapped into resentment over immigration. There even have been self-funders who have able to make political decisions without any hesitation about worrying donors or the party establishment. But there has been no candidate who has combined all of those aspects with a level of celebrity rivaling a movie star or even a Kardashian.

The question is whether his candidacy has a lasting impact and inspires imitators, or if it’s as much of an aberration as Goat Glands Brinkley.

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Ben Jacobs is a political reporter for Guardian US based in Washington DC. He was previously a reporter for the Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @bencjacobs