Sunday, April 3, 2011

The birthers’ celebrity apprentice

It’s a blue-moon occasion when liberals and progressives in America have reason to cheer Bill O’Reilly. The Fox News ideologue firebrand and fabulist hasn’t politically reinvented himself; there was no deathbed conversion to progressive values. As it turns out, O’Reilly indicated a common cause with liberals, if only for a moment, when he interviewed Donald Trump last week and made perfectly clear how utterly clueless, how far from reality the Donald really is — even for a Republican.

By now you know that Trump, the tireless egomaniac real-estate mogul and near-billionaire whose dearest currency is publicity, has come perilously close to throwing his fur-lined hat in the ring for a possible presidential run in 2012.

This foolishness started, ominously enough, not at an any-time press conference at one of the Trump hotels, but on Feb. 10, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the GOP’s coming-out party for putative candidates. That’s where the Donald said “I will decide by June” whether or not to formally declare as a candidate. He followed that with a March 17 interview on “Good Morning America”; when asked if he was for real, Trump said “I have never been so serious as I am now.”

In these recent interviews and appearances, independent of his role as host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show, Trump’s tried to endear himself to the birther wing of the Republican Party by voicing doubts or concerns about the birthplace of President Obama.

He’s thundered, in the blustery silkiness of the Trump style, that something about Obama's upbringing is "strange," that no one remembers Obama as a child, that in order for his concerns to be resolved, the Donald demands to see the president's birth certificate (which you can see on the left). He advanced that tiresome idea on the “GMA” interview; he did it again about a week later on ABC’s “The View.”

This cry for attention and relevancy is, for Trump, more or less par for the (Robert Trent Jones-designed golf) course. But it’s fraught with political minefields.

Either Trump doesn’t realize it or he doesn’t care, but playing the birther angle puts him in company he’d rather not keep. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and political personality Sarah Palin have spent time among the birthers — not exactly the gravitas wing of the party. Flirtations like this alienate independent voters and those voters in the bedrock center of the Republican Party, the people looking for a serious candidate, the people he’d need on his side to be a contender.

And anyway, it’s just so 2009. Such obvious pandering, such a thoroughly unoriginal entry point into the national conversation, such a weak attempt to play to the Tea Party extremists do nothing to increase the already marginal chances that an obstreperous real-estate mogul with hair like a mullet on acid will be elected president of the United States.

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Some in the GOP camp oppose him already, but for the wrong reasons. The predictable lament is that with his celebrity and deep pockets, Trump is usurping the public attention otherwise devoted to more worthy probables. But the argument that Trump’s using up all the oxygen in the room loses any power when you realize that, at this point, Trump’s the only one in the room. Others like Newt Gingrich have formed toe-in-the-water committees; they’re flirting with the idea of running, if they’ve gone that far.

The Donald’s campaign talk may just be his way of calling out other candidates to get off the fence, get serious or get out. Right now, Trump’s only rival for quasi-seriousness is Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor whose recent shiny, happy ad announcing an exploratory committee for 2012 looks like nothing less than a campaign kickoff.

Matter of fact, Pawlenty released an ad for a book that had the same big-budget, high production values as a trailer for a major motion picture (or a campaign ad):

You want serious? That’s serious.

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But what really hurts the Donald’s prospects is the leadership question — the same thing that’s in play for his contestant teams on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

He’s a man of malleable mind on topical matters. The National Journal reported that his current anti-abortion stance is “a complete reversal of his position on abortion during a previous flirtation with a White House run” in 1999.

To go by his past political affiliations, he’s a man of malleable political convictions too. The New York Daily News reported in February that the Donald registered as a Republican in New York in 1987, then hopped over to the Independence Party buffet in 1999. At some later point, he morphed into a Democrat before switching back to the Republican Party in September 2009.

Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, offered an astonishing explanation of his flip-flop on abortion that works just as well for his flip-flop on his choice of party: “People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.’’

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Trump was for universal health care (“Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal health care.”) until he was against it (“you need somebody that is going to beat Barack Obama. You need somebody that's going to knock out Obamacare,” he said in the GMA interview).

Trump has no foreign-policy credentials (beyond real-estate deals in foreign lands); we don’t know where he stands on the environment (but since he’s a developer, it’s easy to guess where he stands on the environment), on jobs and the wider national economy, on two increasingly expensive wars, on the divisions of race and gender and class that have all but socially balkanized this nation.

At the end of the day, we don’t know where Donald Trump really stands on much of anything except Donald Trump. If he’s serious about running, that’ll have to change. But it won’t change, not really, because he’s not serious about running.

O’Reilly, referencing the birther issue, said as much to the Donald himself:

David Swerdlick seemed to say as much in The Root last week: “There's a good chance that Trump's flirtation with the GOP will be over as soon as this season of Celebrity Apprentice ends, and that his real motivation is jealousy that Obama is starring in what he sees as the world's highest-rated reality-TV show: President of the United States.”

As Obama prepares to make his pitch for renewal of that program next year, the public attention will shift to the campaign, and the American people will make their own decisions about what’s relevant, and what’s not. Better that Donald Trump not even get into the 2012 race. It’ll spare him having to hear Americans telling him something worse than his “You’re fired” signature line:

For reasons of arrogance, gross duplicity, philosophical inconsistency … and that hair ... you’re not even hired.

Image credits: Trump illustration: via Air Trump: screengrab from ABC News. Trump on O'Reilly Factor: Fox News. Trump flip-flops: via Google search.

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