Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Donald Trump: A no-show of hands

Even a dog can shake hands

— Warren Zevon

Donald Trump, the man who would be the Smartest Guy in the American room, is the beneficiary of the proverbial publicity that money can’t buy. As the brusque, sarcastic conservative darling of the moment rides his NBC show to no small profile in the prime-time ratings, Trump has endeared himself to the more extremist aspect of the Republican Party (the obstreperous crew that once loudly but now not so much called themselves the Tea Party).

Some of the recent polling finds Trump in the catbird seat, the preference over other presumably more qualified (elected) possibles for the 2012 presidential campaign as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Never mind that Trump has been playing this crowd, gauging the field of likely contenders and gaining mightily in the right-wing opinion polls by not revealing much about the Trump world view and capacity to govern, not much beyond his … unease about the veracity of the presidential birth certificate.

Never mind that polls this far out, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire and all the beauty contests between now and then, are essentially worthless, right now proving nothing more than who’s best at wrestling the spotlight away from someone else. Donald Trump’s always been good at that.

But frankly, all the debate and jabbering about whether Trump runs or not is wasted time. Donald Trump won’t run, and he won’t run for a more elemental reason, something that matters more than thunderous endorsements of a crackpot theory or his potential political viability for a badly fractured party. He won’t run because of what running means about having to meet the people he would presume to govern.

Thanks to a phobia that goes back more than a dozen years, Donald Trump won’t press the flesh.

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Back in October 1999, journalist Margaret Carlson wrote a profile of Trump for Time magazine. She describes her first encounter with Trump, “a man famous for prompting Marla Maples' tabloid headline BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD, and for refusing to shake hands for fear of germs. As he shakes mine, I ask him if he's got over this phobia. ‘I don't mind shaking the hand of a beautiful woman,’ he croons. ‘It's worth the risk.’”

But that won’t work. Unless the 152 million males in America decide to boycott any and all appearances at the stops on the 2012 campaign trail, the Donald will have some problems in meeting the American electorate at the rope lines and county fairgrounds and fundraisers that lead to the presidency, or not.

That phobia’s followed Trump right up to the present day; it’s already drawn attention from the media. The attention to that quirk-chink in the Trump persona is marginal right now; let’s face it, the birther issue is still the main attraction, the bearded-lady talking point of Trump’s gilded circus.

But Trump’s enough of a businessman to know the reputation of a handshake as a symbol of closing a deal. His rejection of that symbol sends a wrong message to the people he’d need to close the biggest deal of his life. They’re not afraid of shaking hands. They know their presidential history (at least the presidential history they’ve lived through) and they know enough to ask a simple question:

Excuse me, but how you gonna be president of the United States when you won’t shake hands with your potential constituents?

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Shaking hands is a custom that stretches back literally to antiquity. It’s been noted, via archeological discoveries, as a social custom that extends to at least the 5th century B.C. Sir Walter Raleigh may have played a role in its evolution in the West, but the practice has its variations in other cultures.

In the United States, in a political context, the handshake has a meaning that is synonymous with our deeper civic aspirations. Simply put, the handshake is foundational to retail presidential politics, and it is so for a reason: nothing else experienced, by the candidate or those he seeks to woo, brings the political phenomenon so close to the literal human touch. And the American people know it.

In 2003, in his first run for California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger embarrassed his opponent, incumbent Gray Davis, with a variety of cosmetic and stylistic moves that helped endear the unlikely candidate to the state’s voters. Among those strategies was Arnold’s full-on embrace of the sheer relentless physicality of American politics. He waded into the crowd, shook every hand he saw, arm-wrestled and jostled, cajoled and laughed. For those brief shining moments, Arnold was one of them. Schwarzenegger won in a walk.

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Look at just two of our best and brightest. They never held back. John F. Kennedy embraced the crowd with a feverish intensity. Robert F. Kennedy shook hands with people on the campaign trail until his own hands bled. There are others besides, way more the rule than the exception. LBJ. Clinton. Reagan. Obama.

Political inclinations aside, they relished what this nation was and is, up close and personal in a way that Donald Trump never will. For the serious presidential contender, accessibility is the price of admission. And Donald Trump’s not willing to pay that price.

Trump’s core identity, his basic aspect is to be A Thing Apart. It’s obvious in the marketing of his hotels and casinos, in the branding of his jets and his books. Gold, gilt, privilege, elevation, rich Corinthian leather. He’s spent his life and his career putting distance between himself and everyone else — the ones he’d privately call “the great unwashed.”

Why the hell would anyone believe he wants to be “one of us” now? He wants to be president? Why should he presume to embody our hopes, our values, our John and Jane Q. Public dreams when he won’t even shake your hand?

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The Donald will ride this fatuous hot-air balloon of birther publicity a while longer; at some time close to the season finale of “Celebrity Apprentice” — and maybe that night — we can expect Trump will do a drumroll and cough up a lofty hairball, a statement about his having considered all his options and decided that pursuit of the presidency is not right for him at this time.

Or maybe not. He could surprise us; he could tough this out; the Donald may decide that there’s enough hand sanitizer in the country to permit him to make a presidential run after all.

But failing that, and that will fail — phobias run deep — the nation will have to content itself with Donald Trump as the pitchman who will never be president. The show of hands he won’t shake is the same show of hands he’ll never get.

Image credits: Trump: Fox News Channel. Hera and Athena: Marsyas, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license. Robert F. Kennedy, 1968: © 1968, 2011 Bill Eppridge, via Vanity Fair

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