The Cargo Cult of Trump

Back during World War II, the people of the Melenesian islands experienced a temporary an unexpected period of prosperity that was brought on by their convenience as a staging area for the island warfare that characterized the Pacific theater. The folks who inhabited these islands (who could only fairly be called primitive) watched in wonder as the Japanese and Americans in turn descended on their isolated homes, built airstrips, and generously distributed goods and services that they could only dream of. Thus, one of the world’s most destructive historical periods became a period of unprecedented prosperity for the Melenesians.

However, when World War II was over, the Americans and Japanese had no real reason to leave anyone on the islands, and so they packed up and left for home, and no one really thought much about the Melenesians. Some years later, sociologists visited the islands and visited bizarre behavior – the islanders were still mimicing random behavior that they associated with the influx of wealth, such as building airstrips for planes that were no longer coming. In many places they had begun following charismatic leaders who had all their followers engaging in bizarre, quasi-religious rituals designed to make the magical crates of goods fall from the sky again – and thus the most prolific and persistent cargo cults in history were born.

These cargo cults shared a fundamental trait with the infamous underpants gnomes from South Park. To wit, the main problem with their get rich quick scheme was a failure to understand a critical link between the activity to which they were dedicated and the prosperity they expected to achieve from that activity. Or, illustrated graphically:


At the risk of being called a giant elitist, I think about these cargo cults (and the Underpants Gnomes) as I watch the Trump phenomenon make its way across this fine country. Trump would be, I think one of the finest cult leaders the world has ever known. His energy is apparently limitless, he extols the virtues of himself tirelessly, and he never even acknowledges the merest hint of humility or personal limitations.

Or, as Jay Cost so astutely put it:

Trump’s speeches are extemporaneous, so he talks about whatever comes into his mind. And more often than not, the subject he is most interested in is himself, particularly how well his campaign is doing. Trump can quote the latest polls in minute detail, whether by Gravis or Monmouth or Quinnipiac.

After that, Trump is most likely to talk about all the great things he has done and all his famous friends. Did you know that he went to the Wharton School of Business? Well, he did, which can only mean one thing: He is really smart. Also, did you know that he wrote the book The Art of the Deal? It is so good only the Bible is better. The Art of the Deal opens with an anecdote about all the important people Trump talked to on a Monday morning in the 1980s. Thirty years on, he is still talking to the movers and shakers, as he’ll gladly explain to you. He knows a lot of smart people—and not just in business. He’ll name-drop Carl Icahn just as quickly as Clint Black. Neither went to Wharton, but they are both terrific.

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So, why is this working? Perhaps the better question is: Why shouldn’t it be working? After all, Trump’s pitch has worked for him for decades. Plenty of people made a mint during the Reagan boom, but only Trump turned his wealth into a personal brand—and he could do it because he is a character. He somehow manages to be simultaneously a man of the people and larger than life. He’s funny, witty, and disarming. Best of all, he seems to be hosting a party to which everyone is invited.

Another reason that Trump is having success is that he is absolutely death on talking specifics about how he will achieve any of the things he boasts that he will achieve for America (having absolutely the biggest, best, and classiest everything):

Issues feature in this candidacy only indirectly. Even immigration plays a smaller part in the Trump campaign than one would expect, given the media attention his inflammatory statements have attracted. Often, immigration is just a foil to introduce the idea that the political class is a bunch of dummies who are getting outfoxed by the leaders of foreign countries, especially Mexico, and he will negotiate a much better deal. Or better yet, he’ll send Carl Icahn to negotiate an unbelievable deal with Mexico. And China, too. (Carl Icahn is going to have a very large portfolio in a Trump administration.)

Trump seems to want to opine on the issues, but he never quite gets around to it, since all rhetorical roads lead back to him. For instance, at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA) conference in Nashville last month, Trump began to explain how to deal with Ukraine, suggesting we get Germany to take on more of the burden because it is geographically closer. But in the blink of an eye, he was back to talking about The Apprentice. Did you know Trump hosted a hit show on NBC? Well, he did. And Trace Adkins was on it, whom Trump had never even heard of before the show, but it turns out he’s a very nice guy, and .  .  .

Here is the great paradox of Trump’s campaign – a guy who has made a ton of money and who constantly brags about his great education is primarily supported by people who have no understanding of how money is made and who have no education. The latest ABC/WaPo poll that shows this becoming a two-man race between Donald Trump and Ben Carson shows that Trump polls 21 points higher among non-college graduates than he does among college graduates, and 15 points higher among people with incomes of < $50K than he does among people with incomes of > $50K. (NOTE: I originally had this backwards, in terms of the greater signs and less than signs. I was told there would be no math.)

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with not making a lot of money or not having a college degree. But there’s something unnerving about seeing folks who belong to both camps flocking to a guy whose main selling point is that he makes a lot of money and who talks obsessively about the quality and extent of his education. Especially when that same guy promises, for his campaign pitch, that he can get America to have the best, classiest, and most expensive everything. It is more than a little bit cargo cult – in appearance, style, and substance.