Back in 2008, Shelby Steele — author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can't Win — argued that then-Sen. Barack Obama's appeal to voters was that his historic election transcended the issues of the day. His presidential campaign was "the stuff of a far higher drama than budget deficits and education reform." According to Steele, in other words, it was about the man, not the message.
Shelby Steele, meet Donald Trump — the man — real estate developer, pageant promoter, casino operator and owner of the worst-ever recession catchphrase: "You're fired." His "candidacy" doesn't just transcend; it literally eclipses the issues of the day. And if you go by the openly attention-begging name of his website — shouldtrumprun.com — he's running for president.
He's got a private jet, a young, exotic third wife and a chain of golf resorts — if living the good life that you'll never have was a qualification to be president, he'd already be into his third term.
But when you get past the shimmery "Trump" brand — bombast tied up with a gold lamé bow — Trump's biggest "issue" is that on the issues, he's a lot closer to Obama than you might think.
Three weeks ago, arguing for military intervention to prevent a bloodbath in Libya's civil war, Trump said, "If we could surgically strike and stop that from happening, I'd be for it." But then appearing on CNN immediately after Obama addressed the nation to explain why he'd done exactly that, Trump claimed that Obama's Libya policy "makes absolutely no sense whatsoever."
Nodding to the current Tea Party vibe, Trump has offered himself up, saying, "You need someone who's going to knock out ObamaCare." But that stance is more than a little bit out of touch with the health care position he took in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, in which he wrote, "I'm a conservative on most issues, but a liberal on this one," before making the case for universal coverage by arguing, "People are our greatest asset."
And when Trump proclaims, "I'd like to rebuild America," saying, "You do airports, you do roadwork, you do mass transit, you do a lot of things," he sounds a lot less like a budget-slashing deficit hawk and more like the honorary co-chair of Obama's "Winning the Future" campaign.
Even though his real estate ventures have landed him in bankruptcy more than once, you'd think that Trump, author of Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life, would focus his nascent campaign on touting his business credentials to voters seeking answers in an uncertain economic environment. Instead, he went Birther on The View and Good Morning America, sparring with Whoopi Goldberg over Obama's birth certificate and offering doubts about the president's citizenship because he "grew up and nobody knew him … the whole thing is very strange."
But even here, the two have something in common: Trump's mother was an immigrant — just like Obama's father — and this week Trump needed two tries to produce his real birth certificate.
One thing's clear: Trump is "Must-See TV." If he ever got into the Republican primary mix, he'd be the most entertaining candidate by far. But even if "real" candidates like Michele Bachmann can't match "the Donald" sound bite for sound bite, when their contest eventually got around to taking on the issues, she'd take him down on a debate stage — because whether or not you agree with someone like Bachmann, at least you know where she stands.
Compared to Trump, even hard-core Birthers look sincere; while they'll say Obama's not an American, at least none of them has come out and nominated themselves to take his place.
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. But if you think there's any chance he'll actually throw his hat in the ring, consider this: The only consistent position Trump has taken so far is that in 2011, he's against whatever Obama is for.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.