So now we know.
It took the killings in Orlando, Fla., last weekend and Donald J. Trump’s reaction to them to prove what he’s been trying to tell us all along. He really is unique in American politics and maybe even the modern history of the Western world.
This came into full relief when, faced with the bodies of 49 people, nearly all of them under 40, all he could think to do was ride the slipstream of our alternating rage, horror and frustration. He congratulated himself on his prescience, called again for an entire religious group to be barred from entering our country and repeated the same, appallingly dangerous suggestion that President Obama is some sort of secret traitor.
It was a gambit that, so far, has been disastrous, with Mr. Trump’s poll numbers plummeting. Democrats from the White House on down poured invective on him, while Republicans mostly retreated into embarrassed silence. He appeared callous, tone deaf, amateurish — everything the political pros had hoped and feared he would be.
And yet, even before his usual diatribe of insult and accusation could be fully absorbed, Mr. Trump had pivoted, sticking and moving like a young Muhammad Ali. Just a day after the shootings in Orlando, Mr. Trump was calling himself the real “friend of women and the L.G.B.T. community” and later pledged to gay Americans, “I will fight for you.”
During a bizarre digression in North Carolina on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump seemed to accuse America’s fighting men and women of plundering the war effort in the Middle East (although a spokeswoman later denied it): “Iraq. Crooked as hell. How about bringing baskets of money, millions and millions of dollars, and handing it out? I want to know who are the soldiers that had that job because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be.”
On Wednesday, he was tweeting out a Nixon-to-China moment: “I will be meeting with the N.R.A., who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.” Chris W. Cox, executive director of the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action, quickly replied that he would happily meet with Mr. Trump, and that of course, “The N.R.A. believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period.”
Mr. Trump backs gays, bashes troops, gets the N.R.A. to consider gun limits — say what? It was another blinding flurry of unanticipated moves, the sort that left his Republican opponents flat-footed throughout the primary campaign, and drew more than 13 million votes. Will this sort of inspired improvisation, in what has already been the most extemporaneous, single-handed, personalized presidential campaign we’ve ever seen, be enough to take him all the way to the presidency?
What enables Donald Trump to move so lightly in the world is that he comes from nothing — nothing at all, in a political sense. It is what makes him both an unserious man and an all-too-serious candidate.
From the beginning of his campaign, commentators and historians have been like the proverbial blind men with the elephant, trying to guess at what or who Mr. Trump really is. The usual suspects, by way of comparison, have been the leaders of the right-wing, neo-populist parties now on the march in Europe — “He’s the American Marine Le Pen!” — or the autocrat Mr. Trump himself openly admires, Vladimir V. Putin (“In terms of leadership, he is getting an A.”) Others have included business magnates turned politicians, Silvio Berlusconi and Ross Perot; Latin American strongmen like Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez; and radio calamity howlers from Father Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh. Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a former Republican candidate for governor of California, reportedly even went so far as to use the H-word.
It’s not true. Donald Trump, as Frank Rich put it in New York magazine, “lacks the discipline and zeal to be a successful fascist.” He has espoused a repugnant racism and xenophobia from the first moments of his presidential campaign, which began a year ago last Thursday, when he castigated Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, and he has a fascist’s instincts to smash up convention, to shock and unsettle opponents with his cutting, personal insults — “weak,” “sad,” “low-energy,” “stupid,” “lyin’,” “little,” “crooked,” “Pocahontas.”
But for all that he likes to stoke the dangerous theater of violence at his rallies, Mr. Trump doesn’t hail from Europe’s far-right traditions of blood and soil. He has no elaborate theories of race or economics. Unlike countless Latin American dictators, he has no connection to the military (even if he does think being shipped off to a military high school is the equivalent of serving in the armed forces). He would be the most irreverent individual ever nominated by a major American political party, barely cognizant of the most basic tenets of Christianity, forgiveness and grace, or the rite of communion.
He likes to portray himself as a major player as a developer, which must serve as a source of constant amusement to New York’s actual real estate dynasties, all those Dursts and Rudins, LeFraks and Zeckendorfs. Contrary to what many of his followers insist on believing, he is not a self-made man. Over the course of his career, Mr. Trump appears to have been more of a grifter than a businessman, as recent investigations by The Times and USA Today have shown, racking up four corporate bankruptcies while continually enriching himself at the expense of stockholders, contractors, employees and customers.
For that matter, he doesn’t seem to even come from anywhere very specific. Mr. Trump’s mannerisms and patois are ineluctably those of New York, something he plays up at times, but he came of age on the mean streets of Jamaica Estates, a wealthy, exclusive, lily-white enclave in Queens, and seems to most enjoy the ambience of his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago.
All of which is working fine for him so far. The lack of any deeper ties allows Mr. Trump to move free and easy in our fissured political world, in this year of our unease. He has been able to run down one taboo after another with impunity, mocking Senator John McCain for having been captured by the North Vietnamese, shrugging off his complete irreligiosity, flaunting his womanizing and libertinage while seducing a party that claims to hold nothing in higher esteem than our veterans and family values.
He has succeeded brilliantly in overcoming Republicans’ ideological objections with what Reggie Jackson used to call “the magnitude of me,” making a visceral, emotional appeal to win over voters justifiably enraged by the collapse of the working class, by the wholesale corruption of our financial elite, with assurances that, through the sheer audacity that has always served him well, he will make America great again.
If Donald Trump comes from anywhere it is the recent past, the go-go, out-of-control, disco Manhattan past of the 1980s, where champagne wishes and caviar dreams are always on the menu. It’s the same appeal behind Trump University and the general, relentless flogging of his name: You, too, can have all this, whatever this is.
Does this make him a demagogue? It’s a term that’s been flung at American presidents from Washington through Mr. Obama. Andrew Jackson was constantly being called a demagogue by his enemies — as well as a vulgar, uncouth, unlettered barbarian. So was Lincoln. It is the goal of pretty much all presidential candidates to have voters project what they want on them, and isn’t that close to the heart of demagogy?
THE modern politician Mr. Trump most closely resembles, as Mr. Rich pointed out, is Ronald Reagan, who also developed his immense verbal dexterity with the media during a career as a second-tier performer, and came to power during a time of extreme economic and racial anxiety. Reagan was nearly as unrooted as Mr. Trump, leaving his Illinois town for Hollywood as soon as he could, and barely looking back. Reagan, too, had his self-aggrandizing, demagogic side. His speeches and debates were laced with convenient untruths and slanders: his race-baiting lies about a “young buck” chiseling welfare and a wealthy Chicago “welfare queen” tooling around in her Cadillac; pollution-causing trees; his slandering of Michael Dukakis as an “invalid” in 1988. His decision to make his very first speech of the 1980 general election campaign for the presidency at an all-white gathering a few miles from Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights organizers had been murdered by Klansmen 16 years earlier. His claims that he went off to World War II, and even filmed a liberated concentration camp — these were confabulations beyond anything even Mr. Trump has yet attempted.
Yet Reagan possessed enough discipline to run first for governor of California, where he would learn to work successfully with a Democratic legislature and reforge the Republican Party in his conservative image, an apprenticeship that Mr. Trump did not deign to serve in his new profession.
Without it, he risks becoming completely untethered — nothing more than the slithering id of a nervous age. He comes off too often as the candidate of “Game of Thrones” America, a bombastic, misogynistic knight errant in an endlessly wandering, unfocused narrative; traversing a fantasy landscape composed of a thousand borrowed mythologies, warning endlessly of a dire apocalypse that never quite materializes.
Even his biggest splashes tend to evaporate. Mr. Trump may promise to fight for the L.G.B.T. community, but he’s already on record as saying he would “strongly consider” appointing judges to end marriage equality. The N.R.A. quickly added that while it’s against letting suspected terrorists on a watchlist buy guns, it wants some sort of “due process” for said list — but then, that’s yesterday’s news.
There are months of campaigning yet to go, and with all his whirling and counterpunching, dazzling though it may be, Mr. Trump promises to burn himself out, ending up less Ali than a rope-a-doped George Foreman, sagging to the canvas before a sage and experienced opponent.
But the more urgent question is whether Mr. Trump can give up being Mr. Trump — if he can resist the demands from the vociferous, yearning crowd that hangs on his every word, which wants him to speak the hidden truths he claims to know. He seems unable to do anything other than give them what they want, egging on their anger against every protester who dares to appear, quickening the spiral of violence at his rallies.
Mr. Trump has found his place at last, and it is with the mob.