The presidency has been occupied by lawyers, ex-generals, a former actor and even a peanut farmer, but never before by a pitchman.
Donald Trump seeks to become the first. He is the Billy Mays of the GOP, doing what the late, ubiquitous celebrity pitchman never could dream of: making the sale to a major political party and, he hopes, to the nation.
Trump fashions himself a builder, but he is really a marketer and, more than that, a salesman, with methods that have their roots in infomercials and before that on boardwalks and at carnivals.
Mays became a very wealthy man pitching everything from OxiClean to Mighty Putty to — who can forget? — Zorbeez.
A Mays pitch was high-energy (“Hi, Billy Mays here for …”). It was simple and easy to understand. It was full of superlatives. The Quick Chop, to take one example, was the fastest, easiest and safest way to chop anything — and, of course, the best deal on TV. And his pitches included offers of free stuff: in the case of the Quick Chop, a Quick Grater thrown in at no cost (as well as a second Quick Chop, if you paid separate process and handling).
A Fortune magazine article on Mays noted how his sales secrets date back to the old carnival days. Trump instinctively understands the art. The candidate knows how to “bally the tip,” or create a spectacle to draw a crowd, and how to “nod them in,” or say things to get a crowd of potential customers to nod along (e.g., we are going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it).
An admirer of Mays writes that he “learned on the Atlantic City Boardwalk that buyers want to be led,” and that he makes “sure you understand he’s talking to YOU, that he understands the problems you have and, most importantly, he has the perfect solution.” Sound familiar?
What is most disturbing about Trump’s eponymous scammy business ventures — like Trump University, or the Trump Network, a failed multilevel marketing venture — is that they bear an unmistakable resemblance to his campaign.
In Trump’s pitch for Trump University, you hear the same grandiose promises: “Success. It’s going to happen to you.” The same meaninglessly vague statements: “Trump University is about knowledge about a lot of different things.” The same assurances that Trump will hire the best and the brightest: “We are going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific, terrific people, terrific brains, successful. We are going to have the best of the best.” The same incredible claims: “These are all people [the so-called professors] that are hand-picked by me.”
It was Trump the pitchman who felt compelled to devote his latest primary-night news conference to defending his sundry Trump products — whether they still exist or not — after Mitt Romney mocked them.
It was an odd spectacle, but what do you think Mays would do if someone questioned whether Kaboom was really the best tile cleaner? At least Mays is said to have believed in his products. Trump’s insistence on the vitality of his defunct ventures led to instant debunking. Not that he cares. The Trump method is to spread a thick lather of bravado over a foundation of mendacity.
There is, of course, overlap between the work of a pitchman and a politician, but Trump makes the two indistinguishable. He isn’t a rejection of politics so much as a grotesque parody of it. He’s like any other politician, only more dishonest, insincere and unscrupulous, and less principled, informed and civil. He is a way for angry people to send a message to the political class: We have such low regard for you, we think you are no better or different than Donald Trump.
The sentiment is understandable. But if you think it will end well, I have an Awesome Auger or an EZ Crunch Bowl to sell you, provided you order without delay.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.