He draws on elements of actors turned politicians such as Murphy, who won his seat as a Republican in 1964 by “parlay[ing] public relations, speaking … and other skills he had gathered in Hollywood into a political career,” as the L.A. Times observed. Two years later, Reagan defined himself in his first political campaign as “a citizen-politician,” or, as his adviser Bill Roberts recalled, “Joe Doakes [the ordinary American] running for office.” Trump displays the same theatrical command of the political stage as his Hollywood Republican forebears. He acidly spoofs Jeb Bush by calling him a “low-energy person,” mugs for the cameras in press conferences and dramatic news interviews, and bashes reporters as elitists preventing Americans from seeing the truth about his own greatness and the country’s contemporary political decline.
Unlike Reagan and Murphy and other entertainers turned pols who sought and won elective office, however, Trump has no clear or consistent ideology, no set of larger conservative ideas about government’s role in America’s economy and society. He is more akin to single-issue candidates such as Ross Perot, another eccentric billionaire who made deficit reduction his signature issue on his way to winning 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. (Like Trump, Perot also wrote a book dispensing life advice for his admirers.) In Trump’s case, though, his issue, immigration, extends and deepens the racism and nativism that has deep roots in our politics. Drawing on strains of venom from the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrat presidential run of 1948, Trump has built his campaign on exploiting issues of race, identity and status to blame the country’s economic and social woes on immigrants from Latin America. Wittingly or not, he has made illegal immigration the most identifiable crux of his policy agenda, lashing immigrants as rapists and criminals.