He is, to begin with, a genius. A very narrow kind of genius, admittedly, but a genius nonetheless. One element of his brilliance is a gift for echoing the anger and resentments of overlooked Americans. One can only be awed by the way in which a germaphobe born into wealth, who in his private life repeatedly fleeced working- and middle-class people and seems to have despised the devout who prayed enthusiastically for him, was able to represent himself so successfully as their avatar and champion.
It’s not just that Trump learned how to use television cameras to his advantage while doing The Apprentice. He also learned (or maybe intuited) the diction, grimaces, japes, chippy belligerence, and malicious wit that millions of Americans have yearned to display on a public stage but could not. He flipped the middle finger at cultural elites, overly sensitive liberals, woke activists, patronizing professors, and condescending atheists, and people loved it, wishing only that they could do the same. He knew how to dabble in race-baiting without quite ever going full George Wallace. He had the great skill of propounding absurd or evil things and adding “It’s what I’ve heard” or “People are saying,” so that there was always enough room for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to sigh wearily rather than face up to what his words meant.
Trump also has, as authoritarians often do, a feral sense for weakness. Hence his usually spot-on dismissive nicknames for his opponents in 2016. More important, he could sense the weaknesses in his audience. In 1932, a novel appeared in German with the title Little Man, What Now? The novel (and its author, Hans Fallada) was by no means pro-Hitler, but it captured the milieu that made many ripe for seduction by a variety of extremist parties, including the Nazis. That is why Trump’s real slogan was not “Make America great again,” a phrase devoid of content, but rather the lasting words of his inaugural address: “American carnage.” He detected, and none better, fear of a collapse—of order, of morals, of traditional hierarchy, of the economy—and played to it.