Donald Trump went into the second Republican presidential debate underwater in favorability ratings but surprisingly buoyant in horse race match-ups against his competitors. While the resiliency of those numbers confounds political prognosticators seeking logical solutions to this political mystery, Trump’s rivals determined it was time to knock him from his perch.
What those would-be heroes – a group I like to call the Justice League Republicans – did was dare to reject a societal obsession that has become a political reality and their risk, so far, is paying off.
Americans simply love villains and in Donald Trump they have found one. Now, I understand not everyone possesses the same definition of what constitutes a villain. In politics, especially, villainy can be subjective. The villain is always the other guy (or gal) in the race. In the case of Trump, however, his villain bona fides are perhaps subjective but corroborated in both empirical and anecdotal data.
For instance, Trump has long found kindred spirits among villains. His reality television show Celebrity Apprentice was built as a refuge for the despised. He plucked entertainment villains (Andrew Dice Clay) and sports villains (Dennis Rodman) and political villains (Rod Blagojevich) and villains of his own creation (the Apprentice’s Omarosa) out of exile and gave them a chance to redeem themselves in prime time.
And it worked. Celebrity Apprentice brought in respectable ratings and revived the careers of many contestants. Now a candidate for president, Trump is looking to use his Midas touch on himself on his march to brand the White House the Trump House.
But why do we have an infatuation with villains like Trump? Aren’t we supposed to cheer the knight in shining armor here to save the day?
Predictable stories are boring and leave little to the imagination. Guy meets girl, girl runs off to marry another guy, original guy finds girl again, they fall in love, yada yada yada, and everyone lives happily ever after. That formulaic story line has become trite. Cheering for the villain, however, adds an element of intrigue and suspense.
Underneath this infatuation is the desire to figure the villain out. What are the villain’s motives? What makes them tick? Why do they do what they do? Rather than only asking these questions of the characters of Breaking Bad or House of Cards, voters are asking themselves these questions about Trump. What does Trump get out of running for president? He’s so rich; does he really need to be president, too?
Already a man of incredible self-confidence, Trump, in classic villain fashion, began to view himself as invincible following the first debate. Trump’s unrestrained bravado and kneejerk insult factory of a mouth had already attacked Hispanics, veterans of the military, FOX News host Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina’s appearance, Ben Carson’s medical acumen and other people and things up to that point. And with each barb and every jab his poll numbers only went north, never south.
But the Justice League Republicans decided to give Trump a dose of his own nasty medicine in the second debate, starting with Carly Fiorina.
The former U.S. Senate candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO, who has been viewed more as a potential side kick, showed she was no Robin in going after Trump from the get-go. Fueled by his attacks on her appearance in a Rolling Stone interview, Fiorina went hard and went strong hoping to appeal to the approximately 70 percent of Republican primary voters supporting someone other than Trump.
The others joined in as well. Given an opportunity to respond to a side swipe from Trump, Rand Paul questioned whether the real estate mogul’s “careless language” would be a detriment when conversing with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Then Scott Walker, who days later made himself a martyr by dropping out of the race altogether in an attempt to coalesce the field in favor of a non-villain candidate, practically forced himself into the conversation to label Trump an “apprentice,” adding, “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now.”
Zip! Pow! Bang!
CNN’s post-debate poll showed signs of the gambit working. Trump slipped 8 points and Fiorina gained 12 points. Even so, it is yet to be seen if the would-be heroes were successful in their chivalrous, and perhaps selfless, attacks. But with their combined efforts, there are reasons to believe the populace is finally starting to turn on their beloved villain.