Donald Trump is not a traditional candidate. This is not news. But in his first TV ad, which is slated to begin running in Iowa and New Hampshire today, Trump affirms a dark -- bordering-on-dystopian -- view of the U.S. and our current place in the world.
The images onscreen are stark. The two accused San Bernardino shooters. A body being wheeled on a stretcher. Missiles being fired from ships. Bombs being dropped on buildings. All portrayed in black and white.
It is, to be frank, a 30-second hellscape. Everything people fear — or at least a lot of it — packed into a TV ad. "Play it again," Trump told campaign manager Cory Lewandowski of the ad, which was screened first for The Washington Post. "I love the feel of it."
Yup. What the ad really does is reveal in very plain terms the remarkable conceit at the heart of Trump's candidacy: America sucks right now ... but it won't be that way if you elect me.
Whereas a politician like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — Trump's two main opponents for the Republican nomination — put their belief in the power of the American Dream at the center of their campaigns, the core of Trump's campaign is that the American Dream — defined loosely as the ability to succeed based not on birth but on hard work and to provide a better life for your children than you had — no longer exists.
"Sadly, the American Dream is dead," Trump said in his June speech kicking off his presidential bid.
What Trump is proposing is not a reviving of the American Dream that we all collectively think of. Instead, he wants a replacement model that goes something like this: We will be so big, so tough and so scary that no one will ever mess with us. We win; everybody else loses.
There is, obviously, appeal to that sort of view. We live in complex times both at home and abroad. Someone promising, in essence, to win every time, all the time holds real appeal. The desire for things to "be simple again" is also strong — particularly within a certain segment of the electorate that forms Trump's base (less-educated, less-affluent and white.)
Of course, it's hard to imagine that the "simple" solutions offered by Trump are feasible. Banning all Muslims from entering the country for a period of time seems both unenforceable and unconstitutional. Building a massive wall between the U.S. and Mexico might be more doable, although it would come with a huge price tag. And, as for Mexico paying that bill — as Trump insists they will do in the ad — well, that doesn't seem, um, very likely.
Trump's dystopian vision of the country is one that rings true for lots of Americans. The real question is whether any of his rivals for the Republican nomination can call him on the fantastical elements of his proposed solutions in a way that convinces voters.