Last June, writing in a London paper, I suggested to some of my fellow conservatives that Donald Trump might well win the GOP nomination, and that they’d better stop dismissing him. “Trump,” I wrote, “has mastered the art of saying he saw the truth before anybody else did. Whether he did or didn’t — whether he even had an opinion on it until five minutes ago — is beside the point. What matters is that he can make people believe he grasped the essential point while everybody else was ignoring it.”
To illustrate what I meant, I referenced a couple of paragraphs in Trump’s book “Time to Get Tough” (2011), in which he claims to have been primarily responsible for Lady Gaga’s fame. Trusting the judgment of his “people,” he allowed her to perform at the 2008 Miss Universe pageant, which he then owned, and so a new star was born. The effect — assuming you accept the truth of his rather conveniently unprovable tale — is that you take him a little more seriously as a prognosticator. Anybody who introduced Lady Gaga to the world probably has some insight into market trends and cultural phenomena.
This rhetorical ruse is an essential part of Trump’s shtick, and it’s extremely effective. Often it goes something like this: He makes an outrageous assertion that forces both parties and the news media to wrangle over its implications; then he claims he was the first to talk about the issue at all. When he announced his candidacy in June, for example, he accused the Mexican government of deliberately sending criminals across the border. Controversy raged, predictably, for several days. And that controversy allowed him to claim, falsely, that his comments had ignited the entire debate over the larger problem of illegal immigration. We have a “tremendous problem,” he said in typical remarks last summer in South Carolina, and it’s the problem of “the border and border security and lack of border security and illegal immigrants . . . And now everybody’s talking about it and they’re saying I was right. And people that were criticizing me two weeks ago are calling me and they’re saying, ‘Off the record, Mr. Trump, you were right.’ ”
If you don’t follow political debates closely, Trump sounds like someone who, whatever else may be said about him, grasped an important truth before anybody else. And if that were true, we’d be fools to ignore him. Edmund Burke described the Reign of Terror before it happened (his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” was published in 1790, not 1795), and on that basis alone he commands attention. If Winston Churchill were now forgotten except as the man who warned Britain about German rearmament a decade before war broke out, he would deserve our esteem.
Trump’s sagacity, though, is manufactured after the fact. Consider his position on Islamist extremism. First, he proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. Only then, having provoked an international outcry about his ludicrous proposal, could he claim — in a vague, semi-coherent kind of way that can’t quite be falsified — that he had somehow brought the threat posed by Islamist extremism to the attention of the country. “I’ve had so many people call me and say, thank you,” he said to the late night TV show host Jimmy Kimmel soon after calling for the ban. “Now, if you remember, when I did that a week ago, it was like bedlam. All of a sudden — and you watch last night — and you see people talking. They say, ‘Well, Trump has a point. We have to get down to the problem.’ The people that are friends of mine, they called, they said, ‘Donald, you’ve done us a tremendous service.’ ”
The semi-informed observer may reasonably conclude that Trump, for all his pomposity, saw the nature of the problem while everybody else wanted it to go away.
Hence his claim that he opposed the Iraq War before it began, even to the point of refusing to keep quiet when Bush White House officials asked him to. “I said it, and I said it loud and clear,” he claimed in a GOP debate, “ ‘You’ll destabilize the Middle East.’ That’s exactly what happened.” Now: There is no public record of Trump’s early opposition to the war, and in at least one interview he expressed reluctant support of it. But he words his retroactive prediction carefully — the Middle East is perpetually unstable, so of course destabilization is “exactly what happened” — and again the uncareful observer may conclude that Trump saw the outcome before it happened.
You can’t dismiss a man with that kind of foresight. You may not always agree with him, but he spoke prophetically on some important controversies — just as I spoke prophetically about Trump in that piece in a London paper last June.
Only I didn’t. I made that part up. Were you impressed?