Trump the Everyman?

This may sound funny, but a big reason why Donald Trump is being embraced by millions of conservatives is because we can relate to guys like him.  We understand what makes guys like him tick.  And ultimately, we generally just like guys like him. 

Sure, he’s brash and rude, lacks finesse and couth, has more money than us, and lives a posh lifestyle that most people can never imagine.  But we don’t begrudge him those things.  And we certainly prefer him to the elites in Washington and academia, who presume to hector us about our worldviews and how we live our lives and raise our children, and whose economic ideas are, quite frankly, absurd in the context of reality.

There’s a scene from a 1986 movie called Back to School that captures my meaning pretty well.

Rodney Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, a successful entrepreneur whose chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores have made him a multi-millionaire.  When his son decides to quit college, he decides to enroll in the university to inspire his son to persevere, and to fulfill his father’s dream for Thornton to get an education. 

Dangerfield plays an affable and accomplished slob in the film, much like his real estate mogul Al Czervik from Caddyshack years before, symbolizing the unsung potential in working-class values.  And similarly playing out the “slob vs. snobs” dynamic that was prevalent in many 1980s films, a sufficiently snooty economics professor named Dr. Phillip Barbay has a problem with Mr. Melon’s admittance to Grand Lakes University – admittance gained only because he donated a new building to the college.  So Barbay is pleased that Melon is a student in his economics course, and he’s eager to teach this unpolished oaf that his money can’t buy smarts.

In his first class, Dr, Barbay establishes the tone by explaining that he’s not going to waste the students’ time with a lot of “useless theories.”  They are instead going to “jump right in, and create a fictional company from the ground up.”  “We’ll construct our physical plant,” he continues, “we’ll set up an efficient administrative and executive structure, then we’ll manufacture our product, and market it.”

Barbay:  So let’s begin by looking at construction costs of our new factory.

Melon: [Raising his hand] What’s the product?

Barbay: That is immaterial for the purposes of our discussion here.  But if it makes you happy, let’s just say we’re making tape recorders.

Melon: Tape recorders, are you kiddin’?  The Japs’ll kill us on the labor costs! 

Barbay: Okay, fine.  Then let’s just say we’re making widgets.

Melon: What’s a widget?

Barbay: It’s a fictional product.  It doesn’t matter.

Melon: [Quietly, to his son sitting next to him] Doesn’t matter!  Tell that to the bank, you know?

You see, it’s funny (or it certainly was in 1986, at least) to think that the liberal academic, who has never created any wealth on his own, fancies himself an expert at analyzing costs and building models for revenue growth.  And yet the most fundamental aspects of any business – the product, the demand for said product, and how labor and production costs might impact bottom lines in a competitive marketplace – are “immaterial” in consideration of the more important tasks of building an elaborate “executive and administrative infrastructure” and a massive production plant.  This is the liberal academia’s economic dysfunction, exemplified.

Barbay continues, describing the costs of his fictional plant:

Barbay: You will see the final bottom line requires the factoring in of not just the materials and construction costs, but also the architect’s fees, and the costs of land servicing.

Melon: Oh, you left out a bunch of stuff.

Barbay: Oh really?  Like what, for instance?

Melon: Well first of all, you’re gonna have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up.  Then there’s the kickbacks for the carpenters.  [Shot of the students furiously taking notes]  And if you plan on using any cement in this building, I’m sure the Teamsters would like to have a little chat with ya.  And that’ll cost ya.  Oh, and don’t forget a little something for the building inspector.  Then there’s the long-term costs, such as waste disposal.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with who runs that business, but I can assure you, it’s not the Boy Scouts.

These are all practical observations of the reality of doing business in America, but Dr. Barbay silences Melon by telling him that his ideas have no place in the “legitimate business world, and they’re certainly not part of anything [he’s] trying to teach” to his young charges. 

As he begins his lecture again, pondering where to build the fictional factory, Melon loudly says, “How ‘bout Fantasyland?,” which is met by the laughter of his classmates.

Besides being a hilarious scene from one of my favorite movies and starring one of my favorite comedians, it serves as a parable – an interesting contrast that describes how seasoned entrepreneurs and private business owners understand wealth creation and the realities of the business world, and how leftist academic engineers haven’t the slightest clue what is involved in the operation of businesses or how wealth is created.  And while conservatives respect the former, we recognize that the latter live only within the very limited scope of their preferred fantasies.

To use an obvious example, to the leftist academics touting it, there is only one result of a minimum wage increase – wages go up for unskilled laborers.  Yet when reality intrudes upon the leftists’ Fantasyland, other results, which should have been easily predictable, become manifest.  Increases in labor costs drive up the costs of goods and services, which decreases demand and yields lower revenues.  This all takes its toll in the firing, or never hiring, of unskilled laborers. 

In the real world, numbers attest to these outcomes.  “After the 2009 [minimum wage] increase 600,000 teen jobs disappeared in the next six months, even as GDP expanded.  In the previous six months, when the economy was still shrinking, half as many teen jobs were lost.”  Such results are not unique, and certainly not ambiguous.  And yet, somehow, the practical lesson is seemingly lost on the likes of Mr. Obama and his economic policy czars Alan Krueger and Jason Furman, Harvard alums all, who still promote the virtues of raising the minimum wage.

The point is that, in many ways, Donald Trump’s present popularity can be explained by his having captured the same dynamic that made Dangerfield’s character popular among audiences in the 1980s, and likewise made the liberal academic the subject of jokes. 

It’s true that Trump is far from common, but he has far more in common with the common man than any Ivy League politician in Washington.  And Washington has been rife with the latter for decades.  Since Reagan (of Eureka College), the executive office has been perpetually occupied by Ivy Leaguers.  George H.W. Bush, Yale.  Bill Clinton, Yale.  George W. Bush, Yale.  Barack Obama, Harvard.  And the left’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, in 2016?  Yale.

It all raises the question that Mark Steyn asks for us in After America: Get Ready for Armageddon while pondering our “credentialed-to-the-hilt” aristocracy: “If the smart guys [running things] are so smart, why are we broke?”

Like millions of conservatives, I still have a bit of healthy skepticism about the benefits of declaring that Donald Trump is the best choice for the Republican ticket in 2016 and the savior of conservatism.  But one thing is clear.  Trump’s tapped into that energetic, dormant vein of conservatism in a way that no one else has in a long time. 

He is a living testament to individualism, at once both a successful businessman and an obviously flawed human being.  He has real-world experience, lending credence to his executive prowess.  And he is set so starkly in contrast amidst a field that has been perpetually occupied by statist academics and robotic elitists who would presume to be our betters, despite driving us deeper and deeper into their redistributive Fantasyland.

So who can blame conservatives and independents, tired of the status quo, for finding something to cheer for in Donald Trump?

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.