Donald Trump released his first television ad this week. While that shouldn't be big news — if you live in Iowa or New Hampshire you've already see about 12 trillion ads from presidential candidates — the ad is an entertaining distillation of Trump's entire campaign, all the lunacy and fear-mongering cooked down to 30 nightmarish seconds. And just as Trump is putting out this ad, two of his rivals, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have ads that cover the same ground, in ways that are nearly as illuminating. All of them are about the contrast of chaos and order, the threatening world as it is and the safe and secure future they will bring.
Let's begin with Trump, whose ad is as perfect a distillation of his campaign as you can get in 30 seconds:
Like everything Trump does, it balances on a thin line between brilliance and self-parody. The best part is the promise of "a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what's going on." Trump says this a lot (though he usually says we'll figure out "what the hell is going on"), and as childish as it might seem, I suspect that Trump has realized that the phrase has tapped into something powerful among his supporters, beyond specific grievances and down to a general sense of alienation and confusion with the world. They don't know what the hell is going on, not just with Muslims and immigrants, but also with Snapchat and quinoa and the kids with their pants hanging down. Trump doesn't know either, but he's going to knock some heads until we figure it out.
Unlike his opponents, Trump doesn't find the solution to our problems in Americans' strong moral fiber and noble work ethic. He continually describes America as pathetic and weak, a place where nobody makes anything and we're a bunch of losers getting our butts kicked by China and Mexico. Deliverance will come only when we turn things over to a winner like him, someone who can whip us back into shape through the force of his unstoppable will and deal-making acumen.
Next we have Jeb Bush, who offers an ad that tries to turn up the fear even more:
This ad contains 12 separate clips of terrorists doing their terroristy things, flashing by at a nausea-inducing speed. Amidst all this madness stands Jeb, stalwart and strong, telling us how we're going to defeat terrorism: by leading strongly, with leadership and strength.
Yet even here in his own ad Jeb sounds like a man wearing a suit made for someone else, his over-enunciation of the word "to" at the end of the ad signaling that he's reading a prepared text with which he's not entirely comfortable. Jeb is many things, but the most gun-totin', evil-smashin' candidate is not among them. Yet his ad differs from Trump's only in its singular focus on terrorism, while the message is essentially the same: The world is a terrifying morass of threats, as shown in these grainy videos, but our candidate will bring order to the frightening chaos beating at our door.
Next comes Marco Rubio, whose ad is colorfully titled "Lunatic":
Unlike Trump and Bush, Rubio eschews video clips, opting to paint the picture of a world in chaos with only his words: "Radical Islamic terror. A lunatic in North Korea. A gangster in Moscow and a president more respectful to the ayatollah of Iran than the prime minister of Israel." After this litany of horrors, the music softens to a reassuring tone as Rubio tells us that all will be different when he's president, "because the world is a safer place when America is the strongest country on earth."
I could quibble and point out that America is right now the strongest country on earth, but Rubio himself seems almost incidental to this transition from chaos to order. All it will take is to get rid of Barack Obama, the cause of all our problems.
Compared to some of what Rubio has been saying lately, this ad is remarkably restrained. Elsewhere, he has amped up his rhetoric to make it more Trumpian. In a speech on Monday, he said, "Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America. He has made an intentional effort to humble us back to size," and "Not only is Hillary Clinton incompetent, she's also a liar." It's the kind of thing you expect to hear from some talk radio blowhard, not someone trying to look mature and leaderly.
It seems that Rubio, like Bush, is beginning to wonder whether he can beat Trump by trying to be a bit more like Trump. But neither of them knows how to do it. The truth is that Trump doesn't talk that much about Barack Obama, except to dismiss him with a wave of the hand. He knows that what's bugging the Republican electorate goes much deeper. It's all connected — the madness of an alien world outside our borders, an increasing sense of dislocation in their own country, a moment of chaos that calls out for a strong figure who can set everything right. Trump may be ridiculous, but there's a reason he's leading the GOP field.