As a child of the 1980s, certain touchstones, figures, and moments are seared into my brain: Pac-Man and Michael Jackson, the personal computer, Yuppies, crack hysteria, AIDs, the Challenger disaster, and in the waning days of the decade, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two newsmakers also stand out in my mind. From my local area, there was Mafioso John Gotti, the “Teflon Don,” who always seemed to be mugging for the camera and beating the rap. On the national front, there was Ronald Reagan, the “Teflon president,” who slipped and slid (and maybe slept) through one scandal after another: the Iran-Contra Affair, influence-peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development , the Ill Wind Pentagon fraud scandal, Sewergate at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Inslaw Affair, and so on.
Something else stands out from those years, a commercial that always seemed to be playing on TV, perhaps even between stories about the two Teflon newsmakers. It began with a team of horses charging through the night pulling a carriage. As the coach comes to a stop, a clone of Henry VIII steps forth, his eyes wide, his mouth open, awed by the utter 1980s opulence arrayed before him. “You’re the king, you’re the king of the castle,” sings a woman with a cruise-ship-quality voice. “Trump Castle, hotel and casino, and baby, baby, do we know how to treat a king!” What follows is a barrage of a montage: a tux-clad maître d’, Vegas-style showgirls, a cork popping from a bottle of champagne. And then Henry’s back. “Now this is a castle!” he booms, his arms lifted to the sky as the camera pans to take in the gaudy “elegance” of Donald Trump’s Atlantic City pleasure palace.
For decades, that commercial, or at least the horrible jingle sung by Trump’s sequin-clad chanteuse, never quite left my brain. Still, who could have imagined that the man who sired that ad would emerge as a “serious” presidential candidate of the party of the Teflon president and prove to be, at least to this moment, more resilient, more Teflonesque, no matter what he says or does, than Dutch Reagan and John Gotti combined? What started as a joke has become a disaster-in-the-making and the wink offered by a tiara-wearing cocktail waitress at that ad’s end has taken on a new resonance for me.
Trump’s Castle was rebranded out of existence in the 1990s and The Donald’s Atlantic City empire — the Trump Taj Mahal (now owned by activist investor Carl Icahn), Trump Plaza, and the Trump Marina (the old Castle) — crumbled. But Trump himself has somehow emerged stronger than ever. The man who sought to lure all aspiring monarchs to A.C. (“welcome to a kingdom where everybody’s treated like a king”) has whipped up a heady mix of xenophobia, political bromides, and so-light-it-floats policy proposals into a movement. Call it Trumpism, or maybe even Trumpismo. And should he ride this populist wave of fear and loathing to the Republican nomination for president, the American political system will never be the same — so says TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich whose monumental new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, is due out this April. If the Teflon doesn’t wear thin soon, you might want to start preparing yourself for this once-improbable candidate to become, as Bacevich suggests, America’s very own Juan Perón, though he might prefer to be called the king of the castle.