Donald Trump’s campaign for president still strikes me as some sort of cruel performance piece or, at the very least, a brilliantly orchestrated satire of the American political process — but that’s precisely the point. Trump is an entertainer, and every aspect of this quality is reflected in his path to the presidency: from his obscene remarks to his pervasive presence in the media. However, the obvious issue with treating a presidential election like a reality TV show is that it is decidedly not. There are real-world consequences to plucking at your audience like radicalized guitar strings. Although Trump may be portraying an exaggerated character for the sake of garnering attention, the voters he attracts are completely and terrifyingly genuine, and represent something far more sinister than political theater.

From the beginning, Trump has functioned as a compelling figure in the context of the political sphere. Upon announcing his bid in June 2015, the real estate tycoon became an eccentric asterisk in a race that was initially Jeb Bush’s to win. Since then, his numbers have skyrocketed to unforeseeable heights. This influx of support is evidently not due to his policies (which are vague at their best and borderline fascist at their worst) or his political experience (which is virtually nonexistent, unless you count that time he almost ran for president in 2000), but because of the way he strategically markets himself to his target demographic.

There are two noticeable personas that Trump embodies, both of which seem to work inexorably in his favor: the mogul and the populist. The former rears its head whenever the topic of debate shifts to more “establishment” issues — he can be a smooth-talking, well-connected entrepreneur with decades of experience under his belt if it suits the context. The latter persona, however, is more present at his chaotic political rallies, during which he hits the pressure points of the average blue-collar American with impressive precision — the personification of everything you have ever heard your grandfather complain about after a few beers, except completely sober, embraced by millions, and dangerously close to filling one of the most influential positions on the planet.

Trump’s ability to alternate seamlessly between his two political personalities has proven to be his most effective campaign strategy. The media tycoon fares just fine with voters earning less than $50,000 per year, despite lacking the classic “humble beginnings” narrative that politicians commonly craft to score points with the working class. For a man worth $4 billion, Trump’s trick to wooing Middle America has been to take on the role of a brutally honest, anti-establishment mouthpiece for the economically downtrodden while effectively sweeping his empire of greed, fraud and opulence under the rug.

Nevertheless, despite his surge in popularity, Donald Trump is only one (albeit unorthodox) politician, and realistically, his odds of actually becoming our 45th president are slim — but the impact he’s had on voters will linger long after his poll numbers dwindle, and that is precisely the issue. The hoards of supporters with whom his rhetoric resonated will remain frustrated and militant until some other politician comes along, using vague phrases like “take our jobs back” and “make America great again” to rouse them into action.

Trump is playing a game with Americans that not even he can win in the end, because what he doesn’t realize is just how volatile his voter base really is. His carefully crafted stances on immigrationIslam and other hot-button topics may be mere talking points with which he can capture the extremely conservative vote, but they are also real opinions that his supporters hold, and pandering to them only further radicalizes this prejudiced ideology.

The Trump campaign has shaken the political culture of this country to its core, drawing out all of its most abhorrent qualities in the process. Through loudness, hyperbole and spectacle, he has managed to claw his way to the top of the polls, leaving a trail of misguided anger and xenophobia in his wake.

Of course, he didn’t plant these ideas in people’s heads; they were there long before he stepped onto the scene. He simply did what he does best: interpret what his market wants and cater to those desires (even the more disturbing implicit ones). At the end of the day, Trump is still an entertainer, but there is nothing entertaining about what he has created.

Lauren Schandevel can be reached at schandla@umich.edu.

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