Finley: Trump is Ali of politics

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Donald Trump is doing to politics what Muhammad Ali did to sports.

When Ali burst into the national spotlight in 1964 as world heavyweight boxing champion, his taunting, trash-talking “I Am The Greatest” routine knocked out all previous notions of athletic humility and sportsmanship. Behavior by athletes on and off the field was never the same, nor was our expectations of them.

We learned to celebrate brashness, braggadocio, big talk.

Trump, likewise, has kicked aside the pretense to civility and decorum in politics.

He has thumped every taboo. There’s no line Trump won’t cross. Antics that once doomed political careers serve to bolster the Republican front-runner’s popularity.

And he knows it. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump boasted at a campaign rally in New York last month.

He said Carly Fiorina’s face made her unelectable, tagged the diminutive Sen. Maro Rubio as “Little Marco” and made fun of his elevator heels, used the p-word to describe Sen. Ted Cruz’s position on torture, called Chris Christie “a little boy,” compared Ben Carson to a child molester and when polls showed him losing to Carson in the first primary state, he asked, “How stupid are the people of Iowa.”

Oh, and he suggested Fox News host Megyn Kelley’s menstrual cycle might explain her hostility toward him in an early debate. And then there’s what he’s been saying about Mexicans and Muslims.

Any of those offenses alone would have destroyed another candidate. In the 2006 Virginia senate election, Sen. George Allen called a Democratic worker a “macaca,” a derogatory name for Asian Indians. It ended his career.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage had to apologize profusely in January after he suggested black drug dealers were coming to his state and impregnating white girls. Todd Akin of Missouri blew up his Senate bid when he used the phrase “legitimate rape.”

But Trump apologizes for no offense, backs away from no remark. And just like Ali, his defiance enthralls his supporters and enrages his opponents, but both serve the purpose of keeping people talking about him.

Republican debates have posted some of the highest ratings in cable television history for one reason: People can’t stop watching Trump.

He understands that if you’re willing to weather the storm of criticism, you can indeed get away with anything, and a certain percentage of people will love you for thumbing your nose at the rules. For Trump, the perception that he speaks his mind has endeared him to enough voters to keep him atop the GOP race. And because every journalist wants to be the one to capture the next outrageous Trumpism, he can command the cameras and notebooks whenever he wants.

Ali became the new model for sports. After him, showboating developed into an art form. Leagues even had to adopt rules against excessive on-field hot dogging.

Trump could have the same lasting impact on politics. But while Ali eventually became a much-beloved elder statesman of sports, it’s harder to see Trump attaining that same status for contributing to the breakdown in civil comportment in yet another aspect of American society.

Nolan Finley’s new book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.