Tuesday night's "NBC Nightly News" led with a lengthy hatchet job on Donald Trump, the colorful, bombastic, ridiculously coiffed real estate tycoon and reality TV star who has emerged as an early contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
That his TV stardom comes from his show "The Apprentice," which brings millions of dollars to the very network deciding to undress him publicly, is strange enough; but his appearance high in presidential preference polls is apparently sufficient to make the establishment and its media guardians a bit nervous.
Considering that The Donald is not a conservative — among other things, he hated Reagan, is pro-choice (though he now claims to have changed his mind about that), has contributed to Rahm Emanuel and other lefty Democrats, said George W. Bush was the worst president in American history, and called for a Canadian-style health care system for the U.S. — it's amazing that he's emerged as a darling of the far right.
He's thin-skinned, has been married three times, has been accused by two of his wives of abuse, and has managed to run two casinos bearing his name into bankruptcy protection.
Mr. Trump has gained traction with the conservative core by embracing the so-called birther movement, which insists Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. He is a born-again billionaire birther and a master of brazen self-promotion.
He is a brand. People pay him millions of dollars to put his name on buildings he doesn't own. NBC investigative reporter Michael Isikoff asked how he could be paid $2 million a year for being the CEO of a hotel casino and yet deny he was involved in its operations. He said it was due to "my genius."
The conservative establishment is nervous about Trump's popularity among its right wing. Karl Rove has denounced the Trump candidacy. The Club for Growth president, Chris Chocola, has pointed out the man's many flip-flops and says he can't be trusted.
The Democrats seem oddly thrilled by the specter of a Trump run, since he is a target-rich opponent, dragging more baggage behind him than even Newt Gingrich. They view the entire field of Republican contenders and pretenders as a group of cartoon characters anyway.
It's possible that the American people know less about President Obama than could be said, perhaps, of any of his predecessors. What fuels the birther movement is the success of Mr. Obama and his legal team in blocking access to virtually all of his records.
His original birth certificate, medical records, school records and legislative papers while a state senator in Illinois have all either been sealed or have simply disappeared. There has been an incredibly successful obliteration of the man's past. Which raises the inevitable question: Why?
Mr. Trump's past, on the other hand, is a more or less open book. He says it portrays him as a business visionary with a string of brilliant successes. Critics say he is a modern P.T. Barnum at best.
The question raised by his announced desire to run for the White House is: Why is he doing this? Is it a hoax? Is it another publicity stunt? The answer will come soon enough. He'll either run — in my opinion, unlikely — or he'll return to a new season of "The Apprentice" an even bigger celebrity in our celebrity-driven culture.
I'm burying the lead in this column. You see, the big story is that nobody can be elected president without the approval of the ruling oligarchy. One has to be vetted and put on a short list of "acceptable" would-be presidents. Without that vetting, candidates wind up like Steve Forbes or Ross Perot, slashed to pieces by the news media.
The two major parties have had a duopoly on power since the Civil War. Their differences are at the margin when it comes to foreign policy, and they differ amazingly little on domestic policies as well. Republicans prefer a slower pace to the cliff's edge than the all-out sprint by the Democrats. "Hope and change" are just words.
It's safe to say Donald Trump could never, ever be on the short list. His faux candidacy will end shortly. Enjoy the spectacle while it lasts.
Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.