The Rev. Al Sharpton perfectly assessed the character of Donald Trump’s death-defying campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. “What plays at Lincoln Center don’t play at the Apollo,” Sharpton said about Trump. “And I think that he is an Apollo act in Lincoln Center.”
I asked Sharpton for his view of what’s going on with The Donald and why he’s doing what he’s doing at a meeting with editors and reporters at The Post this morning. There was no better person to ask. Sharpton and Trump are both New Yorkers who have known each other and done battle with each other for years. And they are both targets of and survivors of the Big Apple tabloids that make sport of high-flying folks like them. That’s why Sharpton’s assessment of Trump’s campaign and its future is as vivid as it is correct.
“When you run for president, in my opinion, you run either to win or you run to further a cause,” Sharpton said. He said he believes that Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton “are running to win.” The candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 pointed out that “I ran to further a cause.” While he said he knew he wasn’t going to beat President George W. Bush in the general election or then-senator John F. Kerry in the primary for that matter, he said he ran because he felt issues “we wanted to raise like criminal justice and all were not going to be in the center stage if we didn’t have a candidate.”
What followed was a lesson imparted to Sharpton by James Brown, the legendary singer who was a mentor to the preacher and now-MSNBC host, that was so rich in imagery that I dare not chop it up into quotes. In short, Trump is a lounge act who hasn’t realized that he is now performing on the main stage. The rules are different. The expectations are higher. And his failure to make the transition will doom him.
Donald Trump is not running to win or [for] a cause. HE was the cause that furthered the branding and popularity of him and his businesses. So when you have somebody that does not have to, in any way, monitor or tailor what he’s doing based on gauging a win or gauging does it hurt a cause, you end up with anything goes. And anything goes has worked for him because he’s been basically a business slash celebrity slash cultural figure. What he does not understand is that does not apply in the political mainstream.
What plays at Lincoln Center don’t play at the Apollo. And I think that he is an Apollo act in Lincoln Center. I think that what worked in his tabloid, playing the New York celebrity thing does not work when you’re on a serious thing.
First time, I went to Vegas … [James Brown] took me there. And [he] said to me, “Reverend, let me tell you something. … There’s a difference between the lounge act and the acts that play the main room.” We’re at Caesar’s Palace. I’m about 19 – 20 years old.
And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “When you’re in the lounge, you’re competing with the bars and the barmaids and the slot machines and people gambling. So you do whatever you can to get attention. But when you’re in the main room, they paid to see a show. You’ve got to be ready. You gotta have choreography. You gotta be rehearsed. You gotta have polish.” He says, “When you get on the main stage, Reverend, whatever you did to get out the lounge don’t do that on the main stage.”
Sharpton said he never forgot that when he prepared to take the debate stage in 2004 with Kerry and other Democrats. “I didn’t get up there and say, ‘No justice, no peace,’” he said. “I’m at the main stage now.” Sharpton said not recognizing the venue change is Trump’s problem.
Donald Trump never made that [transition]. So in the assessment of that, why not take a shot at McCain? He’s ad-libbin’, freelancin’, lounge-talking anyway. And he doesn’t understand you are now on center stage. You can’t talk about McCain like you’re talking about the real estate guy bidding against you for a building in downtown Brooklyn.
So, he was probably surprised at the reaction. Why was he surprised? Because nobody called him on all the outrageous stuff he said about President Obama. [That’s because] he was the guy in the lounge talking about the president. Nobody called him when he was talking all this immigration, [because] he was the lounge guy in the lounge. He sitting up there with a presidential candidate [Sarah Palin] eating pizza with a knife and fork. It was a big cultural joke. But now you’re talking about BEING president. You’re on center stage now. That ain’t cute no more. And I think that’s what happened.
The latest Post poll shows that Trump has surged to a big lead in the GOP pack with support from 24 percent of Republican primary voters. Given that standing, I asked Sharpton, is there a danger that folks like the lounge act? He highlighted another significant number from the poll. The one that shows 62 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for Trump for president. “Folks like the lounge act … because they’re sittin’ around drinkin’ a beer and laughing,” Sharpton said. “But if you go upstairs to get your wife to go to dinner, she’s going to want to go to the main room.”
“They’re not saying they want him to be president,” he said. “They’re saying I like him giving them hell. I like him talking trash.” But Sharpton said the message from that 62 percent is clear: “Oh no, I don’t want him to run the country!”
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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.