Euan McColm: Foolish to write off President Trump

Donald Trump participates in the Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump participates in the Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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HIS ridiculousness reassures us he can’t win, yet with each outrageous statement his popularity grows, writes Euan McColm

We are not yet required to take Donald Trump seriously. There is still time to dismiss as fantasy the idea that the businessman might become the next President of the United States.

Trump, a blustering bully, seemingly devoid of empathy, is – we are re-assured by US political commentators – going to lose his lead in the race for the Republican Party nomination. He will crash and burn. That’s what they tell us.

I hope they’re right. But I’m not convinced they are.

On Monday, Trump proposed that the USA’s response to the threat of Islamist terrorism should be to close its borders to all Muslims. Trumps’s plan would see not only Muslims from other countries banned from entry but American followers of Islam currently outside the states would not be allowed back home.

All of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination were reassuringly critical of the idea. Jeb Bush’s remark that the tycoon was “unhinged” seemed to catch the mood perfectly.

Across the world, there was outrage at the Trump idea, with a common accusation being that it was proof he is a fascist. I’m not sure Trump thinks deeply enough for that description to apply.

Trump’s frequent outbursts are incoherent and knee-jerk. They don’t reveal an ideologue, they reveal a bully.

Frequently, the thoughts of Donald Trump are simply ridiculous. What about his plan for the internet? Trump says he’ll see Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates to discuss “closing [it] up in some ways”. These are the ramblings of an idiot rather than the sharp thoughts of a credible world leader.

So, while some were outraged by Trump’s remarks, others chose simply to laugh. And it’s easy to do that with Trump, with his hair flapping like a bin lid in a storm and his frequently barmy proposals.

Trump’s ridiculousness helps reassure us that, when it comes to the crunch, American voters will reject him. Well, maybe. But there is no escaping the fact that Trump remains the front-runner to become the Republican nominee. This reality fairly clatters against the rather complacent belief that good sense will prevail.

Those currently telling themselves that, with his deplorable remarks about Muslims, the awfulness of Trump has reached some kind of tipping point are surely kidding themselves; his record of saying repellent, cruel things is long and has not done him much harm, so far.

This is a man who declared he’d build a wall between the USA and Mexico (and make the Mexicans pay for it), a man with a nasty obsession with demanding to see President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, a man who compared the erection of wind turbines in Scotland with the Lockerbie disaster.

And Trump has a huge and enthusiastic audience for these views.

The comparison will infuriate some, but Trump’s success (so far) is not so very different to that enjoyed by Jeremy Corbyn in the recent Labour Party leadership contest.

Of course, the men have no political common ground, but what they both represent is a break from “establishment” norms.

Like Corbyn, Trump campaigns as the candidate who’ll break with political tradition to put people first. And, as is the case with Corbyn, the detail of what Trump says is often less important than the impression that he’s an outsider, fighting vested interests.

Trump exploits disenchantment with existing political structures to considerable effect, just as Corbyn has done.

There is something else that the men share – the ability to cause division in their respective parties. Just as the so-called “Corbynistas” are set against Labour members who’d backed more mainstream candidates in the Labour leadership contest, so are Trump’s supporters set against the Republican Party’s mainstream.

Even if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination, his impact on the campaign will be felt for a long time. The views espoused by Trump are – as his leadership in the candidacy race would attest – shared by a considerable number of Republican voters. Others pitching for the party’s nomination are under pressure to offer these people something that might make them change their minds. And the only thing likely to do that would appear to be tougher talk on immigration and homeland security.

His fellow candidates for the Republican nomination may – with varying degrees of passion – have criticised Trump’s remarks about Muslims but they also know that he has struck a chord with the voters they need if their own ambitions are ever to be realised.

Trump plays brilliantly on fear and paranoia about terrorism. His hateful remarks about others are not blunders but deliberate moves in a nasty – but so far effective – campaign.

Each time Trump has said something block-headed or offensive (or, as is so often the case, both), his downfall has been predicted. Each outrage has been deemed a gaffe too far.

But each time that prediction has been made, Trump’s popularity has increased. The businessman’s brand of bombast is flying off the shelves.

In February, the process of states declaring support for particular Republican candidates will begin and there is currently nothing to suggest that Trump will suddenly lose the support he has gained in recent weeks.

And, should there be a further terrorist attack before primaries begin, one can imagine Trump would find himself in an even stronger position.

Brash and boorish, he may be, but Trump talks the language of a lot of American voters who are buying into his campaign slogan “Make American Great Again” with enthusiasm.

Trump’s suggestion that America should close its borders to Muslims is dangerous and foolish. It’s an “idea” that flies in the face of the freedoms of which America is so ostentatiously proud and can only stoke up division and hatred.

But the danger of Trump’s remarks does not make them any less effective in rallying support to his bid to hold one of the most powerful offices in the world.

Many continue to believe that the idea there might one day be a President Donald Trump is ludicrous. But perhaps it will soon be time to take seriously this appalling prospect.

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