Insight: Donald Trump a bad hair day for democracy

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at his South Carolina campaign rally. Picture: AP
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at his South Carolina campaign rally. Picture: AP
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WHILE ‘mad as hell’ Americans find Donald Trump’s bombast and chutzpah irresistible, his rivals seem powerless to stop the maverick who is ready to destroy Republican fortunes, writes Alex Massie

The history of American presidential politics is stuffed with carnival barkers, charlatans and grotesques but even with this degenerate pedigree few circuses have been as remarkable as the current contest to choose the Republican nominee for next year’s presidential election. If you thought the 2012 iteration of this quadrennial jamboree was bad – the one featuring luminaries such as the pizza magnate Herman Cain – then you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Trump’s presence as a third party candidate would turn a six-point Democratic lead into a 16-point landslide

Alex Massie

The reason may be summarised in three words: Donald John Trump. The Donald as the real-estate magnate, television host and scourge of Alex Salmond’s fondness for wind farms laughably likes to be known, is at present, the front-runner to win the Grand Old Party nomination next year. This is, to be sure, a reflection of the fact that at this early stage of the contest – six months before the first primaries – name recognition and celebrity sell. But it also demonstrates something more disturbing: a certain sickness deep within the American conservative movement and, perhaps, even something rotten within the soul of American democracy itself.

How did it come to this? How did Donald Trump become the dominant story in the early skirmishes for the nomination? And, having done so, what on earth can it possibly mean?

In the first place, Trump is simply applying to politics the lessons he has learned from his “reality” TV show The Apprentice. Namely that the public crave sensation and no contrived competition, no matter how ridiculous it may be, can sate their appetite for cheesy hokum and hogwash. Besides, in the age of YouTube and Twitter, isn’t politics just another branch of the entertainment business? Trump’s candidacy certainly suggests that, in certain circumstances, it can be.

That seems the most plausible – and also most charitable – explanation for the fact that, according to a recent ABC News poll, Trump leads his 15 – yes, 15 – rivals for the GOP nomination. According to this national poll, Trump commands the support of 24 per cent of Republicans, twice as many as his nearest challengers, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, the latest member of the Bush dynasty to run for the highest office in the land.

National polls, of course, matter little at this stage of proceedings. Nevertheless, polls from the vital early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire confirm that Trump is, at least for now, a “top tier” candidate.

His support is widest amongst the core Republican constituency: white men. Trump evidently understands that there is a market for a candidate who says the “unsayable”. His comment that Mexican immigrants are thieves and rapists (though some, he assumes, are “good people”) was not made unwittingly or without some calculation. There is a strong nativist sentiment within the GOP – one reason why Bush’s liberal views on immigration are among the greatest impediments to his own coronation – and Trump wins the support of 38 per cent of conservatives who think immigration weakens the American economy. Those voters are disproportionately working-class white men.

But, as every reality TV producer knows, you cannot afford to rest on your laurels or past excesses. The outrage meter must go up to 10 and then beyond. Hence Trump’s criticism of Senator John McCain’s war record. McCain, who was shot down by North Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War and then tortured – and who turned down the opportunity of being released because it was not offered to his fellow prisoners – is viewed with some suspicion by many grass-roots Republicans. Nevertheless, his wartime service has previously been thought untouchable. No longer. Trump “prefers” people who weren’t captured.

Another day, another outrage, another day in which Trump, not his rivals, is not so much making as dominating the headlines. All of which creates a desperate problem for rivals such as Marco Rubio, the Florida Senator, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, and Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas. How do they distance themselves from Trump without also repelling the significant percentage of would-be voters who are happy to flirt with him? After all, many voters seem to be liking the Summer of Trump.

Fifty-six per cent of Republicans, according to the latest polls, do not think Trump reflects the party’s “core values” but, more worryingly, 32 per cent say he does. Forty-four per cent think he is “about right” ideologically. Only 31 per cent of conservatives would refuse to vote for The Donald in any and all circumstances. This is, by the standards of recent presidential elections, an unusually high percentage, but it is also, given Trump’s total lack of interest in anything other than his own persona, startlingly low.

No wonder many of the other candidates in this race are surprisingly disinclined to criticise Trump. They hope that, assuming his star fades, they may be in a position to scoop up his former supporters. That helps explain why Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, amongst others, has been happy to call Trump his “friend”. Few have been as courageous as Perry who last week called Trump a “cancer” within the GOP, complaining that the business magnate offers nothing more than “a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense”.

This, however, is not Trump’s first flirtation with national politics. Four years ago he was at the heart of the so-called “Birther” movement questioning whether Barack Obama was actually born within the United States and, hence, eligible to be president. Putting on his best innocent face, Trump insisted he was only asking questions, but the runes were not hard to read: Trump was willing to exploit and fan the fears and racial resentments of the far right if that meant another month of headlines for The Donald. There remains a small but significant segment of the American population who have never truly accepted the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency and these, in many ways, are Trump’s people.

Yet there is more to his ascendancy than racial resentment. Trump also, laughable as it may seem, speaks to many of the Americans who feel they’ve been dealt a losing hand. An eccentric tycoon most famous for his vulgarity and hucksterism might seem an improbable vehicle for the “little man’s” angst, but the United States is no stranger to snake-oil salesmen.

Besides, millions of Americans feel something, somehow, has gone wrong. The American middle-class has endured a stagnant decade in which real wages have scarcely risen. Meanwhile, the non-college-educated poor have been left further and further behind. The ladder to the middle class has been lifted and, in some places, removed altogether. These, in many instances, are the “mad as hell” Americans, and they’re disinclined to “take it any more”.

In this respect, Trump’s complete lack of formal political qualifications is an asset not a hindrance to his ambitions. He is not tainted by any association with any branch of government. Railing against Washington DC and the Georgetown “cocktail party set” is an ancient American political trope, one trotted out by most candidates every four years. But, increasingly, Americans wonder if the game is rigged against them. And if it is, why should any politician be trusted to clean house?

The possibility of Bush confronting Hillary Clinton next November only fuels this resentment. What better proof of dynastic entitlement could there be than another Clinton vs Bush contest? And yet that, many sensible observers believe, is the most likely outcome. In those circumstances, why not date Donald Trump before, however reluctantly, marrying some other candidate? Even Trump admits that might happen. “I’m just chugging along. You know, maybe people will get bored with me” he admitted to MSNBC television last week.

No-one actually expects Trump to win the GOP nomination but he doesn’t actually need to, either. Mainstream Republicans worry that his presence in the candidate debates – and no broadcaster, least of all Fox News, will exclude Trump because they know doing so would adversely impact their viewing figures – will force other candidates into extremist positions they will subsequently regret. His mere presence risks turning a circus into an X-rated disaster movie.

Worse still, from the establishment’s perspective, Trump threatens to run as a third-party independent if other Republicans hurt his feelings. “The best way to win is to win as a Republican” he says, but he will not rule out running as an independent if he is “treated poorly” by the rest of the party. This too, in all likelihood, will come to nothing, but it is not a risk the rest of the GOP can afford to take.

The current polls suggest Trump’s presence as a third party candidate in a putative Clinton-Bush race would turn a six-point Democratic lead into a 16-point landslide. With 15 months until polling day, this is necessarily a hypothetical exercise, but it illustrates the danger Trump poses Republicans. Even taking only five per cent as a third party candidate would probably hand the White House to the Democratic party. The United States is so evenly divided that, in the present political environment, a 53-47 victory in the popular vote is considered a handsome victory that’s close to a landslide.

Again, however, Trump need not even be on the ballot to wreck the GOP’s chances. In recent elections the party has relied upon winning white votes by ever greater margins. But America is, with each election, a less and less white country. The sands of time are running out on a white-based electoral strategy. Unless the GOP can win a greater share of the black and Hispanic vote it will, all else being equal, be less likely to win than it was when the electorate was much whiter than it is now.

Trump’s comments on immigration – and much else besides – poison the reputation of the entire Republican party. The GOP cannot win without the whole-hearted, motivated support of its right-wing but nor can it win without expanding the Republican coalition. If the electorate had the same demographic make-up now as it did in 1984, Mitt Romney would have been president.

Trump and Trumpism will poison the GOP unless something is done soon. But who will be brave enough to point out that the emperor has no hair?

In the meantime, however, The Donald can chuckle all the way to the bank. It’s politics as show business and, my, aren’t the ratings sweet?