Honestly, I feel just a little late to the party. As I write this Donald Trump is apparently coasting into the nomination, able and more than willing to aim all his guns on Hillary Clinton, who is still trying to bat away “Crazy Bernie,” as Trump lovingly refers to Bernie Sanders.
For going on a year now writers, pundits and prognosticators have explained Donald Trump, then again upon each successive, head-scratching victory.
Throughout that time I’ve felt no inclination to add my voice to the confusion. But I was called to duty by a personal request from a Vietnamese journalist colleague asking me to explain the phenomenon sweeping the United States. He wanted a view from “inside”.
Since I have gone on the record, I offer here my explanation of Donald Trump, written in early 2016.
Explaining Donald Trump
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to try to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and what’s going on here in the U.S.
For full disclosure, I want to say upfront that 1) though I follow politics and try to stay current on issues (especially those concerning the environment) I am not an expert in politics and 2) my political leaning is liberal and I am a registered Democrat, so I admit a certain bias in what follows.
That being said, even the political experts are baffled by the “rise of The Donald” and, as you know, even mainstream Republican operatives are alarmed by what is happening to their political party.
My gut feeling, and what I have heard from those more knowledgeable than me, is that Trump’s current popularity among GOP primary and caucus voters stems from a splitting-off of the most extreme conservative base – the Tea Party – from the mainstream GOP machine.
Many commentators here in the US say that the Republican party is now reaping what it has sown. With the election of Barack Obama, GOP party leaders have employed a strategy of unequivocal obstruction of Obama’s policies, essentially gridlocking the federal government. That Obama’s health care plan passed is something of a miracle.
Part of this obstructionist strategy has played to the fear, bias and ignorance of “tea partiers” and in the process the political narrative has devolved into character assassination, a dubious relationship with the truth and a remarkable disrespect toward the presidency (at least as long as Obama occupies the White House) and government in general.
Of course, all this isn’t the exclusive domain of Republicans and tea-partiers, there is plenty of fear-mongering, intolerance and hatred to go around in any political faction, but Obama’s presidency appears to have taken it to heightened levels.
Before Donald Trump, the Republican party assumed their candidate would likely be Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or one of the other more “mainstream” Republicans. There was a time when Ted Cruz was considered the “wing nut” of the GOP, even by many Republicans.
As we’ve seen, Bush fizzled, along with it the $130 million spent on his campaign. Rubio struggles to hang on and Cruz, once the extremist (still the extremist to many), now appears the only chance to stop Trump.
To my mind, Trump appeals to the fringe element that the Republican party agitated in their quest to sabotage Obama’s presidency, particularly as it represents the changing American demographic and culture. And now this fringe element is beyond their control.
Trump plays to fear and ignorance. He puts on a good show. Sadly, many Americans are mesmerized by the cult of personality and Trump knows exactly how to play it. He’s a businessman and marketer, and he’s simply marketing his brand “Trump” in the political arena.
Other than the ridiculous rhetoric of building a wall along the Mexican border (and making the Mexicans pay for it), or banning Muslim immigration into the US, or that China “created” global warming, I have heard no attempt from Trump to offer any policy ideas. Certainly nothing substantial. He says he’ll make America great again and that we’ll start “winning” – at what I’m not sure.
So Trump plays into the frustration of white, perhaps less educated voters that can’t stand Obama and now distrust their own party.
The Republican party never expected this to happen. At first we all thought Trump’s candidacy was a joke, that Trump’s hateful and adolescent speech would eventually deflate his narcissistic balloon. But it turns out, apparently, that this is has ignited a large block of the American psych. A nasty, self-regarding demagogue that “has the best words” is just what these people want.
But this isn’t what the Republican party wants at all. They are suspicious of Trump’s conservative credentials. He has held opposing views on many dearly-held Republican ideals, even unable, at least at first, to disavow support from a former Grand Dragon of the Ku-Klux-Klan, the very symbol of American bigotry and racism.
Most especially, the Republicans don’t want Clinton in the White House. That might be almost as bad as Obama for them I suspect. They fear the nomination of Trump will open the way for Clinton.
If Trump does remain the frontrunner into the Republican convention this summer, it may lead to a severe splintering, even disintegration, of the GOP as we’ve known it – what the Republicans like to call “the party of Lincoln and Reagan.”
If Trump does gets the nomination, it will be an ugly fight, even by American political standards, centered more on personal destruction than policy.
Does Trump have a chance in the general election? I am much more worried about that than I was when this whole circus began, but I still think that voters in the general election will understand what is at stake. I think many Republicans may choose to sit out the election, which will only help Clinton.
It is my fervent hope that Trump is an anomaly. An expression of the underbelly of American culture, and that our better side, both Republican and Democrat, will prevail.
Featured image credit: DonkeyHotey, courtesy flickr