Editorial: Dissecting Trump’s appeal
Give Donald Trump credit for this: He’s impossible to ignore. Since he entered the race back in June, he has garnered more free publicity in the daily news cycle than any other presidential candidate, and the age-old saw that “no publicity is bad publicity” seems to hold true for him. Plus, he has another trait of successful candidates before him: a Teflon exterior in which outrageous statements and positions are easily deflected.
Why is the operative question?
That’s a particularly important question in light of Mr. Trump’s latest outrage when he proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country as a measure to keep Americans safe from terrorists.
As Washington Postreporter Don Balz wrote on Tuesday, “Donald Trump continues to go where no recent candidate for president has gone before, plunging the Republican Party — and the nation — into another round in the tumultuous debate about immigration, national identity, terrorism and the limits of tolerance.
“Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States marked a sudden and sizable escalation — and in this case one that sent shockwaves around the world — in the inflammatory and sometimes demagogic rhetoric of the candidate who continues to lead virtually every national and state poll testing whom Republicans favor for their presidential nomination.
“Nothing in modern politics equates with the kind of rhetoric now coming from Candidate Trump. There are no perfect analogies. One must scroll back decades for echoes, however imperfect, of what he is saying, from the populist and racially based appeals of then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968 and 1972 to the anti-Semitic diatribes of the radio preacher Charles Coughlin during the 1930s.”
“Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University said there are few comparisons, adding that, in branding an entire religious class of people as not welcome, Trump ‘is further out there than almost anyone in the annals of [U.S.] history.’”
To better understand the Trump phenomenon and to understand what his public support says about the American voter, the New York Timesposted on Wednesday several commentaries from political experts who addressed these two questions: How can a man of such extreme views be the leading Republican candidate in the polls? What does Trump’s popularity say about his supporters, and America?
Here are a few highlights from those commentaries:
• Federico Finchelstein, a professor of history and department chair at The New School in New York, and history professor at Columbia University Pablo Piccato noted that Trump’s campaign was built around fascist principles even though that is not how his supporters view him.
“What is remarkable is the formidable support he has generated among Republican voters,” the two wrote. “These followers like his anti-democratic way of playing democratic politics.
“For (Trump’s supporters), he represents anti-politics: their idea is that Trump transcends politics as usual… Trump’s followers believe in his self-presentation as a lonely hero of the people that is fighting the political elite. Their dislike for existing politics fuels their apathy toward Trump’s extremism.”
“…In a context very different to our own,” the two historians continue, “fascists used this sense to provide an authoritarian answer to collective concerns. The true fascist leader did not have to explain his policies: he was a man of action who could do no wrong. He was followed because he was believed to represent what an entire people wanted. Most voters often supported fascists despite their most extreme views because they believed in their talk of order, economic improvement and national uniformity.”
• Adele M. Stan, a columnist for The American Prospect, noted that the “hate-mongering unleashed by Donald Trump may be shocking, but it’s merely a result of the natural evolution of the modern American right that drove the election of Ronald Reagan 35 years ago.”
“That victorious campaign,” she wrote, “was propelled by the specter of a Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) seemingly impotent as 52 American hostages were held by Islamist radicals in Iran, and by animus over the advancement of rights for women and non-white people. Trump rises by demonstrating rage more fiercely, just as Reagan’s politics of resentment pushed aside the more establishment Republicans.
“Today, a black a Democratic president is portrayed as being powerless over terrorism, and looking to squander tax dollars paid by hardworking white people on the needs of immigrants and slackers, a spin on the meme advanced by Reagan of the “welfare queen” who lived high on the public dole.”
• Political strategist Celinda Lake agreed Trump represented a sizable block of Republicans that could determine the GOP primary, but cautioned not to assume that was true across the nation in the general election.
“First, keep in mind that primary turnout is low, but primary voters are intense and name recognition helps,” Lake wrote. “In the early stages of an election, candidates in a large, unknown field are made by news media coverage – this is especially true in the social media world. Trump benefits from being already well-known from television, social media and People Magazine type stories… The Republican vote is so fragmented that Trump’s intense, small base makes him the front-runner.
“Yes, voters are also responding to his “tell it like it is” approach. And they assume that because he’s a businessman he knows the economy and how to create jobs. But Trump’s radical statements have alienated many voters. Today, he has the highest negative ratings of any candidate, 60 percent of likely general election voters do not like him…
“So, while Trump’s popularity says very little about Americans, it says a lot about a small group of people who could help him in the primaries.”
• Finally, Timothy P. Carney, of the Washington Examiner, sums up Trump as “more emotion than candidate. His prescriptions are more reaction than policy…”
“Trump’s shocking statements—on immigrant rapists, disabled reporters, and Muslim immigrants—have only boosted his popularity. Their shocking nature is their virtue. Every pundit and politician who condemns Trump and demands he apologize, thus helps Trump…”
“Similarly, his policy proposals are welcomed as an antidote to the trite falsehoods offered by the political class on tough issues like immigration and terrorism… For working-class Americans, massive low-skilled immigration looks like a threat to their livelihood. Bipartisan elites (whose jobs aren’t threatened) ignore these concerns and instead issue platitudes about a “nation of immigrants,” and “jobs Americans won’t do.” These lines strike millions of Americans as transparently false, creating an opening for Trump’s anti-immigrant talk.
“But Trump’s success in polls should be seen less as a sign of his popularity or the popularity of his ideas, and more as a reflection of the political establishment’s failures and aversion to honest engagement in tough issues.”
There. Feel better with those explanations? Me neither.
Angelo S. Lynn