Friday, March 25, 2016

The 'Mystery' of Donald Trump

caricature by DonkeyHotey
I hate to add - in any small way - to the pile of media coverage Donald Trump is receiving. However, since I have many friends who are Democrats and/or liberal, I've heard and read a lot of stunned shock over Trump's success in the Republican primary. Most recently, in response to his latest low-level stunt, a friend of mine posted several questions on Facebook:

"What is wrong with Trump? Is he two years old? Someone please explain how he is supported when he acts immature, unprofessional, and unpresidential. I just don't understand."

My friend's reaction is pretty representative of what Donald Trump has inspired from national news media and political wonks. There seems to be a general sense of "how can this be happening?" However, Trump's appeal and success are not at all mysterious. Nor is it difficult to understand or explain. In fact, I would argue that the only mystery about him is that the political machine - in this case, the GOP - did not see something like Trump coming a long time ago.

Trump's appeal is due precisely to all the things my friend cited about him in her questions. He is unprofessional. He is not presidential. He is immature. Further, he is undignified, uninterested in thoughtful discussion of key issues, proudly dismissive of facts that contradict his emotional outbursts, and more interested in appearing strong than in being just. He will do or say whatever pops into his head and not worry about the consequences. To cap it off, even though he is running as a Republican, he is clearly not one. Nor is he a Democrat. His party and his cause are his 'brand' (i.e., himself), and he is cynically using the political process to attain those ends.

cartoon by Jeff Parker
In other words, Trump is doing everything that is suicide for a mainstream political candidate. What the mystified masses seem to forget is that there are a lot of Americans who are utterly tired of and disillusioned by mainstream political candidates. By not being one - and actually spitting in their faces - Trump is tapping into a powerful reservoir of frustration Americans have with their political system. And it's paying off immensely. There's no mystery in any of this.

It's common knowledge that many Americans have lost faith in mainstream politicians and, to an extent, traditional leaders and experts. This is because, as America shifts to a different role in a rapidly changing world, many Americans interpret the shift as a sign that our country is losing its influence and power. This loss of power is seen as leading to reduced global security, a weak economy, and insufficient job opportunities. In response to these problems, many Americans see President Obama, Congress, and mainstream political powers as incapable of (or just not interested in) doing anything to fix it.

Trump is appealing in this context because he is the only fully non-mainstream choice for Republicans. It's him or the feckless mainstream machine that has failed to authoritatively address the problems many people care about. In short, Trump has presented these disillusioned voters with an alternative, something they have desperately wanted for a very long time. The fact that they have it now is why Jeb Bush was a non-starter, Rubio spluttered out, and Kasich hasn't ignited. Trump's existence relegates them all to a trash heap labelled 'More Of The Same'. Their every calculated speech and condemnatory comment glaringly reinforce Trump's 'otherness'. It also reinforces that these candidates are just part of the same machine disillusioned voters blame for sending the US on a dizzy stumble towards a cliff.

As a result, the more obnoxious Trump is and the louder the mainstream gasps in horror at him, the more his followers cling to him. Were Donald Trump ever to speak in a reasonably intelligent manner, address issues thoughtfully, or gain mainstream acceptance it's probable that many of his followers would dismiss him as a 'sell-out' and his support would evaporate. He probably couldn't change course now even if he wanted to.

Notably, Trump is not the first recent candidate to thrive on being an outsider. He's just the most extreme version. Sarah Palin cashed in on this dynamic during her run with John 'what-the-hell-was-he-thinking' McCain. In a sense, it is also part of the reason Obama was able to upset Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and why Sanders is able to challenge her in 2016. Now I'm not saying Obama, Sanders, and Trump are the same kinds of candidates. However, all three were not/are not traditional Presidential candidates. Each, in his own way, flouted conventional rules about what a candidate for President can be or should be. For example, Sanders has spectacularly dared to use the 'S' word (Socialism) to describe his platform. This would have been political suicide in the past. However, in today's landscape where voters want alternatives, such deviations are a badge of authenticity that draws votes and makes traditional opponents (in this case Clinton) look stale and unappealing.

One very positive thing about Sanders - as an alternative candidate - is that he proves such candidates can kick over the applecart of political complacency without resorting to racism, sexism, un-Presidential behavior, and stoking fear. Whether you agree with Sanders' views or not, one has to admit that he certainly has married a unique point of view to a serious campaign (as opposed to the slimy reality TV show that is Trump's campaign). His refusal to trash talk is an example. In fact, I'm sure that if there was a Republican alternative candidate using Sanders' approach, that they would have supplanted and crushed 'the Donald' early in the Republican primary.

The danger in American politics is not that nuts like Donald Trump run for President. The danger arises if the mainstream political parties in the United States become so rigid that they are incapable of producing alternative candidates that also make good choices for President. If Republicans fail to deliver such candidates in 2020, then such candidates will be forced on them the same way Donald Trump was. The difference will be that the nuts in 2020 will have the benefit of the Trump candidacy as a playbook. That means that they will be much crazier than Trump, much worse for America than Trump, and - barring reasonable alternatives for frustrated American voters to rally around - much harder to beat than Trump.

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