Donald Trump is turning US politics into a (bad) reality show
Donald Trump may be melodramatic, crude and shameless, but he’s riding high in the polls as he launches his improbable bid for the White House. He has little chance of winning but, before the first TV debate for Republican presidential candidates this week, he’s having a dramatic impact on the race
There are 17 people running for the Republican presidential nomination. Ten of them will meet on 6 August in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first presidential debate of the 2016 election.
But if you’ve been following American politics over the past week, there’s really only one name that matters: Trump. In the six weeks since businessman, casino owner, reality show star and megalomaniac Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president, his name has overshadowed the “Grand Old Party” (Republican) field. Not only is Trump dominating the polls, but his readiness to say anything and attack anyone means TV producers and political journalists can’t get enough of him.
In his now infamous presidential announcement on 16 June, Trump called illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists – a charge that, rather than apologise for, Trump doubled down on. Since then he has called his detractors “dummies”, “losers,” and “zeros”; he mocked John McCain’s six years in a North Vietnamese PoW camp and even gave out South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham’s mobile phone number after Graham attacked him.
If you ever wondered what it would be like if a 12-year-old boy ran for president, Trump has provided you with an answer. He is thin-skinned, melodramatic, petulant, impulsive, loud-mouthed, obnoxious, boastful, crude and shameless and, like many adolescents, he has at best a casual relationship with the truth. He simply makes things up as he goes along, and even when reporters point out that, for example, illegal immigrants are not responsible for a significant amount of crime (a regular Trump talking point) he merely brushes it off or criticises the media for misreporting his words.
Indeed, his entire public persona is completely incongruous. Trump is a populist billionaire, married to a former supermodel, lives in a palatial apartment in New York City and yet is adopting the image of a man of the people who will speak unpleasant truths. In a recent focus group of New Hampshire Republicans who support Trump, one of those present said: “He’s like one of us.”
But in a party that is defined by a mass of resentments, anxieties and frustrations about the larger cultural and social changes occurring in American society, Trump’s message on immigration and his image as an anti-politician is resonating.
Trump is still garnering only about 20%-25% of the GOP vote in polls, but his presence is having an enormous impact on the race for the presidential nomination. Republican candidates were already in a bit of a bind. Since there are so many of them, the organisers of the first debate have decided to limit entry to the 10 candidates who are scoring the highest in public opinion polls. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, neurosurgeon-turned-politician Ben Carson and senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are likely to make the cut. But for New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Ohio governor John Kasich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, moving from 1% to 2.5% in the polls could make the difference between being in or out of the tent.
Beyond this instrumental challenge there is the added challenge of simply getting media coverage in what has become, increasingly, the Summer of Trump. The result has been a race to the bottom. Perry, who became a political punchline after his dismal performance in the 2012 race, took the high road. He launched a rhetorical attack on Trump, calling him “ a cancer on conservatism ”. It’s hard to disagree, but this rings a bit hollow coming from Perry who, four years ago, suggested that Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, was potentially committing treason.
Cruz took the low road. He got into a public spat with the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, even going so far as to call him a liar on the floor of the US Senate. Next he accused Barack Obama of financing terrorism in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran.
That was relatively tame compared with Huckabee. He took the really low road and said Obama’s Iran deal would lead Israel “ to the door of the oven ”. It was a horrendous political attack, made worse by Huckabee’s response to condemnation from both sides of the political aisle – he pushed out a web ad repeating the charge.
Paul took a different approach to attention-getting. He literally took a chainsaw to the tax code. Going one step further, Graham responded to Trump announcing his phone number by making a web video of him bashing his phone with a baseball bat (I guess no one on his staff told him that he could just change the number and keep the phone).
This entire process has turned American politics into perhaps the worst reality show ever. It is also an unfortunate reminder of the state of the modern Republican party. While Republican elites have gone to great lengths to present Trump as somehow outside the political mainstream, his views fit squarely within the frame of modern conservatism – xenophobic nationalism, contempt for traditional politics, fetishisation of “authenticity” and dismissal and contempt of “others” in American society. Indeed, the progressive victories of the past few weeks, on Obamacare, same-sex marriage, the taking down of the Confederate flag as well as the rising influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, have likely only intensified these sentiments and helped drive Trump’s support.
For years Republican politicians railed against Obama, pledged to repeal Obamacare and stop the cultural shift in American society. They have completely failed. So it should perhaps come as little surprise that a healthy segment of the Republican base has simply tuned them out and rallied behind someone who is the opposite of a politician and “doesn’t care what people think”.
Trump’s success in the polls is unlikely to translate to success when votes are cast. There are simply too many Republicans who would never consider voting for him. Beyond that, being good at politics is a skill – one that Trump does not appear to possess. Stirring up some Republican voters and winning their early support is all well and good, but to win the nomination, Trump would need to expand his support, and there’s little indication that he will be able to do that.
The impact on the GOP, however, will endure. With so much attention being paid to Trump, lesser-known candidates such as Rubio, Kasich and Paul will find it that much harder to be heard among the din. Trump may kill each of their candidacies off. That would end up helping Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who though polling in the teens, are clearly in a stronger position than any of the other candidates.
The downside is that Trump’s bloviating risks driving the party even further to the right and further tarnishing the party’s image among non-Republican voters. After all, while the presidential election may still be 15 months away, it’s pretty hard to look at the party today and conclude that it should be granted the awesome power of the US presidency.