Author’s note: I challenge readers to find pieces by non-Trump-supporters that recognized the threat Trump presented to the degree I did when I wrote this in early August 2015…
You may not respect his message, his positions, or the man himself, but you must respect his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 10, 2015
AMMAN — In the ideal America, egocentric and eccentric billionaire and reality-TV personality Donald Trump would never have a realistic chance at getting the nomination of one of America’s two major parties to be its candidate for president of the United States. Many liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, would not dispute this statement.
However, this is not an ideal world, and America is far from an ideal society too. If you don’t understand the very real reasons why Donald Trump has a real chance at being the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, then you don’t understand the Republican Party, American politics, or American society. Below are the main reason why Trump isn’t going away and why he has a real shot at winning the Republican primaries, if not the general election.
1.) The Republican Party Is-A-Changin’
The Republican Party is in a state of open division and flux, and for all you Game of Thrones fans, remember: “Chaos is a ladder” (spoilers for GoT in this link). The whole significance of the Tea Party movement is that it was a bloody, forceful attempt to pry the steering wheel out of the hands of the establishment and the elites who had been in tight control of the party for years. This peaked in some ways with the 2010 midterm elections in which extremist Tea Party candidates (Christine O’Donnell, anyone?) lost some key and very winnable Senate races to vulnerable Democrats but still managed to win many elections and were the major factor in the Republicans taking the House of Representatives from the Democrats. However, Tea Party candidates were thought to have gone too far in the 2012 election, hurting the Republican Party and even Mitt Romney in Obama’s reelection. Much of the conventional wisdom maintains that the Republicans learned their lesson from the 2012 Tea Party-driven electoral disaster, and have since moderated. What has actually happened is that the Republican Party has lurched to the right, with the Republican Establishment coopting the Tea Party style and message (and lack of substance) out of the fear of being “primaried”: incumbents losing in primaries before even having a chance to go toe-to-toe with a Democrat and losing to extremists within their own party who accused them of being too moderate. The party was hardly moderate before, but even now, it still falls short of the extreme rightist platform and style envisioned by true Tea Partiers. So there is still a war going on within the Republican Party; before Trump’s meteoric rise, this was perhaps best exemplified by the clash between freshman Senator (and all-around disingenuous charlatan) Ted Cruz on the one hand, and more moderate republicans like Speaker of the House John Boehner, Representative Peter King, Senator John McCain, and the Republican leadership on the other. Cruz is hardly alone in his extremism, though: the likes of Representatives Louie Gohmert and Steve King are but a few examples.
Into this struggle for the soul of the party strode Donald Trump. Among other things, he is very aggressively taking on the Republican Establishment in a way that electrifies the base, insulting John McCain, feuding with Rupert Murdoch, attacking both George W. and Jeb Bush, and, in addition, he has enough money (“TEN BILLION DOLLARS,” to quote Trump directly) that he is not at all dependent on the establishment for financing or support. Trump also has no experience as part of the Washington, DC, political machine, thus, he can avoid having to check the rather unpopular box of “Washington insider.” So can Jeb Bush, but he has the last name Bush (and will be reluctant to criticize his brother or father) and will be tainted with that label as a result. Other candidates who want to draw the non-Washington insider vote will most certainly be competing with Trump.
2.) Divided They Fall
History is full of weird winners. In particular, it is not difficult at all to find examples of when one faction or person was able to triumph because its numerous opponents could not unite and stop fighting among themselves. Ancient Rome, for example, was eventually brought down by much weaker “barbarian” factions because its intermittent civil wars among different Romans devastated Rome’s strength and left it vulnerable in ways it should never have been. The Egyptian opposition to Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood could not unite in elections during the Arab Spring, and thus paved the way for Morsi’s victory and troubled presidency, which, in turn, paved the way for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s countercoup/counterrevolution and the destruction of a nascent Egyptian democracy. Al Gore lost to George W. Bush because immature liberals in Florida and New Hampshire voted for Ralph Nader—a realistically hopeless liberal alternative to Gore and thus a merely symbolic vote that gave Bush victory in both states—because they viewed voting as a masturbatory act of self-gratification instead of a duty to vote with an eye towards the real world impact of voting and not as act designed to make you most pleased with yourself and your conscience, the real world be damned… I’m sure you can think of other examples easily.
As for the Republican primaries, there are currently seventeen Republican candidates. Though Donald trump is nowhere close to garnering support from a majority of Republicans, he still has a commanding lead over his rivals in the latest round of scientific national polling, and even if a full third of the candidates dropped out tomorrow, that would still leave ten other candidates among whom to divide the non-trump vote. The latest polls have trump with the support of about 25% of Republicans nationally. That means the other 75% of support is currently divided among the other sixteen candidates (if that vote is divided equally, each candidate would have only roughly 4.7% of the vote). Jeb Bush, in second place, barely broke into double-digits, and the other fifteen candidates did not break into double-digits. Trump is doubling (or more) the level of support of the candidate right behind him in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, what are supposed to be the first three contests for the Republican nomination. And in Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor for eight years and Marco Rubio has been a sitting U.S. senator since 2011, Trump is ahead of Bush by 1 % and ahead of Rubio by 20 % as of the latest poll! The first three contests are just six months away or less, and Florida just seven; a lot can change, and a lot must change, for Trump to lose at least the first three contests. But if he manages to stay ahead—and it’s his to lose and the burden is on other candidates to rise up—and wins the first three contests (let alone carry that momentum into Florida and prevail there), it’s very hard to see him losing the nomination.
Normally in the Republican primaries, there is one frontrunner or two candidates duking it out, maybe one dark horse candidate, and everyone else is on the bottom. In this case, there are fifteen candidates currently averaging in single digits. Where normally the few bottom dwellers would drop out and lose campaign cash relative to those on the top, almost all the candidates here are bottom feeders feeding on scarce resources. What this means is that almost all of them are close in both polling status and resources, making the incentive for staying in the race that much higher and the incentive for dropping out that much lower. This, in turn, means that they will likely continue to divide the non-Trump vote among them for months into the primaries, only helping Trump’s chances. The battle for being number #3 (or #4?) , with enough delegates at the convention to dictate things to the eventual nominee, including maybe even forcing the nominee to pick a certain vice presidential nominee, could thus carry a significance that no recent election has shown and bring us back to the old days of backroom wheeling, dealing, and kingmaking of the old-school political conventions. A divided or unpredictable convention, in the world of twenty-first century media, would be a political spectacle like nothing we’ve seen since the Florida debacle in 2000. In such an atmosphere, a man like Trump who seems to thrive on his cantankerous relationship with the media could indeed use the chaos to his advantage and that could very well mean a Trump ascension of the Littlefinger ladder to the Iron Throne of the Republican nomination (if you’re interested, read my take on the political and foreign policy lessons from Game of Thrones).
3.) Republican Primary Voters are a Different Breed
They Republican base voters are in an active revolt against their party’s establishment, and are in a perpetual revolt against the media. Trump picking a fight with Fox News—yes, even Fox News—and debate moderator/Fox News personality Megan Kelly (who did, frankly, in some ways seem hostile and out to get him even if her questions were totally legitimate)—works brilliantly for him in important ways. See, two things members of the Republican base hate are 1.) being told by The Republican Establishment/Elites who to vote for and 2.) being told by The Media Establishment/Elite who to vote for. They way they and Trump see it, both the Republican and Media Establishment (Fox News combines both of these) are out to get Trump, and this is actually true in a number of ways. Mainstream America thinks of Fox News as representing Republicans, and compared to most media, it does in a relative sense. But the base really gets its kicks from media sources like Breitbart and Drudge that have been quite friendly to Trump. They are also even generally older and whiter than the Republican Party in general, a party already known for being older and whiter than the average American, proportionately speaking. This makes them an extreme element in a party that has, as discussed, already become more extreme. In flocking to Trump and his extreme statements, along with Trump the GOP base is giving a big proverbial middle-finger to their own party’s Establishment and to the media in general, who both seemed eager to dismiss him as a farcical sideshow. All this leads directly to the final point…
4.) Trump Knows How to Play the Media to His Advantage Like a Harp
Trump is also brilliant at playing the media here; his provocations ensure he is dominating the news coverage and this is depriving oxygen to other candidates desperate for attention and airtime and who are at risk of suffocation, while at the same time any hostility from the media plays into his narrative that the media is out to get him and is trying to control the election, a narrative that the Republican base is only too eager to believe. That the Republican Establishment’s principal way to go after him is through the media itself is not lost on the base here, either. So in many ways, what others see as mistakes that will “doom” Trump’s campaign are actually nice big plates of red meat for the Republican base, the exact type of people whose support he needs to win primary contests and win the nomination. He is the incarnation of their resentment and they seem eager to support him because of that. And the more these feuds continue, the more that the media, frankly, can’t look away from him because they know covering him will draw viewers and make them lots of money, as the recent debate’s ratings proved (see below). The satirical newspaper The Onion captured the sentiment the best with a faux piece satirically “written” by Trump for parody purposes titled: “Admit It: You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”
I am not here to say that I think Trump will win. I am here to simply say that dismissing him as a sideshow is naïve. Currently, he is the show (not only was the debate featuring Trump the most-watched primary debate ever with some 24 million viewers, it was the most watched program ever broadcast [only] by cable news and easily beat the NBA finals’ and a typical Monday Night Football game’s ratings). Again, as mentioned, someone has to climb up from the pack and beat him. Bush had (see below) been the second highest in the polls, and has raised a lot of money ($100 million+ including his PACs). But he has not been impressive thus far and would need to greatly improve his performance for him to win, and his greatest advantage—his name—is also his biggest curse. Walker had (see below) been third generally, but not even generally above 10 %; he, too, would need to cover a lot of ground to reach first and hardly distinguished himself during the debate even if he did ok. Both Rubio and Fiorina had a good night (the latter only at the kids-table debate where no rivals treated her as a threat or challenged her), but one good night for candidates so low in the polls does not bestow a crown upon either, and they are both quite vulnerable in their own ways (to be discussed in a forthcoming piece). With early signs showing Republican voter support strong and not falling for Trump in multiple unscientific flash polls and in the first scientific poll released since the debate (the latter showing him still nearly doubling the second-place candidate who is now Ted Cruz!), with Bush and Walker falling to be tied now for sixth place, the burden is on one of these problematic candidates or another to make up the gulf in popular support between them and The Donald. Love him or hate him, just don’t be writing Trump off yet.
UPDATED: Another national poll just released today taken wholly after the debate has Trump up to 32 % with a big post-debate boost, almost tripling the support for second-place-Bush who is at 11 %. Ben Carson (!?) has jumped to third place with 9 %, and Walker and Rubio tie for fourth place at 6 % each. In addition, a new Iowa-specific poll has trump increasing his lead, putting him at 19 % to Walker’s and Carson’s tied second-place 12 %, followed by Bush at 11 % and a big boost to Carly Fiorina nipping at Bush’s heels with 10 % and Cruz just behind her at 9 %… As I suggested above, one can almost see Trump as a Roman emperor watching his rivals hack at each other as gladiators in the Colosseum in the sense that he rises above the (polling) fray and the rest take votes away from each other…
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