Donald Trump’s strong lead in the Republican nomination polls, despite his many extravagant statements, has shocked political elites in the United States. Noting that Trump’s focus on personal background and narrative is an extension of the process that catapulted Obama to the presidency , Paul Saunders cautions that they could be making a dangerous mistake if they ignore his populist candidacy .
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Billionaire Donald Trump’s enduring political appeal—despite public statements that could fatally damage other American political candidates—has shocked and puzzled America’s political elites. How can Trump continue to lead the field for the Republican nomination after suggesting that President Barack Obama might not be an American citizen, attacking Mexican immigrants as “really bad” people, and claiming that Senator John McCain is not a war hero because he was captured by North Vietnamese troops ?
On July 20, Trump won 24% support in an ABC/Washington Post poll . Only three days earlier, before his criticism of McCain, Trump led Republicans with 18% to Walker’s 15% and Bush’s 14%. Trump’s support also increased rather than decreased after his disturbing comments about Mexican immigrants.
How could this happen?
First, Trump is already a well-known national figure. Perhaps more important than his prominence as a wealthy businessman and a former presidential candidate is his weekly appearance on television for over a decade as a key figure in the television programs The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice , during which Trump rated the performance of teams competing to run small businesses. With millions of viewers—tens of millions in its earlier seasons—the show gave Trump and his brash personality a national platform.
No one who watched The Apprentice or saw reports about it during news or entertainment shows could really be surprised at Trump’s controversial statements. Indeed, his combative personal style was the main force driving the show’s enduring popularity. Many may also discount his extravagant statements because they know that this is simply the way that Trump talks.
A “Real Person” Candidate
Second, the way that Trump talks is precisely what many find so appealing about him. Unlike most presidential candidates, Donald Trump appears exquisitely authentic when he speaks. Indeed, his offensive statements, personal attacks, and gaffes only serve to make Trump more authentic and therefore more attractive to Americans who are looking for a candidate who seems like a real person. Senator John McCain in particular should recognize this, since the same forces were behind his surge in popularity as the “straight talk” candidate of the 2000 Republican primaries.
Third, some among America’s elites consider it a weakness that Trump has no meaningful political experience and does not seem to have many (if any) well-considered policy positions. This ignores two significant factors: Trump’s forceful expression of frustrated American patriotism and his emphasis on his personal brand. In his rambling presidential campaign announcement , Trump repeatedly voiced anger that “our enemies are getting stronger and stronger . . . and we as a country are getting weaker.” He also argued that politicians cannot fix the problem because “politicians are all talk, no action” and that he, Donald Trump, can win because “this is going to be an election that’s based on competence, because people are tired of these nice people.”
Trump’s candidacy and his focus on his personal background and narrative is a natural extension of the processes that catapulted the junior Senator Barack Obama to the presidency—and enabled Obama to defeat the very formidable Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. And his frustration with the contrast between America’s potential and its actual performance clearly resonates with many voters.
The fact that Trump is a billionaire is what allows him to talk the way that he does. Unlike most if not all of the other candidates, his success or failure to win the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency will not be a core determining factor of his success in his career or life. He has already made it. (Arguably, he has already made it twice, since one of his four corporate bankruptcies also threatened his personal fortune . This gives Trump the freedom to say whatever he wants.
Questions about Governing Ability
Finally, perhaps curiously for a billionaire, Trump has managed to tap into widespread public disillusionment with America’s elites as a populist candidate. In a certain sense, he has come to occupy the political space that Senator Rand Paul tried and failed to capture as an antiestablishment voice. Paul has steadily lost ground in this effort as he has attempted to moderate some of his positions to build wider appeal. Trump, conversely, may not see any need to be moderate (and may not have the ability either). As a populist Republican, he parallels Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, who has captured the imaginations of similarly-disillusioned Democrats (along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is not running).
Trump’s greatest weakness is that performance in national polls months before the 2016 primaries does not reliably predict political success. When voters actually go to the polls, they will have to weigh factors that many do not prioritize in preelection polls that primarily reflect whims of the moment. When it comes to deciding who should be president, Trump’s outsized personality raises real questions about his ability to govern, both in working with Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in dealing with foreign leaders. Reactions to his performance in the first Republican presidential debate on August 6—when he will be alongside other candidates for the first time—will be an early indicator of this.
In practical terms, Trump’s tendency toward personal attacks would guarantee a rough ride with any Congress. Also, while he might be a good negotiator, few are likely to see him as a reliable chief spokesman and international symbol of America. Tested political leaders like Jeb Bush will likely be more attractive by these standards.
Nevertheless, America’s elites are making a dangerous mistake if they ignore Donald Trump.