Deciphering Donald Trump

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Deciphering Donald Trump


The most important indicators still suggest that Jeb Bush will face Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race in the United States. Polls at this stage are not always accurate, but endorsements, money and prediction markets all point in that direction.

However, the start of the presidential race has generated an important surprise: the meteoric rise of real estate mogul Donald Trump. Although Trump will almost certainly fade, his ascent reflects badly on the current state of American democracy.

Trump’s notoriety comes from a combination of money, glamor and media exposure. In a television show called “The Apprentice,” he hires, tests and then dismisses aspiring entrepreneurs with a curt “you’re fired”.

Before entering the presidential race, he provided support for fringe groups called “birthers” claiming that Obama was not born in the United States and was thus not eligible for the presidency. His initial political popularity came from strong language on illegal immigration, claiming that Mexico was sending the U.S. “murderers and rapists.” But the sources of support do not rest on particular policy positions, which have shifted back and forth over the years and are surprisingly incoherent. His popularity comes, rather, from his willingness to pillory politicians in blunt and colorful terms. He is the quintessential anti-Washington candidate.

Calling elected officials “stupid,” he has exploited the deep distrust in government that has become a dispiriting feature of the Obama years. He has even boasted of buying politicians himself, claiming he would be immune from such temptations in office because of his money. His cynicism is stunning.

His views on foreign policy reduce to claims about his toughness and ability to negotiate. He would crush the Islamic State in no time. Citing his business acumen, he claims he would strike much better deals, with Iran and China, on trade, and over immigration. Yet when pushed, it is clear he has nothing specific to say on foreign policy, and is largely gaining through his appeals to Nativism.

Presidential primaries in the United States are often called the “silly season.” Candidates with little chance at winning the nomination appeal to devoted - and disenchanted - constituencies before fading from view. In the Republican field we have niche candidates appealing to religious social conservatives (Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee), libertarians (Rand Paul) and governors claiming to be tough on teachers (Chris Christie) and public sector workers (Scott Walker).

But Trump has created genuine nervousness in mainstream Republican circles. His comments about Mexicans have raised concerns about the ability of the Republicans to make inroads with the growing Latino electorate. He has made disparaging comments about women, another major vulnerability for the Republican Party as women have voted more
and more Democratic in presidential
contests.

The failure of the Republicans to take on Trump carries serious risks. Jeb Bush is trying to separate himself from the rest of the pack by running what is called a “general election” strategy in the primaries. Rather than catering to the party’s right wing, Bush is trying to lay out a broader and more appealing message, including on difficult issues such as education and immigration.

But despite his tremendous advantage in money - his political action committees have raised over $100 million to date - his more moderate positions do not resonate with the party’s increasingly conservative base. Part of the problem is lack of charisma; his performances have been dull and lifeless and he has stumbled on a number of simple questions such as the wisdom of invading Iraq. But part of the problem is that as Republicans on the right scramble to distinguish themselves from Trump, they appear to be adopting more and more extreme views.

Trump will ultimately crash and burn; his candidacy cannot sustain serious scrutiny. But in the meantime, he is making a laughing stock of American politics.

Sadly, the Republicans have themselves to blame: His surprising support appears to come in large part from those alienated by the right-wing politics of resentment and the increasing conflation of politics with entertainment.

Hopefully the Republicans will ultimately choose a candidate that will return to civil discourse and serious policy
alternatives. But we are not there at the moment.


*The author is a Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of the University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard

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