Both liberal and conservative pundits are baffled by the resilience shown in Donald Trump’s popularity despite his outrageous statements that would have sunk any other presidential candidate. A recent CBS/NYTimes poll shows Trump with 35% popularity, more than twice as high as the next most popular opponent, Ted Cruz, with 16%. Trump has for the most part maintained this massive lead over opposing candidates since he entered the Republican presidential nomination race more than six months ago.
During this time, Trump has proposed shipping all illegal Mexicans back to Mexico, all 11 million of them, building the Great Wall of China along the Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it, sending back all Syrian refugees because some could be terrorists, and temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country until we figure out a way to separate the terrorists from the good Muslims.
In his latest salvo at the CNN debate of GOP Presidential hopefuls on Dec 15, to the disbelief of Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, he repeated his call to kill family members of Islamic terrorists. None of these ideas, which seem to range from morally repugnant to impossible to the absurd, seem to have dampened his popularity.
Why is that?
It’s certainly not due to the lack of media coverage explaining why these ideas are either immoral, impractical, illegal, unconstitutional or plain stupid. These criticisms seem to inspire even more loyalty among supporters. To them, attacking his ideas seems to be nothing more than an attempt by the media to bring down Trump.
Frustrated by their inability to influence Trump’s followers, some political commentators have decided to attack those supporting Trump. Trump supporters are labeled as fearful and angry. (Not a problem for Trump. He thinks they have every right to be.) These weaknesses make them susceptible to his demagogic entreaties. The social equation is quite simple. Trump is xenophobic and racist and if you support him so are you.
It is hard to believe that the millions who support Trump are all xenophobic and racist. Some yes, but to assume it is the majority would be a terrible mistake. It simply sets up a destructive labeling game where all Syrian refugees are potential terrorists, all Mexicans are potential rapists, and all Trump supporters are potential racists.
Granted, many Americans are afraid and angry, but despite the overheated Republican rhetoric and media overreaction, their choice of Trump has little to do with impoverished Mexicans or Syrian war refugees.
Even before the first Fox debate on August 6, 2015, polls showed Trump’s popularity among Republican voters dominated the field of GOP presidential candidates. His proposal to deport 11 million Mexican illegal’s came much later, in November. The anti Muslim comments came in December after the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Neither of the comments could have contributed to his earlier popularity. And to the consternation of many, neither seems to have detracted from his current popularity. He is still the front-runner. Whatever reasons people have for supporting Trump, they seem to run much deeper than merely responding to his extreme comments.
If it is fear and anger, which both Donald Trump and his critics agree exists, it must come from the accumulation of political disappointment and economic pain America has endured in recent years, not just the response to a recent television debate or national incident.
It’s remarkable how easily those who analyze today’s news forget the past.
Have they forgotten the impotence of Congress in recent years where ideological infighting became more important than serving the needs of the public that elected them, where the Republican platform was to torpedo every legislative effort by the Democrats rather than cooperate, and where the influx of big-money from wealthy donors and lobbyists continues to undermine democracy and the election process?
It’s estimated that during the 2012 presidential cycle, over $7 billion was spent at the state and federal levels. Gallup polls over the past decade show public trust in Congress fell to historical lows — only 7% of Americans in 2014 said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress compared to 30% in 2004. An NBC News/WSJ poll in 2013 found that 60% of voters, if they had the chance, would defeat and replace every member of Congress, including their own representative.
To be perceived as an outsider to this shameful, money-driven environment can only be a plus for Trump.
But it wasn’t just the political system that malfunctioned. In 2008, Wall St. banks had a meltdown. In the Great Recession that followed, millions of Americans lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost much of their retirement pensions, and along the way, lost a great deal of trust in capitalism. These painful, life-changing losses were very real, not transient blips in polling data. The legacy of fear and anger precipitated by these events left an indelible mark on the American psyche.
Trust in banks (and by association Wall St.) hit new lows. Gallup polls show that confidence in banks that historically trends in the 40%-50% range plummeted to the low 20s. Even today people can’t figure out why the crooks, i.e. the banks that caused the problem in the first place, were bailed out by the government while the victims i.e., underwater homeowners, were not. Perhaps that explains why the only institution rated lower than banks was (surprise, surprise) Congress.
As if the failures in our political and economic spheres weren’t enough, news media that Americans trusted to provide them with an objective accounting of the facts, failed to deliver as well. News reporting became highly politicized. Many in the news business simply gave up any pretense of abiding by any journalistic standards. Reporters became political propagandists. Fox News was the Republican mouthpiece; MSNBC was the same for the Democrats. Corporate concentration of news outlets made journalistic diversity and objectivity an endangered species.
Not surprisingly, America’s trust in news media has taken a big hit. Pew Research found that between 1985 and 2011, the number who say new stories are often inaccurate rose from 34% to 66%; the number who believe news organizations tend to favor one side rose from 53% to 77%; and those who say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations rose from 53% to 80%. One positive reported by Pew is that despite these criticisms, Americans trust news media more than they do their government or business.
The lack of trust of news media works very much in Trump’s favor. The mountain of stories from both the left and the right that attack him on a variety of fronts (he’s not a real conservative, he’s a fascist, a self-promoter, demagogue, racist …) in large part falls on deaf ears among those who choose to support him. It’s a bit ironic that a Republican Party history of attacking and undermining news media has come back to bite it.
But if this broad-based institutional mistrust is the real cause of the public’s fear and anger, why choose Trump? Why not Ben Carson?
Of all the candidates, Trump was the only one to directly address the issue of financial corruption of the democratic election process. This was in the first debate where Fox reporter Meagan Kelly accused Trump of being a misogynist with a temperament unfit for presidential office.
It was a mea culpa. He admitted he played the game. He donated money to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Why? So when he called they would return his phone calls, as Trump euphemistically put it. He admitted buying political favor was a corrupt practice, damaging to democracy. He promised that as a presidential candidate he would not sell out to campaign contributors. He would pay his own way. And he could afford to do so because he was a billionaire. If elected president he would serve the interests of all Americans, not the interests of campaign donors.
Well, in America that’s about as good as you can get. He admitted he was a sinner, he repented and he was born again. Nobody loves repentant sinners more than America, the country of second chances.
And that was Trump’s contract with America. I’ll make America great again because I won’t be in any man’s pocket. After years of disappointment with politicians promising to help the voters but only helping themselves and their donors, this was music to Republican voter ears.
Will Trump stick to his contract with America if he wins?
That’s hard to say. It’s a long, hard road from promise to reality. He first has to win the Republican nomination and then beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. That’s not easy if the Republican establishment hates you (the Fox News ‘are you fit to be the President’ ambush) and of all the candidates, you have the largest disapproval (anyone but Trump) ratings. Also, history tells us strange things happen to candidates after they get elected. Many end up doing precisely what they were attacking as candidates. There are reasons why Americans hold politicians in such low esteem.
More to the point, is America willing to take the risk of an unproven candidate who makes speeches without teleprompters, whose Middle East policy is “bomb the shit out of (ISIS)”, and who knows the art of the deal (which is winning) but is unfamiliar with the art of politics (which is compromise)? And if it does, what would his political triumph tell us about the state of democracy in America beyond that you need to be a billionaire to succeed as an anti-establishment candidate?
A final note. Since that first Republican debate on Fox News, not one of Trump’s competitors has risen to Trump’s challenge. They either can’t afford to self-finance, or find nothing wrong in the current system of corporate financing of elections. So unless he self-destructs before then (very possible if you never use a teleprompter), Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election