When Trump first threw his hair into the ring, many pundits and comedians assumed his campaign would be a short-lived (but extremely funny) misadventure in political theater. However, Trump has not only managed to stay in the fight, he seems to be winning. As this is being written Donald Trump enjoys a commanding lead over the other Republican candidates. He is even closing on the Democrats’ presumed nominee, Hilary Clinton.
While the specifics of Trump’s adventures are not particularly philosophical, his success does provide a foundation for a discussion of the state of American politics. To be honest, though, I just want to write about Trump. Like everyone else.
As a general rule, when a serious political candidate engages in gaffes (especially involving race or gender), the result is often a career ending injury. At the very least, the politician’s handlers get him (or her) into damage control: there are walk backs, clarifications, insincere apologies and all the usual spin. Interestingly, Trump has claimed that Mexico is sending criminals and rapist to America (though there are some good people) and that war hero John McCain is not a hero. Trump has an interesting track record of saying awful things about women and created a stir with his remarks about Megyn Kelly. While pundits and comedians expected these sort of things to damage Trump’s standing, they seem to have contributed to his success.
One reason that these remarks might not have harmed Trump is that they are exactly the sort of things people should expect Trump to say—Trump has been a media star for decades and his ways should surprise no one at this point. To use an analogy, if your rabidly socialist cousin Sarah starts ranting about corporations after she has knocked back several glasses of Merlot at Thanksgiving, you would not be surprised at all. That is what Sarah has done and what Sarah will do, at least until the workers’ revolution. If your Wall Street financier cousin Laura started ranting about the evils of money and corporations, then you would be very surprised. So, one lesson from this is that politicians who have established media personalities clearly suffer little from remaining in character. After all, they are doing exactly what they do and if it has not hurt them much yet, it probably will not cause undo damage now.
Trump’s remarks seem to have actually helped him. One possible reason for this is that there is probably a significant number of Americans, especially conservatives, who are tired of politics as usual. While all the insider Republican candidates claim to be opposed to politics as usual, their words do not match their engaging in politics as usual. Trump, in contrast, is not engaging in politics as usual. As noted above, he does not walk back his comments and even his expression of regret is more of a “sorry, not sorry” than an actual apology. Ironically, Trump is delivering on what is but an empty promise from other politicians and they seem rather confused as to why he is doing so well. It seems to have something to do with the fact that he is spiking the ball they set up with their words.
While most Americans are now very uncomfortable about overt racism, there is a significant percentage of the population that is rather worried about the fact that the United States will soon cease to be a majority white nation. While the other Republicans skirt around this concern with talk about border security and immigration, Trump is not afraid to lay out an immigration plan that addresses this directly. His opposition to birthright citizenship, a core component of American values, is a clear statement of this view. While such straight talk is avoided by the other Republicans, in part because they wish to court the Latino and Hispanic votes, Trump is merely pulling away the veil to reveal what seems to be a very real concern of many conservatives. While this might make it harder for him to win in the general election, it seems to be working quite well with many Republicans. There are, after all, many people who say things like “I’m not racist, it is just that Mexicans and blacks are more likely to commit crimes and they are not as capable as whites” and sincerely believe what they say.
While most Americans are also quite uncomfortable with overt sexism, there is clearly a significant percentage of the population that is fine with women having a lower status relative to men. At the very least, they are quite comfortable with casual sexism. A significant number of conservatives are opposed to equal pay for women (on the grounds that while it is fine to impose things like transvaginal ultrasounds and abortion waiting periods on women, it is wrong to impose on employers) and other matters relating to women’s rights. As such, it hardly surprising that Trump is doing well. While the other candidates do endeavor to appear to be pro-life and against compelling businesses to provide pay equity or maternity leave for women, they generally avoid harsh engagements with women. Trump, however, engaged Megyn Kelly head on, thus earning more ire from women. While this did give the one female Republican candidate a boost, it also seems to have helped Trump. After all, he is open in his views of women and this sort of sincerity is no doubt quite appealing to conservatives who wish they had the Trumps to say the same things. These are the sort of folks who say things like “I’m not a sexist, but women are just not as capable as men and paying them the same as men for the same work would violate the freedom of employers. But I’m sort of fine with transvaginal ultrasounds. And yes, Viagra should be covered by insurance, but not birth control.”
One thing that really strikes me about Trump is that he has shown that he is clearly willing to fight with certain parts of Fox News. This has, as might be imagined, surprised many of the pundits. After all, Fox News has long enjoyed its position as one of the masters of the Republican Party and it would seem insane for a Republican to spat with Fox. That was, after all, Jon Stewart’s job. Accusing the “lame stream” media of bias and asking “gotcha questions” has been the job of Republicans and the conservative media.
One reason Trump can go after parts of Fox is that he is a media star in his own right—the networks simply cannot not cover his Trumpings. Other candidates have to maintain good relations with Fox and at least be somewhat tolerable to the other major media channels.
Another reason Trump can engage in fights with the media, including some parts of Fox, is that he is exploiting a narrative created by conservatives and, rather ironically, the right-leaning media (such as Fox). Fox, Republican politicians and folks like Rush Limbaugh have railed against the media for being a filter, for being biased, and for having an agenda. They crafted a narrative of being against the “lame steam” media, but these attacks seem to have had the effect of generating the potential for hostility against all media. So, Trump is able to make the claim that he is being mistreated by the media and being subject to unfair questions. The irony is that he is using the conservative and Fox narrative about the media against Fox News.
Since Fox and the others crafted a fine sword calculated to cut the media, it should not be surprising that Trump has taken up this blade and turned it against those who hoped to use him as a viewership generator. Unless, of course, this is all part of a plan: a manufactured battle to generate even more viewership.
Given all these factors, it should not be surprising that Trump is doing well. Despite this, most serious pundits claim that Trump will not be the Republican candidate. And, they say, even if he were he could still not win the general election.
While Trump could blow up, implode or get tired of the game, he could also maintain his success and take the nomination. He could even win the presidential election. Here is how it might go down.
First, voter turnout in the United States is low—most potential voters do not vote. Many of these voters would probably vote Democrat while many of the folks who reliably vote tend to be more conservative. The Republicans have also been busy making it harder for those likely to support Democrats to vote. This is done under the guise of fighting the all but non-existent voter fraud. While the impact of these laws will probably be less than liberals fear, they will still have an impact—far more than the mostly make-believe voter fraud that Republicans profess to fear (as they deny vast amounts of evidence for climate change).
Second, there is the Hillary Factor. While Hillary Clinton is popular with many Democrats and independents, this popularity has been eroded—in part due to the issue of the private email server. Clinton’s supporters will certainly lack the fire of Obama’s supporters—though a more charismatic and likeable female candidate could probably fire up supporters to a degree on par with how Obama motivated people in 2008. But, while Hillary is a woman, she seems to be just another politician who happens to wear pantsuits rather than pants.
The growing popularity of Bernie Sanders might require Hillary to go left to win the primaries or even have him as her vice presidential candidate. Since Bernie is an avowed socialist and most actual voters are moderates, this could push people who would otherwise vote for the Democrat to vote for Trump or not vote (which would help Trump). While many Republicans would probably admit in private that Hillary Clinton would be a much better president than Trump, the majority of them would vote for Trump over Hillary—and certainly over Bernie Sanders. As such, a combination of voter apathy and a dislike of Clinton could make Trump the next President of the United States. So, America, prepare for some Quality.