As the gravity-defying phenomenon of Donald J Trump’s apparent early support continues to mystify and captivate analysts and supporters, J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to take a measure of what it may mean.

Donald Trump seems to have captured the pre-pre-election news cycle in a way that is uniquely a creature of our time. Rich as Croesus, totally without verbal inhibitions, an equal opportunity political Don Rickles, a man with 103% name recognition globally, star of a reality television show that obsesses over his outrageously narcissistic personality, Trump rides high in the early polling. He is cock-of-the-walk, king-of-the-hill, and master-of-all-that-he-surveys. He has become a BrobdingnagianRepublican Party hopeful, striding among and scattering fifteen other apparently Lilliputian candidates.

What in the heck is going on here? Where did the presidential party of Abraham Lincoln/Theodore Roosevelt/Ike Eisenhower/Ronald Reagan, the internationalist party of people like Nelson Rockefeller/Edward Brooke/Clifford Case/Charles Percy – and even George W Bush – go? Will they ever come back out and play nicely?

Trump, of course, as pretty much everybody must know by now, is a man who built a fortune (or rather several of them sequentially) from the development of a series of brutal, overbearing, nouveau riche, increasingly gauche office towers, casinos and over-the-top apartment buildings. And then, when the business cycle turned on him, ducking out of his misfortunes and bad timing via corporate bankruptcy escape hatches, thereby leaving thousands without jobs and investors without returns for their trust in him. Trump, naturally, has explained all of this by lauding the bankruptcy laws and offering homilies on the idea that this is the very thing that made America great – and presumably would help him in restoring the country to the greatness he believes has been lost.

The Donald has made his foray into high stakes politics this time around by purveying a mix of ideas, proposals, New York City-style street sass and swagger, and just plain ill humour and bad taste that has all, somehow, put him on top – at least for the moment. On the one hand, he has gone to great lengths to condemn government figures as – at best – stupid, naïve and foolish and as the kind of people who simply don’t have the smarts to broker a decent deal internationally, unlike a certain Donald Trump who will fearlessly and ruthlessly wheel and deal among the world’s problems, based on his real estate smarts and experiences.

To his supporters, The Donald has been reaching out to those convinced the whole economy thing is a cynical Three Card Monte game played by Wall Street schlemiels and shysters to win, but to the detriment of all the rest of us. In making his case, he says that he, Donald Trump, because he is a perfect example of an apex predator of the species, is uniquely able to tame the breed for the benefit of the rest of us. He knows what lurks in their hearts, and knows their moves before they do.

Meanwhile, to those who fear the competition of a rising world and see the loss of jobs and business to new national players as a symbol of a country in dire collapse, his solutions become simplicity in themselves – “Donald the Dangerous” will go toe-to-toe with the empire of “Ming the Merciless”, er China. In so doing, he will beat them at their own game in trade by his sheer force of personality.

Meanwhile, if Trump has his way, he will cause to come into being a enormous, fortified wall, standing between Mexico on the one hand and California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas on the other, in order to keep out all those lesser breeds from stealing American jobs, or raping, pillaging and murdering Americans on their way to illegal employment as sanitation workers and hotel chambermaids. This will be what has to be – at least until all those illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens can be rounded up and then driven back over the border through a one-way turnstile built into that tremendous wall.

Facts aren’t particularly important in a presidential campaign like Donald Trump’s. Consider, for example, his charge that the country now has 93 million people out of work (presumably that doesn’t include those under the age of 16 or over 65) – close to 30% of the country’s total population. Everyone else is stupid, in Trump’s lexicon. As a result, politics is not “the art of the possible,” but, rather, it has become the art of the deal where the other guy is crushed into dust and The Donald takes a victory lap. End. Finis.

Actually, at its heart, this year’s Trump phenomenon is not an especially new one in American politics – or the rest of the world, for that matter. It is based on the sense that the usual run of politicians just doesn’t worry about the things that really bother normal folks. Historically, this periodically gives rise to an anti-establishment candidate who promises, either, to end invasions by illiterate, immigrant hordes, to scourge those evil money changers from the governmental temple, or to rip all the scabs of those lies off of the country’s political rhetoric and the workings of shadowy influence peddlers. To hear this kind of rhetoric in full flower, for example, watch this jaw-dropping interview of The Donald by former Alaska Governor and former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin:

This kind of thing goes way back, of course, well before Donald Trump. He’s not the first; he’ll probably not be the last. The first on the national political scene was the then former president, Millard Fillmore, who in 1856 ran as presidential candidate for the anti-Catholic, anti-Masonic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party. Two generations later, in a variation of this fury, this time against the rich, came in the form of Nebraska firebrand politician William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran three times as the Democratic nominee, pledging an end to the nation’s dependence on the usual gold-backed currency. Instead he supported use of the more abundant silver coinage as backing for the currency – a version of inflationary monetary policies that would, presumably, have favoured farmers and workers (the indebted) over rich investors and industrialists.

After World War II, first became the turn of former Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace who touted seriously redistributionist economic policies and a warm embrace of the Soviet Union – right at the beginning of the Cold War. Then it was Alabama Governor George Wallace, in the late 1960s with his cry, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” who sought to hold off the civil rights revolution by insisting such policies were part of a dangerous alliance between the North, the communists and credulous, gullible African Americans. And until Mr Trump came to town, the most recent version was businessman Ross Perot who wanted to bring his business methods to run things in Washington, after tossing out all those corrupt, venal politicians who had taken root there.

While the specifics of their policies were obviously different, what was common throughout this litany of would-be rebels was the feeling that in such candidates, the disaffected had finally found a champion to deal with their senses of grievance, their feelings they had been locked out of the wheeling and dealing, and that, simultaneously, their new champion had the laser-like insights into what was making things go sour and could cut through all the knots. In popular culture terms, he would be like the avenging Mr Smith of the eponymously named film who set off for Washington, that known cesspool of depravity, and who could make things right, finally, for once, for the little guy.

The irony in this case, as with Donald Trump, is that he, largely, could be described as the epitome of some of the very things his supporters claim to despise. Hate and fear Wall Street? Trump’s not exactly a babe in the woods there. Worried about politicians being duplicitous? The Donald has been known to let loose with a string of just plain made up facts, factoids, ad hominemjudgements, and random insults sprayed around, omni-directionally against anyone who opposes him. Fear or distrust the media? Well Trump has already tangled with a reporter Jorge Ramos from the Spanish-language network Univision, throwing him out of a press conference, then letting him back in as if nothing untoward had actually happened; he acted like a cry-baby when he was asked some actual, tough questions from the queen bee of the right-wing, conservative Fox News TV, Megyn Kelly; and, then, most recently, crying “foul” when, after answering that The Bible was his best-loved book (beyond his own Trump-ian writings), refused to point to a particular part of the Bible he liked best, claiming that such a thing should be an intensely private choice.

His behaviours, seemingly, are designed to buttress the unusual case that actual intellectual consistency, a depth of real understanding of the difficulties of public policy, and fully thought-through, responsible and responsive answers are a job for others. Instead, The Donald is simply impervious to that boring stuff. Rather, in a rather opportunistic approach, he can strategically place himself as champion of everyone who feels disaffected – even if the roots of their respective disaffections are mutually incompatible.

However, in many ways, what has happened so far really may not matter all that much. Yet, that is. America is still in the final lazy days of the end of summer vacations, Labour Day still beckons, most children are not back to school yet and many families are taking one last moment for their summer vacations. The Donald’s seeming triumphal position in the early polls may therefore obscure more than it reveals. Nevertheless, now riding high, he has taken the ultimate step of believing his own tweets, media releases and off-the-cuff statements in his speeches, on-air performances and campaign ads. (The next Republican candidates debate, after the autumn schedules begin, on CNN on 16 September, may offer some further insights in all this and whether he is tripped up by questions from other candidates or elsewhere.)

And ever since Trump has risen to the top of those early polls, giving him ever more oxygen to argue that there is a popular demand for a Trump presidency, Republican strategists – and pretty much everybody else – are wondering if the polling numbers, so far, for the real estate developer turned presidential wannabe are actually overestimating his support. There is, in fact, some evidence to support that theory.

Civis Analytics’ data (full disclosure: Civis is a Democratic Party-oriented data firm founded by the 2012 Obama campaign’s analytics director) has shown Trump is faring less well among the Republican Party faithful than many other polls. In fact, per Civis’ data, Trump has been doing the best among voters who do not usually participate in primary elections, although he is still leading with more frequent voters.

Herewith, a very short course in survey techniques. Most news organization and university research institute-sponsored polls select and interview adults by randomly calling telephone numbers. The assumption is that virtually everyone has a phone in the US. With the data harvested, they tweak responses to marry it up with the actual demographics of the country’s adult population, after deleting people who say they aren’t registered to vote.

There is no real argument that such methodologies work in terms of statistical theory, but are some questions when they are applied to election polling. For example, the actual adult population is not necessarily a perfect reflection of the voting electorate – something that is especially the case with primary voting since most people do not vote in these primaries. Moreover, some people not registered tend to say they are, regardless, and that can throw things off further.

These factors become more salient if the attitudes and views of nonvoting adults are divergent from primary voters. While this is not usually a big difference, some analysts argue Trump’s very celebrity may be generating an advantage for him among those voters who infrequently participate in primaries and who might not pay much attention to political news. In fact, for many candidates, their polling has increasingly moved to sampling opinions from voter registration files, information that also contains information regarding a person’s voting history, although not how they voted.

And so, if Trump has garnered an advantage among infrequent voters, using the voter registration data such as Civis is doing would help reveal the differences. In fact, Civis results showed Trump with some 16% of the vote and with 22% saying they were undecided – numbers rather different than other data. Apportioning that undecided quotient across candidates would lead to Trump gaining a 21% share, rather than the more usually reported 26%. Of course the big undecided share might well mean people leaning towards Trump. As other choices fall away on the right, he might well be the beneficiary of such support. Still, the numbers remain, at this very early date, rather squidgy, and Civis data also seems to point to better performance for Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Chris Christie among infrequent voters while Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are now doing better among regular primary voters than irregular voters.

Parsing Civis’ results by voting history, according to a New York Times report on this data helps illustrate that “Trump’s support was lowest among the most frequent voters. Mr. Trump had 15 percent support among voters who had participated in a primary since 2008, but he had 22 percent of the vote among Republicans who did not vote in the 2012 general election. Mr. Trump’s seven-point gap was rivaled by Mr. Bush at five, and Chris Christie at four. Mr. Christie had virtually no support — at 1 percent of the vote — among voters who had voted in a primary since 2008.”

The Trump advantage among the GOP race still seems real at this early date – the first primaries and caucuses, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa are not until early 2016, after all. Some analysts argue the big Trump crowds and other presumed indications of support for his message – whatever it really is – may be more a function of his celebrity from media coverage, from his television show, and just his outsized persona, than from any specific policy ideas.

Moreover, the GOP nomination field remains splintered among some sixteen names. As some of those drop out once it becomes clear their numbers are not budging from the bottom of the heap and campaign funds dry up, the voter choices will narrow down and the discussions over ideas and differences will inevitably become sharper.

In that environment, Trump will find himself scrapping with the likes of Senator Ted Cruz, former governor Mick Huckabee and Governor Scott Walker (unless they are already out of the race) for the thoroughly disaffected tea party-style voters. Meanwhile, Trump will eventually be forced to debate the actual policy space with more moderate, more experienced candidates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich – or whoever still remains as a candidate from that general wing of the party.

Leon Wolf, writing on the Red State blog, trying to come to grips with this Trump-ian phenomenon, finally concluded in some exasperation, “Watching Donald Trump speak and answer questions, though, is like watching a billion targets appear in the sky all at once, for a political opponent. Each thing he says is so bizarre, or ill informed, or demonstrably false, or un presidential in tone or character, that it becomes impossible to know which target to lock on to or focus on. And to the extent that he makes a policy statement, it is so hopelessly vague and ludicrous that it’s impossible to know where to begin, at least within the context of the 30-second sound bite that the modern political consumer requires (and chances are, he will say something diametrically opposed to it before the press conference is over anyway). Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things – yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.”

So far, at least, the phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s presence in the beginnings of the Republican race for the nomination should have been a godsend to the Democrats. They should have been able to watch the ugly mud wrestling over whether a new immigration policy hinges on Latin American or Asian “anchor babies”. That is the presumed phenomenon wherein waves of pregnant temporary visitors arrive in the US, essentially to give birth on US soil and thus have a child who qualifies for automatic citizenship in accordance with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. (That provision came into force in 1865 to prevent newly freed slaves from being denied legal citizenship by the formerly rebellious states. This anchor baby concept implies the rest of the family has positioned itself to apply for legal immigration as direct family relations of the American citizen baby, hence the term, anchor baby.)

But, of course, Democrats are themselves increasingly mesmerised by the way Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to be destroying her own lead with ill-occasioned explanations of things like her private email server while serving as secretary of state; how the seemingly unlikely candidacy of Vermont Independent (socialist) Senator Bernie Sanders has been gaining strength from his own anti-elite message (a kind of mirror image of the Trump pitch); and even the possibility Vice President Joe Biden might join the presidential race after all, in an effort to hold the White House for Democrats in 2016, given his long-time labour union and other key party interest group support. Meanwhile, at least, the rather eerie spectacle that is Donald Trump continues to float overhead like a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon – and it remains hard to discern if that helium balloon is meant to be an image of Moses the deliverer or if, in reality, it is actually that of Donald Duck instead.

  • Daily Maverick


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