By Yigit Topcu
The presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump has so far, as analysts like to put it, “defied the laws of political gravity”. This is a candidate who labeled Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists (immediately after announcing his candidacy no less), and soon followed it up with an attack on John McCain’s POW status during the Vietnam War. Conventional wisdom used by political pundits, commentators and analysts alike would have told you that the Trump campaign is doomed to fail.
Yet here we are, rapidly approaching the first primaries, and Mr.Trump continues to lead the field after months of making more outlandish statements, earning himself more critics, more enemies, but most importantly, more supporters.
The Republican Party’s more mainstream leaders have all been quick to denounce Trump on his rhetoric. According to Rick Perry, “Donald Trump does not represent the Republican Party”. Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s most vocal critics in the race, has repeatedly accused Trump of not being a serious candidate. Lindsey Graham called him a “complete idiot” and said that telling him to “go to hell” was the way to actually make America great again, mocking his campaign slogan.
Yet interestingly, these three are among the people doing the worse in the race: two of them, Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham, have even suspended their campaigns.
Clearly Donald Trump is riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has built up within the GOP, but what is causing it? A recent POLITICO article interviewing past and present White House aides points to a general belief within the Obama administration that it is the Republican Party itself that has set the stage for Trump’s success.
According to them, the angry rhetoric and the legislative obstruction that the GOP utilized, which helped them win both the House and the Senate, is the same kind of politics that the Trump campaign is now thriving on.
This implies that right-wing populism like that of the tea party has manifested itself in 2016 with a candidate like Trump. The fact that Texas senator Ted Cruz, a prominent leader within the Tea Party, is currently polling in second place behind Trump seems to support this theory. Cruz has frequently attacked his fellow Republican politicians, which has strained his relationship with much of the Republican Party, particularly with establishment figures such as Mitch McConnell and John McCain.
Cruz in many ways is the politician alternative to Trump, appealing to the same segment of the Republican base. Until Thursday’s debate, which saw the two clash face-to-face for the first time, Cruz had carefully maintained his relations with the front-runner by not denouncing or criticizing him on his most outrageous statements, unlike everyone else, and occasionally praise him when it is “safe” to do so.
Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, the previous front-runners who are now fading in popularity, were also notably liked by the Republican base due to their past of never having served in government and not being a politician. Who would have thought that having actual experience in government would be such a burden when running for the highest office in the land?
So, did the Republican Party really create this populist monster they now fear? In some very important ways, yes, but there is more to it. It is true that the Republican Party has experienced a shift to the right these last eight years, and it is true that this movement was encouraged by the establishment, at least at first, to win seats in Congress. John Boehner’s statements from 2010 on how he plans on doing everything to “kill, stop, slow down” Obama’s agenda, or his vow to not compromise, does seem to foreshadow the politics of Cruz or Trump. Or Mitch McConnell’s statement the same year that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” has stirred the partisanship, and voter disapproval, that Trump capitalizes on.
With that said, there is certainly a dissatisfaction against the Obama administration that contributes to Trump’s success. Many low and middle income white Americans feel economic anxiety, and the general population has had increased fears over national security, both issues which Trump appeals to with bold proposals.
These people are not necessarily conservative activists or far-right ideologues, but are more drawn to Trump for his seeming straightforwardness and willingness to speak his mind.
In this sense the GOP did not create Trump, as these voters have always been a part of the Republican base. However the establishment’s encouragement of distrust of Washington, leading to the rise of rebellious anti-establishment politicians such as Cruz, has certainly contributed to widening the appeal of Trump’s message to more than just the fringes of the Republican base.
Ultimately the Trump phenomenon brings up crucial questions for the future of the Republican Party. The party establishment, particularly after the 2012 presidential election, set for itself the goal of attracting more minority voters, especially Latino voters, to keep up with America’s demographic changes. It remains to be seen if the direction that Republican voters are choosing instead, if they do nominate Trump that is, will lead to the White House. Typically alienating vast portions of the population is not a good plan going into the general election, but who knows. That is just conventional wisdom. Trump is, after all, the man who can supposedly defy the laws of political gravity.