Trumped by The Donald: How he took the GOP by storm and left them staring into a (gold-plated) mirror
By JORDAN PRICE (@JRPrice94)
Photo credit goes to redstate.com.
“Donald J. Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States of America.”
Had those words been uttered last July, or perhaps even as recently as October or November, they almost certainly would have been met with comical laughter or dismissive ridicule. The thought that Trump, a New York City media mogul and reality television star, would outlast 16 opponents in a crowded Republican primary field seemed unfathomable.
In a race against nine governors and five U.S. Senators, it seemed unlikely that Donald Trump -- better known for hosting “Celebrity Apprentice” than holding any particular political views and having never sought political office in his life -- would emerge as the party’s nominee.
Yet here we are, in early May. Trump is the last candidate standing and can waltz down an uncontested path to the nomination. Barring an unforeseeable and inconceivable coup d'état at the GOP Convention in Cleveland, Donald Trump will face Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Regarding the fiasco that was election night 2000, in which network news stations managed to project the state of Florida for both Al Gore and George Bush and then eventually retracted both projections, Tom Brokaw remarked that the networks did not “just have egg on [their] faces, [they had] omelet all over [their] suits.”
If missing a projection twice in one state on election night warrants such commentary, one would be hard-pressed to find a culinary comparison that does justice to the massive under-estimation of Donald Trump by nearly everyone except Mr. Trump himself. But in hindsight, Trump’s path to becoming the Republican candidate for Commander-In-Chief seems much clearer.
The persona of Donald Trump -- a larger-than-life tough guy who tells it like it is, doesn’t tolerate mediocrity and celebrates glamor and opulence -- does indeed possess an undeniable sort of charm. TRUMP -- the man, the name and the brand -- may well be a personification of American capitalism’s highest aim: an example of what anyone can accomplish, if only the government would get out of his/her way.
There is, however, another aspect of The Donald’s persona which places him even more firmly in line with Republican orthodoxy of the past eight years: Trump is a natural product of many things the Tea Party has represented, advocated and celebrated. Trump distrusts immigrants, foreign nations and Muslims and believes that all three pose a threat to America.
"One would be hard-pressed to find a culinary comparison that does justice to the massive under-estimation of Donald Trump."
Donald Trump. Photo credit goes to businessinsider.com.
He dismisses efforts to achieve peace through diplomacy (such as the admittedly imperfect but better-than-nothing Iranian nuclear agreement). He itches to not only bomb the Middle East, but to kill the families of suspected terrorists. Yes, that’s right -- Donald Trump has, on national television, advocated the killing of civilians. He is more likely to retweet claims found in a chain email than offer detailed, nuanced, reasonable policy proposals.
Indeed, Trump led the charge of the “birther” movement a few years ago, tirelessly repeating debunked and patently ridiculous assertions about President Obama not being an American citizen (a claim still believed by a majority of Republican voters, even including those who are not Trump supporters, as a recent Public Policy Polling survey found).
Many (though in fairness, certainly not all) of these sentiments are hallmarks of the Tea Party’s self-proclaimed mission to recapture the American government from elitist Washington insiders, so it should come as little surprise that Trump gained quick traction in the Republican primary this year.
He’s an entrepreneur who has made a gold-plated name for himself in the private sector and has generated massive (YUGE) amounts of wealth. No one can deny those accomplishments. It’s also true that he has never spent one day in Congress, passed a bill, sat on a committee, received an intelligence briefing before 2016, represented the United States government in negotiations with nuclear superpowers, made wartime decisions or been responsible for making difficult policy decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people.
Apparently, being a tough-talker who’s willing to call people “losers,” “liars” and “low-energy” and managing to talk for hours while saying very little in the way of policy details is an acceptable substitute for executive governmental experience.
Pointing out these aspects of Trump’s candidacy are not unfair attacks against Donald Trump. It’s not a matter of opinion whether or not Trump suggested that the vast majority of Mexican immigrants are drug smugglers and rapists. It’s a fact that he said it, and he’s said many other things that surely would have crippled other candidacies.
By any measure, Donald Trump is a completely different kind of candidate than anyone nominated by either major party in decades. But part of the intriguing character of Donald Trump is that not only has he appeared impervious to fallout from his statements, but they actually seem to strengthen him. And herein lies the genius of Trump’s campaign strategy: He is an unmatched master at using the media to his advantage.
"He's said many other things that surely would have crippled other candidates."
Donald Trump. Photo credit goes to CNN.
Through saying controversial things such as:
(1) Insulting the physical appearance of his Republican colleagues
(2) Sparring with debate moderators
(3) Mocking a disabled reporter
(4) Saying that he “likes people who weren’t captured” (referring to Sen. John McCain’s POW status)
(5) Telling crowds at his campaign rallies that he will foot the legal bills if they feel inclined to physically assault protestors
Trump generated more media attention than many of the other candidates combined (again, these are not matters of opinion, they are factual things Trump has done). This free publicity not only saved Trump millions in advertising expenses, but it allowed him to control and dominate the media narrative, establishing himself as the frontrunner and elevating his status in opinion polls across the country.
But Trump was not able to do this alone. He had help, though an apparently unwitting ally -- the ineptness of the Republican Party. To fully explain the rise of Donald Trump, the Republican Party must engage in serious soul-searching. By failing to take Trump seriously at the beginning of the race, the GOP establishment allowed Trump to gain traction and momentum. Once that happened, he would prove extremely formidable.
Most political scientists and pundits -- before staining their suits with omelet -- assumed Trump had a core of supporters who were vocal but few. It was assumed that Trump had a hard ceiling of support, and that as the field narrowed from 17 candidates down to four or five, the remaining candidates would overtake Trump.
After all, it’s easy to lead a field of two-and-a-half dozen candidates with 15 percent of the vote; it’s much harder to lead a field of five candidates with 15 percent of the vote. This proved to be a horrendous miscalculation.
Trump’s support climbed to 30-35 percent and seemingly plateaued, allowing him to outlast all but two opponents: Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich, with the former establishing himself as the only real threat to Trump’s chances of being the nominee. And while Sen. Cruz is a brilliant and often underestimated political tactician, he also gravely miscalculated Trump’s level of support.
In the early stages of the campaign -- while Trump was probably still vulnerable -- Sen. Cruz seemingly made a tactical decision that Trump’s support was strong but limited, and that he would eventually fade or be surpassed. While other candidates -- such as Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Rand Paul piled on Trump, got their hands dirty and dropped in the polls, Cruz sat back, biding his time.
He even made an appearance with Trump at a rally in Washington D.C. and described Trump as “terrific” in a December tweet. Judging by how events developed, it appears that the most rational explanation is that Cruz wagered that by not attacking Trump, he would inherit the support of many Trump voters when Trump faded or was surpassed.
Again, this was a terrible miscalculation and possibly cost Cruz the opportunity to dent Trump’s support early. It’s not a given that this would have happened -- Cruz may have declined in the polls just like the earlier candidates did. But befriending Trump during the campaign before trying desperately to stop him from clinching the nomination a few months later put Cruz in a nearly impossible situation. And partly because Cruz is such a factional candidate who faced immense difficulty and rare success in expanding his appeal beyond evangelical conservatives, Trump crushed him in more moderate East Coast states.
When Trump won Indiana -- Cruz’s last stand -- by a landslide, it was over. Donald Trump had earned the last laugh by outlasting all 16 opponents and becoming the presumptive GOP nominee. Now, he faces a much more daunting challenge: winning the general election.
While Trump has proven that he has the ability to defy conventional wisdom and re-write the books on presidential campaigns, he begins the general election as a significant underdog to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads Trump by less than a 10 percent margin on average.
It remains to be seen whether or not Trump will cap off his primary success with a general election victory, but what is clear is that the Republican Party largely has to look inward for an explanation of why Trump stole the show. He is a product of many Tea Party sentiments and gained a foothold -- which led to eventually unstoppable momentum -- through the GOP’s early ineptness at combatting his rise. The GOP, at least in part, created Trump and realized too late that they couldn’t stop him.