Donald Trump’s larger-than-life campaign and personality has been an enigma for many. (Photo by Thierry Ehrmann via Wikimedia)
HONOLULU, April 2, 2016 – Like all larger-than-life celebrities, Donald Trump is an eccentric personality who both inspires and enrages differing segments of the population. As a Republican presidential candidate, Mr. Trump is a politician that few can fence-ride; one either loves him or hates him.
Yet for many election observers, establishment news pundits and even seasoned political scientists, the success of the Trump campaign amidst so much controversy and turmoil is an enigma.
When two-time Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney warned of the Trump campaign’s “brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss” and invoked John Adams’ fears about runaway democracy, the 2012 nominee seemed to question the motives of American voters more than than those of the GOP frontrunner.
Breaking all the norms of statesman civility with profanity-peppered invectives and social media outbursts, reveling in mob takedowns of protesters, refusing to release a campaign manager that bruised reporter Michelle Fields and more recently calling for “punishment” of women who get abortions, Mr. Trump’s campaign should have run aground months ago.
A few contemporary commentators have attempted to explain Mr. Trump’s hijacking of the otherwise milquetoast Republican process. UT-Austin scholar H.W. Brands wrote, “Donald Trump is the guy our [Founding Fathers] warned us about” and, like Romney, suggested that the easily-inflamed tendencies of democracy were good cause for the return of the original constitutionally mandated Electoral College system.
Newly minted Cosmopolitan writer Meghan McCain made a similar argument with her op-ed, “Donald Trump’s Attack on Heidi Cruz Is a Reminder That We Could Elect a 5-Year-Old as President” and complained in an earlier Cosmo piece that the GOP was devolving “into something dark that I do not recognize.”
For the Diplomat, foreign policy expert Sarah Kendzior compared Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” promises to 1990s Central Asian dictatorial “nation-building through massive public spectacle” and correlated the campaign’s success to the rise of America as a tabloid state.
“So far,” writes Kendzior, “his greatest asset has been the U.S. media — financially desperate, hungry for ratings, and eager to embrace a potential dictator to rescue their corporate model, subjecting their countrymen to unprecedented over-coverage of a single candidate in the process.”
Steve Deace in Conservative Review even suggested Trump supporters were a “cult” in a five-point analysis of his campaign, from “why name calling is always Trump’s go-to card” to the irony of “Katrina Pearson, falsely labeled as an adulterer by a pro-Trump, sleazy tabloid. Yet she’s still on camera, working hard to defend her tyrant-elect’s latest indefensible despite his slut-shaming her.”
While all of these public interpretations in what Kendzior terms “the study of comparative dictatorship” likely possess kernels of truth, political observers may be over-intellectualizing and hyper-assessing what may ultimately prove to be a short-lived flash in the frying pan of American elections.
As demonstrated by the Trump campaign’s last-minute scramble to preserve delegates in “solid won” states like South Carolina, Louisiana and others (not to mention inadvertently alienating his own delegate candidates at the ballot box), while the Trump campaign has been able to leverage public hype, the ability of Mr. Trump to effect real systems change inside the party he seeks nomination from is minimal.
In fact, a statistical analysis of voter turnout by the Washington Post found only a Pearson’s r of -0.13 for voter turnout in state counties supportive of the GOP frontrunner, suggesting that the “Trump Surge” may be more anecdotal than anything else.
Like many of his products and services, “the Donald” is a brand marketing fad, not a true revolution in political affairs. Make no mistake, there are millions of well-meaning, good-natured, highly patriotic independents, conservatives, even liberals who have already cast their votes for and support the Trump campaign. I myself appreciate and have written before about the unique benefits of Mr. Trump as a Republican candidate.
In spite of his flaws and outlandish behavior, there are legitimate reasons to support him, as he articulates frustrations about America’s decline in the world and incompetence in government. Nevertheless, the Trump campaign appears bigger and more viral than the actual infrastructure behind it because of a specific set of vocal, angry supporters online.
Mr. Trump’s use of the 140-character social media platform Twitter as his pulpit reveals much about the actual core support uplifting his campaign. Unlike his tea party ally, Sarah Palin, who takes to Facebook to deploy paragraph-plus narratives into the public consciousness, Mr. Trump — despite never being short-winded — chooses to reveal himself to the world through a platform that makes it difficult to make long statements.
Twitter’s combination of relative user anonymity and ongoing Hundred Years’ War between liberal activists and “Alt-Right” personalities make it a powder keg for political firestorms, needing only a tweet from @realDonaldTrump to serve as the latest proxy battle for two competing, yet ultimately minority segments of the population.