“The American dream is dead. I will bring it back and we will make America great again…..”
In nine months Donald Trump has stunned the political establishment, brushing aside other contenders to become the Republican nominee in the race for the White House. How has the man made famous for saying ‘You’re fired’ come so close to landing the biggest job in the western world?
To find out, Alex Burd went to talk to Peter Trubowitz, Professor of International Relations and Director of the US Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs, who has been trying to untangle the secrets of the rise of Trump.
Business magnate and reality TV star Donald J Trump announced his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination on 16 June 2015. His announcement was met with bemusement and ridicule. Within nine months he had stunned the political establishment and forced his final opponent, Ted Cruz, into withdrawing from the race. In that time, he’s announced his intention to build a Great Wall on the border with Mexico, ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and to Make America Great Again.
Prof Trubowitz started by discussing the moment at which he feared Donald Trump had a chance at becoming President.
Prof Peter Trubowitz: First you know my reaction was that he was just looking for air time and publicity. But it became clear pretty early on that he was getting some political traction, but the reason that I took him seriously early was because I thought the Republican field was weak. I never thought that Jeb Bush was going to get a lot of traction inside the party, he just had too much baggage given his brother’s presidency and the legacy within the Republican party, let along the body politic in general. Ted Cruz I felt was too far to the right and Marco Rubio too inexperienced. There were some other possibilities, some other people that could get traction and I will say that I always thought that the candidate that would be strongest for the Republican party was not trump, but was Jon Kasich. I think that he would have done very well with independents and conservative democrats and would’ve posed a serious, serious problem to Hilary Clinton.
Alex Burd: The Republican Party has long valued experience and proven leadership in its Presidential candidates but involvement in Washington politics became a smear in many of the recent Primaries. Much of this is down to the development of the Tea Party movement which began in response to Barack Obama’s election and inauguration in 2009. The group combines social and fiscal conservatism with an embedded distrust of authority and government. From small beginnings it has become a key contingent of the Republican party and an increasingly important factor in determining the GOP’s direction.
PT: You can’t understand in a sense Trump’s rise without understanding the level of anger and resentment inside the Republican Party. You know the rise of the Tea party and its frustration with it’s won leadership and the Washington establishment – especially the Democrats, but not only. And that is one of the things that made Donald Trump so attractive to many inside the party, simply because he’s viewed as untainted by the political and Washington establishment and the political process. Of course the irony there is this is somebody that has worked the inside of the Republican and Democrat party for years, nevertheless he’s never held elected office, he’s not party of the Washington establishment. He kind of came up, not self made by any means but pursued an independent trajectory separate from politics. But I think that so many of them were painted with that brush and I think because of he Bush name he just couldn’t disassociate himself from that even though he’s never held office in Washington DC.
AB: Trump’s rise from novelty to viable candidate confounded the predictions of political commentators in the US. His campaign slogans were characterised by personal insults, attacks on minorities, endorsements by the KKK, huge rallies, and passionate support. The Republican field was thought to be one of the strongest ever assembled but Trump eliminated them one by one.
PT: He was up against a large field. The vote against him was divided so he was able to consolidate support. He went from 20 to 25%, up to 35%, no one said he could get there and then he got to 35% as some of these candidates fell by the wayside. Then he got up to 40% plus. I think it might have been a different story if the field was narrower and there was more clearly defined options, that’s a possibility, but I think part of the problem is that his Republican opponents were very slow to criticize Trump. They didn’t take the gloves off quickly enough. What you’ve seen recently is Hilary Clinton go right after him and I think that’s a very smart move. Define him as opposed to letting him define everyone else, and that’s what happened to everyone else, he came up with all these nicknames for everybody and they all labored underneath that. So I think that everyone thought, the strategists all these different Republican campaigns did not think the Trump candidacy had legs, that he was really interested in becoming President, that he was more interested in pushing the Trump brand.
AB: It’s been said with the benefit of hindsight that the candidates should have bandied together earlier but it’s impossible for them to have known when that would’ve been beneficial, and going alone would really have been beneficial to their candidate or if they would’ve been taken down with Trump.
PT: Right, and to be fair this was a very unorthodox candidate. He said stuff in debates that a normal Republican candidate would have self-immolated, would have imploded on stage. To attack the Republican party, to attack George W Bush for being soft on national security, that’s a show stopper. One would’ve thought it would have been a show stopper in South Carolina but it only made him stronger. His position on waterboarding, none of those things really stuck. Part of the reason is because one of the things that made him so attractive to so many inside the Republican party is that he is just willing to mix up and say the wrong thing, the ‘wrong thing’ in quotes, and they find that somehow refreshing and it also plays some pretty base instincts in the Republican.
AB: Trump has prospered in his role as the Freudian ID of America’s white working class but wasn’t initially welcomed by his own party. The sincerity of his conservative values was questioned by Presidential nominees such as Mitt Romney, while George W Bush has refused to attend the upcoming party convention. The Never Trump campaign was launched by Republicans in a failed bid to prevent his victory and Paul Ryan, the most prominent elected Republican was initially unwilling to endorse him. However, after eight years in opposition, the GOP has slowly accepted Trump into the fold.
PT: I think it just shows the extent to which members of the party want to win. I think feeling rightly or wrongly that they’ll be able to control Trump, that he won’t be able to do whatever he wants. Presumably if Trump wins Republicans will hold the house and the senate, that they’ll be able to constrain him. That may be wishful thinking but that’s how some have thought about it. Others maybe are making a longer time calculation, that Trump will lose but they’d rather be remembered for supporting the nominee then coming out for Hilary Clinton and damaging their political future. So they take the long view, that they can lose this one, that they might be better off if they do lose one, at least the country will be, and they can fight another day. The risk for them is that let’s say Trump goes down really decisively, there’s a chance here that Hilary Clinton can cleave the republican party in a way that would ensure not only that the democrats win the senate, but even conceivably the house, or at least shrink the margin so much that the Republican party has to play ball with a Clinton presidency. SO you need to be careful here, the other thing is that for this kind of calculation, that we lose this one and fight another day is that you have to hope that Republican donors make that kind of calculation and continue pumping money into local races. There are some signs that that will happen, with the Koch brothers for instance focusing more on congressional races, but some of the large donors like Sheldon Adelson look like they’re going to invest in Trump. I think you know that you can be too clever by half.
AB: Donald Trump is not the only outsider to take a run at the major parties in American politics. Former secretary of State Hilary Clinton was expected to easily capture the Democratic nomination and fight to succeed Barack Obama. However, Vermont senator and self-described ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders pushed her to the very end on the promise of overthrowing the status quo. His populist anti-establishment campaign drew some comparisons with trump as the two-party system seemed to fracture.
PT: Yeah, I think there’s something there. They’re very different candidates with very different messages, Sanders being an economic populist, Trump there’s some populism but a lot of nationalism and really playing the identity politics in a way that’s not true of Sanders. Similarities, they’re both insurgencies from outside, in a sense what you’re seeing unfold is the extremes against the center. It’s very unusual, the extremes are not aligned in any sense, they’re very far apart. It’s conceivable that a candidate in a future cycle could bring those extremes together but Sanders is not going to do that, and Trump is not going to do that even though he talks a good game that he thinks he can pick up Sanders voters but I think that’s unlikely. There is one other thing about them is that they both draw disproportionately from white voters. There’s something about the electoral demographics that is similar even though the ideological dispositions of their voters are very different.
AB: Donald Trump has relentlessly targeted white voters who feel that they have been left behind by globalisation and multiculturalism. However, the 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in American history with non-white voters making up 31% according to the Pew Research Group. Unfortunately, the Republican nominees currently enjoys historic unpopularity with these groups – 77% of Hispanics and 94% of African-Americans view Trump unfavourably. This means that his strategy in November will be built on the the declining white vote and tempting disillusioned Democrats away.
PT: His whole bid for the Presidency depends on flipping a couple of pretty traditional democratic states, like a, a Michigan or an Illinois or a Wisconsin, and he in addition to that pick up an Ohio. The idea is that he can, or the hope, is that he can penetrate the democratic strongholds in those states because the working class and middle class frustration with the state of the economy, with the rise of inequality, and with kind of identity politics in the United States.
Having campaigned on a platform of anti-immigration, small government, and white nationalism in the Primary contests there will be pressure on Donald Trump to moderate his views in a bid to broaden his appeal to non-Republicans. As the general election race heats up commentators will continue to question the seriousness of Trump’s campaign. What does a billionaire business man and TV star really want with the Oval office? Is he someone who has long held conservative views and sought the Presidency or someone who has worked on both sides of the aisle without serious political convictions? Is he, as some fear, just making it up as he goes along?
PT: My sense is that Trump has held some views consistently for a pretty long time, going back in the mid-early 1990s. this is someone who’s had presidential ambitions at least since the late 90s. You can go back and look at some of his view on foreign policy, the idea that wealthy democracies like Germany and Japan should pick up a larger share of the tab for collective defense and that’s a position that he’s held for a long time. But other positions like his views on Mexican Americans and Hispanics and immigration, Donald Trump has done almost a 180. Not only since the 1990s when he had a much more liberal view, but since 2012 where he criticized Mitt Romney for being too harsh. And if you go back to the interviews he did with Howard Stern in the late 1990s his position on many issues, whether it’s abortion or women’s right are much more liberal than the median Republican voter. He’s not quite Bernie Sanders but he was left to a lot of Republicans. Some of it is that he made a set of calculated decisions about what would play well inside the Republican party and he viewed, in a sense, the party as ripe for a takeover. But frankly some of this is razzle dazzle as we’d say in the United States, where you make up the play in football on the spot and actually even during the play itself. I think some of this is improv and he has made from a narrow tactical standpoint, but moving his candidacy forward but some which will prove to be problematic as he gets to the general election.
In part two of this programme we will look at the upcoming general election race between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and Professor Peter Trubowitz will discuss whether either of them can unite and increasingly divided country.
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Thanks for listening.
He tells Alex that his first reaction was that Trump was just looking for air time, for publicity, but that it became clear early on that that he was gaining traction. He realised this was mainly because of the weak field of republican candidates – Jeb Bush was overshadowed by his brothers’ presidency, Ted Cruz was too far to the right, Marco Rubio was too inexperienced. There were other possibilities (for example John Kasich, who could have done well with independent voters and been a threat to Hillary Clinton), but they too were brushed aside.
Prof Trubowitz says you cannot understand the rise of Trump without understanding the rise of the Tea Party, and the anger and resentment within the Republican Party with their own leadership and with the ‘Washington establishment’ – both democrat and republican. Trump appears untainted with this, and although he has worked the inside track in both the republican and democratic parties, he isn’t part of the republican elite. He has worked a trajectory independent of politics.
In a large field of candidates, the vote against him was divided and he was able to consolidate support – his support grew from 20-25%, then 35% then 50% plus. It might have been a different story if the field had been narrower and the options more defined. But his opponents didn’t ‘take the gloves off early enough’ (unlike Hillary Clinton who has been highly critical of Trump). This allowed Trump to define his opponents, with nicknames which they all laboured beneath. There was a general, mistaken, view that he was only really interested in pushing his brand, rather than the presidency. After all, this was an unusual candidate, he said stuff in debates which would have marked the end of most campaigns, for example he attacked George Bush for being soft on national security, and then there was his position on waterboarding -but nothing really stuck. Indeed, what makes him attractive to voters in the republican party is that he is willing to say ‘the wrong thing’ – his supporters find that refreshing, appealing.
At first the republican establishment refused to acknowledge his success, but after 8 years in opposition the GOP is slowly preparing to accept him, thinking they can control him, if they hold the House and the Senate they may be able to constrain him. Others are making a long term calculation that he will lose but they’d rather be seen to support the nominee. If Clinton wins decisively and Trump goes down badly, she could cleave the Republican Party. and they might have to play ball with a Clinton presidency. They have to hope that big republican donors will put putting money into local campaigns, but others seem to be prepared to back Trump.
Donald Trump is not the only outsider to take a run at the presidency. Are there similarities between Bernie Sanders and Trump. Bernie Sanders campaign is marked by economic populism, Trump’s by economic populism and also nationalism. They are both insurgencies – extremes against the centre – though the extremes are far apart. in future someone may bring the extremes togeher but neither Sanders nor Trump can do this. Both are drawing from white voters, though with a very different appeal.
His whole bid for the presidency requires him to flip a couple of democratic states (eg Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin), can he penetrate the democratic strongholds in those states?
Having campaigned on a platform of anti-immigration, small government and white nationalism, he will face pressure to broaden his appeal to non republican voters in the election in November.
But what does the former TV star want from the oval office, and is he making it up as he goes along? Prof Trubowitz thinks he has had presidential ambition since the late 90s -you can look at his views on foreign policy, for example, he thinks Germany and Japan should pick up the tab for joint defence. But on Muslims, Hispanics, immigration, abortion, women’s rights he has almost done a 180 degree turn. – he has made a calculation about what would play well within the republican party and regards the party as ripe for a takeover. But ‘frankly much of this is razzzle dazzle…’ It is improv! He has made some smart decisions but they may prove problematic as we get to the general election.
Part 2 the race between Trump and Clinton – coming soon.
Picture of Donald Trump by Gages Skidmore