One of the many paradoxes of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is that it’s dominated politics without changing how politics are practiced.
Despite Trump’s prominence, his rivals are not aping his tactics. They’re advertising on TV when they can afford to. They’re staying on script. They’re not using the word “idiots” to describe voters in Iowa.
No one else ridicules a woman’s personal appearance, denigrates the service of a famous POW or cites FDR’s wartime roundup of immigrants as a happy precedent.
No one else has dispensed so readily with conventional virtues, such as modesty (“I’m really, really smart).’’ And no one else has been denounced by everyone from Dick Cheney to J.K. Rowling (who pronounced Trump worse than Voldemort).
Trump has given voice to an angry, alienated segment of GOP voters that will not easily be placated, much less enticed to follow the eventual nominee when and if Trump founders.
The Donald’s long-term impact
So how to assess his long-term impact? Not only does no one yet know how far he’ll go but also no one knows how he’s gotten this far.
When he spoke to a Jewish group in Washington this month, Jeb Bush said his father wasn’t watching CSI anymore. “He’s now watching Fox again, trying to figure out Donald Trump. That’s his main goal in life,” Bush said. “Hard for a guy like that to understand the Trump phenomenon.”
It’s not just 41. Listen to John Geer, a renowned Vanderbilt political scientist who sounds as discombobulated as a freshman in one of his survey classes: “No one has a solid explanation for this phenomenon, and I am no different.’’
A Trump-sized caveat
Any analysis of Trump’s success comes with a Trump-sized caveat: In a large field, before a primary ballot has been cast, he’s only managed to attract a plurality of Republicans, as measured by notoriously volatile opinion polls. It’s not clear he can expand that into 50-plus-one in the primaries, let alone the general election.
Above all, his campaign’s ultimate impact “depends on how it ends,’’ says Dan Schnur, who worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign and now teaches politics at USC. There are at least four possibilities: Trump is nominated; he loses and supports the nominee; he loses and snipes at the nominee from the sidelines; he loses and runs as an independent or on a third-party ticket (which he said last week he would not do).
One more possible outcome
There’s one more possible outcome, which is that no matter what Trump does after the primaries, his campaign will have so alienated groups like Hispanics and women that it costs the GOP the election.
Sal Russo, a founder of the Tea Party Express movement who also worked in 1992 for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, says that if the Republicans unite around another candidate as its nominee, “then none of the machinations of the campaign will matter. All the primary opponents will be forgotten and inconsequential to the general election.’’
Take 2008, he says. Hillary Clinton, the unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination, was not a factor in November. Four years later, one-time GOP primary polling leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann had no impact on Mitt Romney’s race against Barack Obama.
Just a cautionary tale?
Russo says that even the big question — will Trump voters stick around if Trump leaves the race? — depends heavily on whom the GOP does nominate.
If Trump crashes — which has seemed imminent for months now — he may be remembered only as a cautionary tale, along with failed demagogues such as Louisiana populist Huey Long (“Every Man a King”), Sen. Joseph McCarthy(“Communists in the State Department”) and George Wallace (”not a dime’s worth of difference’’ between the Democrats and Republicans).
‘An incredible anomaly’
Still, Trump’s success so far would seem to make him an appealing model. John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 created a demand for telegenic, charismatic young Democrats. Flinty sincerity like Ronald Reagan’s still makes Republicans swoon.
But just because Trump does it doesn’t mean everyone can. Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of the Kantar Media consulting firm, calls him “an incredible anomaly.’’ Geer agrees: “He’s a one-off in many respects.’’
What lesser mortal could successfully emulate a candidate so rich, so famous, so bombastic, so opportunistic, so New York? Trump is a billionaire who can claim independence from special interests, and a 14-year network TV star and best-selling author with peerless name recognition. He has the sharp elbows of a Manhattan real estate developer and the PR savvy of a veteran of America’s most competitive news market.
Lessons for future campaigns
In this sense, Trump is like the Beatles or Frank Lloyd Wright — an intuitive, eclectic genius. “You shouldn’t use him as an example of anything that could be replicated,’’ says Kip Cassino of Borrell Associates, a media consulting firm.
John Zogby, a pollster, doesn’t believe Trump’s particular talents and assets will dissuade others from following his lead. “If we keep going down this road, someone else will come along and say, ‘Trump had the right ideas. He didn’t play it just right.’’’
Experts say Trump’s campaign has featured innovations and insights that could inform campaigns in the future.
Every campaign pays it lip service. But Trump, has become the King of Twitter, with 5 million followers and counting. It’s fast, free and perfect for the middle-school put downs at which he excels. Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a digital media consulting firm that works with Republicans, calls Trump “a look into the future of how public figures will behave online.’’
How ironic: the candidate who could buy all the air time he wants hasn’t needed to. Every candidate wants free media, but only Trump has been consistently able to get it, by making news and generating ratings. It’s all the more impressive this year, given the large field. “He’s an incredibly successful media hog,’’ says Tobe Berkovitz of Boston University, who’s worked on national campaigns. “The Kardashians are his only rivals.’’ Much of the coverage is derogatory, but since the news media is held in contempt by Trump’s followers, Berkovitz says, “it just gives him more juice.’’
The most conservative Republican voters have been angry for years, witness the 2010 Tea Party revolt and the results of the 2014 midterm elections. “There’s this persistent feeling, ‘The party’s not paying attention to me,’’’ says Terry Madonna, director of theFranklin & Marshall College poll. A movement famous for having no leader found one in Trump, who’s tapped discontent with government dysfunction, economic stagnation and demographic change. Issues such as immigration and emotions such asIslamophobia were around for years; Trump, with a promoter’s flair, made them his.
Trump revolutionized what can be said in a national political campaign – denigrating the POW heroism of John McCain, implying an aggressive female debate questioner was menstruating, challenging the sincerity of Ted Cruz’ evangelical faith. Trump says things that would end most campaigns, yet push his poll numbers higher. “As far as his supporters are concerned, there’s nothing he can say that goes over the line,’’ observes Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “There is no line.’’
Campaigns have foundered on far less, Madonna says. He’s reminded of a 2004 Democratic candidate’s demise after his odd-sounding cry on the night of the Iowa primary: “All Howard Dean did was scream!”
Ted Cruz sounds like he’s speaking at a Harvard-Princeton debate. Trump sounds like he’s talking to New York ironworkers. When was the last time a national campaign announced a major position, as Trump did when he proposed barring Muslim immigration, with a phrase like “until we know what the hell is going on.’’ And Trump repeats his favorite adjectives as if they were scripture, notably “weak,’’ “fantastic’’ and “great.’’
Everyone runs against Washington, including (especially) those who’ve made careers there. But Trump, who’d never even run for school committee, is the real thing. He’s made what was a qualification for office — experience — a liability, and inexperience an asset. If Trump wins the nomination, he will have come farther from outside the mainstream than anyone since utility executive Wendell Willkie, the GOP candidate in 1940.
Spontaneity and candor
To fans, Trump has been as refreshing to many as a thunderstorm on a hot summer day. Voters tired of the scripted prison of traditional campaigning, with its mechanical repetition of talking points, delight in his willingness to say whatever seems to come to mind. The contrast with more conventional campaigners such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker has been devastating. In such a stultifying milieu, says Mitchell McKinney, a former White House staffer who teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, “even the outlandish has its appeal.’’
A political legacy
It’s possible Trump’s biggest impact on politics is yet to come.
Republicans in recent years have succeeded in channeling the party’s base, or conservative wing, in support of relatively moderate nominees such as McCain and Romney. Now loosed, the passions of that wing may not be easily directed. Even if Trump doesn’t get the nomination, those passions could lead to the nomination of a candidate sufficiently far to the right to ensure the election of a Democrat.
Or it could lead to a more fundamental schism, including a third-party candidacy. The GOP establishment faced the 2016 election – one many Republicans viewed as theirs to lose — determined to avoid the internal stresses that weakened Romney in 2012, says McKinney. Instead, Trump has made them worse, “to the point of, ‘What kind of party is this?’’’
The lesson for smart politicians
There’s a lesson here for smart politicians, Schnur says: “When you unleash your party’s base, it’s unrealistic to think that they’ll stop at your goals. … The bases of both parties are capable of wreaking the kind of havoc that Trump is causing.’’
He cites the early success of Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist, against Hillary Clinton, a well-financed, well-known former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of State who’s supported by most party leaders and whose husband remains a popular political figure. “Just because a Sanders can’t win this year doesn’t mean one won’t in the future,’’ he says — especially against a Democratic centrist less formidable than Clinton.
So what’s the outcome when a party’s ID takes over, and a candidate like Barry Goldwater (conservative Republican, 1964) or George McGovern (liberal Democrat, 1972) is nominated? History, most analysts agree, shows one outcome: a painful exorcism in the form of horrendous electoral defeat, followed by a retreat to the safe, solid center – not a congenial place for the likes of Donald Trump.