The Trump Effect

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By Shaun Kleber

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

Donald Trump has become the person who everyone loves to hate, but some genuinely love him, and it is that latter group that it is time we focus on. The former group—political pundits, journalists, and average Americans—has spent the early weeks and months of the Republican primary season evaluating The Donald and speculating on how long His campaign would last. The general consensus, at least in the beginning, was that it was only a matter of time until this balloon popped itself, and in the meantime, those who were not Trump supporters, both Democrats and Republicans, were content watching the spectacle from the sidelines. Many looked forward to the fireworks, and even as his unfiltered and often offensive remarks persisted, those not under the reality star’s spell have continued their giddiness at the stranger-than-fiction show—awaiting with increasing excitement the impending implosion of the campaign.

But it hasn’t imploded yet, and with each statement Trump makes (or does not make) that is widely regarded as reprehensible or offensive, his campaign seems to grow stronger. Statements and actions that would normally have single-handedly destroyed any other presidential campaign have somehow fueled Trump’s fire. So given this phenomenon, it is time to move beyond the widespread chastisement of Trump and reflect on what the longevity and widespread acceptance of this candidate and his inflammatory rhetoric says about America’s present and future.

Trump’s campaign does not derive its strength from the issues he addresses or his policy proposals; rather, his supporters, who overwhelmingly tend to have limited education levels, often cite his personality and charisma as the draw. To be fair, the traits these people identify are laudable traits that we all should seek in our President: strength and resolve; clear, unfiltered communication; “telling it like it is.” The problem, however, is that these seemingly positive traits have been ascribed to Trump. Unfiltered communication would be great—unless the filter was otherwise censoring racist and xenophobic remarks. Strength and resolve to follow through on promises is exactly what we need—unless those promises involve the mass deportation of 11 million people reminiscent of the Trail of Tears. And “telling it how it is” would be a welcome change for a public that no longer knows who to believe—unless “telling it how it is” is equated with “telling it how extremist white America wants it to be.”

Trump’s ideas seem politically risky on the surface, but they are exactly what he needs to attract and invigorate the white voters on which he relies. Republicans had previously all but completely lost the black vote and are heading in the same direction with the Hispanic vote: in the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney among black voters 93-6 and among Hispanic voters 71-27. The Republican establishment has spent the years since then making a concerted effort to appeal to minorities, but Trump has taken a markedly different approach and found success in doing so. Recognizing that white voters still form a majority in this country, Trump feels no need to appeal to anyone else, as long as he can draw large enough support from that demographic, which he has thus far been able to do: an ABC News/Washington Post poll in early September found that nonwhites see Trump negatively by 17-79 percent, while whites are closer to even at 48-49 percent, favorable-unfavorable. It is a dangerous electoral strategy for the Republican party as a whole given that the white majority in this country is slipping quickly, but Trump has never been particularly concerned about the Republican party as a whole. For now, the very concern that whites are losing their majority is partially responsible for the fervor behind Trump’s campaign.

His candidacy launched just as American hate groups were the most active and energized they had been in years in the wake of the widespread condemnation of the Confederate flag and its removal from the South Carolina capitol grounds. And for the first time in years, “white nationalist” groups are emerging from the political shadows and openly endorsing a candidate: Donald Trump.

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump writes in “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 memoir. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”

And he is indeed playing to the fantasies of extremist white America. Just 12 days after Trump’s campaign announcement, The Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President, saying “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people. … [White men must] vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

But this sort of support is not limited to white supremacist groups. Lisa Greenfield, an average 51-year old woman interviewed by The New York Times, cited Trump’s outspoken support for unpopular positions as the main factor contributing to his success: “As inappropriate as some of his comments are, I think it’s stuff that a lot of people are thinking but afraid to say.”

And in just a few words, this woman has captured exactly why the success of Trump’s campaign reflects so poorly on the American public. The speed and persistence of Trump’s rise to the top of the crowded Republican field alone speaks volumes about what our society values—and what we are willing to ignore—but this perception that Trump is giving a voice to the voiceless and speaking up for the silent majority is a dangerous one. White supremacist groups, xenophobic opinions, and extremist ideals have always existed at the fringes of our society, but what we have seen over the last few months is a slow reintegration and acceptance of these ideas into the mainstream political sphere. And this is not to say that all of Trump’s supporters are on the same level as Klansmen, but whether through outspoken support or tacit acceptance, Trump’s ever-growing field of supporters is responsible for this shift.

The effects of this transition extends well beyond the Trump campaign. Trump’s extreme positions have enabled other candidates to creep toward the extreme with little fear of political reprisal. For example, Senator Ted Cruz has repeatedly called the sitting President “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism,” and on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Ben Carson said he finds Islam inconsistent with the Constitution and would not support a Muslim being President. And the problem is not just the statements themselves. The deeper problem is that these statements have not only become acceptable for presidential candidates to say, but even politically beneficial.

Jon Stewart noted that Trump’s campaign is the equivalent of America’s id running for President, but through the laughs and jeers, at some point we must confront the problem that our collective consciousness remains stuck so far in the past. For those who disagree with Trump and the ideals he espouses, the spectacle of it all may be entertaining to watch, but giving him the attention he so desperately desires increases his exposure, which increases his poll numbers, which increases his media coverages, which all contribute to the integration of his extreme ideas and opinions into the political mainstream.

And it’s all fun and games until that happens.

— Photo Credit: Politico

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