With his astronomical national polling, ability to survive controversial statements (Teflon is simply too weak of a word to describe his rhetorical invulnerability), and his drawing power- in terms of television viewers and rally attendees, Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has been called a political phenomenon.
How can a gruff New York reality show star/real estate developer with Romeyesque inconsistency on the social issues that define the GOP’s non-moneyed wing, a personal life that has been covered by the National Enquirer, and a political donor who has spread green far and wide across the political aisle can rack up a 41% share in the most crowded Republican presidential field in modern times?
Since nobody has been able to really explain it, political observers simply call it a phenomenon and increasingly make nervous jokes about his candidacy.
The Trump candidacy can best be described as one part celebrity and one part political movement.
If Donald J. Trump were not famous, he wouldn’t be much different than other wealthy businessman presidential aspirants such as H. Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, or Morry Taylor (that most of you don’t remember him further proves the point).
We live in a society that exalts celebrity. Consider the Kardashians: a family that is essentially famous for being famous. Kim has 37.8 million Twitter followers- that’s more than the population of Iraq.
That Trump is a prominent figure in the media makes him more relevant in the eyes of the American public than Lindsey Graham, a United States senator with a wealth of foreign policy experience and who served as part of the House of Representatives’ Clinton impeachment legal team. Graham, who had to upgrade his cell phone thanks to Trump, is currently polling at 0%.
Because Trump is known, people care what he has to say. And to the billionaire’s credit, he knows how to say it in a manner guaranteed to attract exponential media coverage. Trump’s fame gets the masses to pay attention yet his message is what drives them wild and his poll numbers up.
Yet to watch Trump on television, whether on The Apprentice or in a debate reveals only the “show man”. To glimpse the movement, you need to encounter those most responsible for his high poll numbers: the folks packing his rallies.
I’ve attended two: a summer event at the American Airlines Center in Dallas and at an appearance in a Las Vegas hotel ballroom. The former drew in excess of 10,000 people with tickets being scalped on eBay; the latter packed in 3,000+ and was held only a few hours after a Marco Rubio event just down the street brought in a few hundred folks.
Prior to Trump’s entry into the race, journalists were abuzz over the crowds at Bernie Sanders events, which were primarily held on or near college campuses where the socialist’s base vote resides. When Trump had “yuger” rallies in a college football stadium in Mobile and in the cavernous Dallas arena that hosts NBA and NHL games, crowds of thousands at political events no longer seemed newsworthy.
What struck me about the Vegas event was the ethnic diversity of the attendees, which is ironic as Trump has been slammed as a bigot in the press. In fact, I’ve seen more minorities at Trump events than I have at any other open Republican gathering I’ve ever attended.
While looking for the ballroom a Latina hotel staffer walked me to the area, gushed about how excited she was about Trump’s appearance, and, in a thick Spanish accent, said how she was going to vote for Trump so he can curb illegal immigration (!).
A line of hundreds had formed over four hours before the event and two hours before doors opened. While waiting I made a point of chatting with some in line, asking questions about who they had supported previously. Apparently some of the 2012 Ron Paul vote that is missing from Rand Paul’s 2016 poll numbers were standing in line to see Trump.
Inside the ballroom, there was an ethnic mix of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Standing behind me was a young Asian dentist who was struggling with massive student loan debt. He had voted for Obama twice but would support Trump if he were the nominee. And if Trump didn’t win the nomination? Probably Hillary (!).
Trump delivers hour long speeches, without notes or teleprompter, in a conversational style similar to someone postulating at coffee shop counter. He works in bombastic quips and engages in give and take with not just the crowd but the hecklers who slip inside and attempt to disrupt his speeches.
People understand what Trump is saying, pulling off the “Triple Lindy” of convincing the hoi polloi that a billionaire “gets them”, something Romney failed miserably at in 2012.
Trump’s appeal is not to rank and file Republicans. Trump doesn’t pass their party loyalty/ideological litmus tests and he’s operating far outside of the GOP establishment’s comfort zone.
The Republican Party “powers that be” have supposedly set up an operation to take Trump down, as they leapfrog from one potential dragonslayer to the next.
Instead of worrying about the man, a Republican Party that has spectacularly blown two presidential elections needs to instead worry about the movement that is carrying Trump forward.
Why are people who, according to the media, should be offended by Trump, swarming his rallies? Why are people who distrust the GOP waiting in four hour lines to hear him speak?
Perhaps Trump is pulling away in the national polls because by lacking Republican credentials, he has credibility to actually follow through on all of the promises and posturing that the GOP Congress ran and raised money off of but didn’t do.
The Republican Party may very well win the White House next November with or without Trump on the ballot; however they will not win without Trump’s voters. And that is a hard reality the GOP needs to face and accept sooner than later.