Thursday 22 February 2018

Cometh the hour, cometh The Donald

Reviled by liberals everywhere, but seen as an unlikely messiah by blue-collar Americans, Donald Trump will be crowned the Republican presidential nominee in Cleveland next week. Caitriona Palmer reports from Washington on the dumb blonde who just might be a lot smarter than his detractors think

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.
Not feeling the love: A group of people protest outside Trump Tower last month.

He has blustered his way across America, crowing about his celebrity and business genius, inciting hatred and xenophobia along the way.

A year ago, Donald Trump's bid for the Republican presidential nomination was a joke in America, his double-eyed squint behind the podium a reminder of his arrogant antics in the boardroom of The Apprentice.

Watching Trump rally the faithful was oddly riveting. There were no limits to his outlandish pronouncements, his bragging and empty assertions. While his political rivals stuck dutifully to their scripts, 'The Donald' thumbed his nose at the teleprompter, magnificently winging it. At one point, he introduced the size of his penis into the debate.

The media lapped it up, political experts espoused and scoffed. Most found it all very amusing. No one seriously thought he could ever make it.

But now, just days away from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Donald Trump has the Republican nomination in his grip. His unconventional campaign has flummoxed the political establishment, puzzling pundits on both sides of the political divide. Along the way he obliterated 16 rivals, some of them established Republican stalwarts, won contests in 37 states and secured a broad coalition including both Republican moderates and right-wing evangelicals.

Most improbably, he did it with no political experience, no real campaign operation, no fundraising network, no ground game for voter turnout or serious support from the Republican Party leadership.

So how did a 70-year-old billionaire - ridiculed widely as an arrogant buffoon - convert celebrity and riches into a genuine shot at the presidency?

And if Trump is all the things the political establishment says he is, then why are millions of Americans taking him seriously?

No Republican candidate has ever made such a populist pitch to the economic anxieties and resentments of Americans as Trump has. He did not luck his way into this nomination. Vowing to "make America great again", Trump tapped into the mood and needs of many white Americans who feel left behind and neglected, awakening feelings that, until now, they had suppressed.

"He trashed his way to the summit by understanding what many intelligent people utterly failed to see: the decline of American institutions and mores, from Wall Street and the Senate to cable news and the Twitterverse, made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control not just possible, but in some ways inevitable," wrote veteran American journalist George Packer recently. "It shouldn't have been such a surprise."

Trump has exploited what Republican elites have long refused to grasp - the authentic distress of millions of middle-class voters who are suffering from the effects of globalisation, free trade, revolutionary technology and low-wage immigrant labour. It is no accident that Trump is doing best in the Rust belt - states stretching from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin - and other areas where steel and other heavy industries have disappeared. The decline in manufacturing and the rise of offshoring have decimated towns across the country, leaving many Americans in dire economic straits. Trump put his ear to the ground and felt the rage.

In 2008, Sarah Palin - another darling of the white working-class - did the same. Just as many white women and men across America identified with Palin's plain-spoken anger despite her gaffes so, too, do millions of working-class men delight in Trump's swaggering profanity and tell-like-it-is persona. To whites who feel powerless, Trump's rants are like an electric charge.

These marginalised Americans who feel excluded from the Obama recovery are genuinely aggrieved. For years they have been falling through the cracks, and Trump, cleverly exploiting them, has brought them into the light.

These voters have been left behind - by robotic technology, by Obama, by the Clintons, by Wall Street, by impoverished schools, by the Republican Party and the rest of the Washington elite. Truth be told, they have also been left behind by the likes of people like me - educated professionals living in urbanised bubbles. America, as these people once knew it, has drifted away from their grasp. Now, they believe, with a candidate combining a tycoon's success with celebrity culture, they have a chance to "take it back".

"There is no excuse for supporting a racist, sexist, xenophobic buffoon like Donald Trump," Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research told the New Yorker magazine recently. "But we should be clear: the workers who turn to him do have real grievances. The system has been rigged against them."

Trump's rise also coincides with a decline in the share of the white electorate in the voting population, which has dropped from 89pc of the voting public to 72pc. But in order to win the election, Trump must buck a demographic tide, as the country's non-white population swells. The Republican nominee is trying to amass historically large margins of these voters, but their importance is receding year by year.

"Whites are becoming a minority in the country by the 2040s," Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia told the Review. "This has generated fear that produced Trump's proposal for a wall, a ban on Muslims, and a slogan that harkens back to the old America - 'Make America Great Again.'"

The prospects for white Americans outside prosperous cities are genuinely bleak, not merely a talking point. Life expectancy for whites in rural areas has been declining at an alarming rate. A recent study by two Princeton economists revealed a shocking epidemic of deaths among middle-aged white Americans from alcohol, opioids and suicide. Most of these deaths were in areas where Trump enjoys strong support. And Trump, in part, has clawed his way to the nomination by promising voters in these decimated areas that he will restore them to a rightful place in American society.

Trump's rambling speeches feature hostile rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims and 'Crooked Hillary'. But he has also cleverly addressed the fears and anxieties of working-class voters. He regularly laments how the United States has become a second-tier nation next to countries like China and Japan. Campaigning in areas where anger about the economy runs deep, he has been relentless in his attacks on international trade agreements and companies that outsource jobs. In western Pennsylvania, he recently said free-trade policies were moving "our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas" and unless steps are taken, "the inner cities will remain poor, the factories will remain closed", while the "special interests will remain firmly in control". That's not how Republican presidential candidates usually talk.

Trump has promised that the isolationist theme of "America First" will be the "major and overriding theme of my administration". The phrase America First carries eerie echoes of the 1930s, when Americans like Charles Lindbergh spoke with admiration of Adolf Hitler's Nazis and warned against waging war abroad. It was an era when some argued democracy had failed, that trade deals were a trick, and that strong leaders needed to take charge. Although most experts have stopped short of calling 'Trumpismo' a fascist movement, some point out that 1930s ultra-right ideology has some parallels with the real-estate mogul's themes. Both ridiculed feckless elites in coarse language, and blamed economic hardship on other countries and minorities. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany's troubles. Trump blames Mexicans and Muslims.

As the University of Maryland's Jeffrey Herf wrote in an essay in the American Interest: "Trump says what they want to say but are afraid to express. In cheering this leader, his supporters feel free to say what they really believe about Mexicans, Muslims and women."

Trump may have rallied the white have-nots, but he has nothing in common with them. The son of real-estate developer Frederick Trump, Donald's early years were marked by extreme privilege with private schools, limousines and a 23-room house with white columns that Donald shared with his four siblings. There is much to suggest that in his early years, Trump was a mirror - albeit smaller - version of the bombastic, egoistic candidate who has confounded the political establishment today. He himself fully admits that as a child he was very "rambunctious".

"When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I'm basically the same," Trump once told a biographer. "The temperament is not that different."

In his 1987 bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, the tycoon explores several pivotal childhood experiences that he considers as critical to shaping his future success, including the time he punched his music teacher in the face. "In the second grade, I actually gave my teacher a black eye - I punched my music teacher because I didn't think he knew anything about music, and I almost got expelled," Trump wrote. "I'm not proud of that, but it's clear evidence that even early on, I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way."

"Who could forget him?" said Anne Trees, a former teacher. "He was headstrong and determined. He would sit with his arms folded with this look on his face - I use the word surly - almost daring you to say one thing or another that wouldn't settle with him."

"He had a reputation for saying anything that came into his head," said Donald Kass, a former schoolmate. "We would laugh at him and tell him he was wrong, and he'd say he was right."

At 13, Trump's father sent him to the New York Military Academy in an attempt to straighten him out, a place where Trump says he learned how to channel his "aggression into achievement". But even here, Trump could not escape trouble. Once struck with a broomstick during a fight, he tried to push a fellow cadet out a second-floor window, only to be stopped when two other students intervened.

On the presidential campaign trail, Trump's rallies have had more than a whiff of violence about them. At an event in Iowa earlier this year, Trump told his supporters, "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? …. Seriously….. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees."

In June 2015, after announcing his run for the presidency, he castigated Mexico for sending "rapists" to the United States. Following the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, by a husband-and-wife team sympathetic to the Islamic State, Trump issued a call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

His crowning in Cleveland proves that there is real pain among voters in America right now, but it remains to be seen whether a larger majority will view him as the right response to heal it.

A Trump victory in November is unlikely, say experts, who argue that the numbers are just not on the billionaire's side. "I think his chances are about 30pc," said Sabato. "That's comforting to his many opponents.

"Trump received 14 million votes in the GOP primaries. About 135 million will vote in November. He's behind in most of the key states."

Trump's base remains mostly the white working-class, especially men. In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney by five million votes. For Trump to win, he needs all of the people who voted for Romney, in addition to five million more. And these voters must be from the critical swing states - Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Already polls are showing Trump to be losing some of the people who voted for Romney in 2012 - especially Republican women, many of whom have been turned off by his sexist remarks.

Recent weeks have also seen a dramatic reversal of fortune for Trump as the candidate's numbers dipped drastically within nearly every demographic. Internally, his campaign seems on the edge of implosion with reports of Apprentice-type firings of key aides and the shocking revelation that his campaign has only $1.3m in the bank. In recent months, the Washington Post - now barred from the Trump campaign trail - and the New York Times have published a litany of searing exposés detailing Trump's difficulty in paying his bills; his paltry donations to charity; his flirtation with Russian oligarchs, his disparaging treatment of women; and the allegations that 'Trump University' was a thinly-veiled scam.

On the cusp of the real campaign - pitted against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - Trump is joining the big leagues. Now he will have to act as a real politician, to do all that he hates - to act more 'presidential', to stay on-script, to embrace the dreaded teleprompter. It will require what he has often lacked: self-discipline. But even if he loses in November, the unlikely movement he has stoked among working-class voters will have a lasting and possibly damaging legacy on the political landscape.

The resentment against trade agreements and immigrants that Trump has masterfully manipulated to win their votes will remain, and likely grow. Unless the political establishment can win back the affection of these alienated Americans, Trump, in his inimitable arrogant style, may still lay claim to a victory - even if he isn't the next president.

Top Trumpisms

'I will build a great wall - and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me - and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.'

The stand-out line during an inflammatory speech in June 2015 to announce he was throwing his hat into the race for the White House.

'When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bring crime. They're rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.'

Another nugget from the speech that announced he was throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

'All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me - consciously or unconsciously. That's to be expected.'

A much-quoted line from his 2004 book, How to Get Rich.

'I don't think Ivanka would do that [pose for Playboy], although she does have a very nice figure. I've said if Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I'd be dating her.'

There is frequently a sexual undertone when Trump talks about women, including these televised words about his daughter, which he subsequently called a joke.

'The only card [Hillary Clinton] has is the woman's card. She's got nothing else to offer and frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5pc of the vote. The only thing she's got going is the woman's card, and the beautiful thing is, women don't like her.'

Trump mocked his Democrat rival in May when she talked about the power of the 'Woman's Card'.

'If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?'

The pithy put-down was made on Twitter by a US college student and retweeted by Trump. He later deleted the tweet.

'He [Saddam] was a bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were a terrorist, it was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.'

Trump offering an alternative view on the reviled dictator earlier this month.

'It's freezing and snowing in New York - we need global warming!'

His critics have condemned his environmental views and this 2012 tweet is often held up as an example of his glib approach to the issue.

'Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!'

Trump was roundly derided for this Brexit-related tweet for seemingly being unaware that Scotland had overwhelming voted in favour of remaining in the EU.

'The Donald', more than most, understands the power of the soundbite - and he has been delivering those virtually every day since his campaign began. In his universe, the mantra appears to be the more outrageous the better, and he has a long history of causing offence.

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