Guest Editorial: Why Trump is riding high

Chicago Tribune
Dec. 13
Guest Editorial

If someone were looking for a clinic on how a political candidacy can self-destruct, it would be hard to do better than Donald Trump’s campaign, which has consisted of one gaffe after another.

He referred to Mexican migrants as “rapists,” implied Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions because she was menstruating, claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheered on 9/11, disparaged Carly Fiorina’s face and called for a temporary ban on the entry of foreign Muslims to the United States. Politics is about appealing to voters, and Trump’s chief talent is offending them.

But Trump has not self-destructed. In fact, he has proved impervious to controversies that would sink ordinary candidates. In the latest CBS/New York Times national poll, conducted mostly before his proposal on Muslim arrivals, he had 35 percent of Republican voters, more than double the figure for his closest rival, Ted Cruz.

Trump, unlike conventional politicians, has found that the best way to appeal to some people is by offending others — and the more grossly, the better. There lies the secret of his success so far. Trump does best with voters who are disgusted by the state of the country, contemptuous of the people governing them, hostile to the news media and happy to raise a middle finger to the traditional political process.

They like him because he is so different from the campaign norm. He says things he isn’t supposed to say, heaps ridicule on those who criticize him and vows to do all the things previous leaders have proved unable to do — whether it’s defeat the Islamic State or stop unauthorized immigration.

Trump sounds confident and makes such tasks sound easy. For voters impatient with complexity and incremental change, that makes him irresistible.

His admirers are also strikingly indifferent to anything critics say. Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently convened 29 current or former Trump supporters for a focus group and spent three hours exposing them to negative information about him. “Normally, if I did this for a campaign, I’d have destroyed the campaign by this point,” he told The Washington Post. But in this case, the effect was to make them like Trump even more.

Some of the fondness for Trump stems from attitudes that range from unsavory to vicious. He offers a refuge for voters who are bigoted toward minorities, intolerant of beliefs they don’t share and eager to believe the worst about Barack Obama — whom many of them simply hate. One of the focus group participants volunteered, “I wouldn’t urinate on him if he was on fire.” Another went further: “I’d throw gas on him.”

Fellow GOP presidential contender Lindsey Graham offered an explanation for Trump’s popularity: “There’s about 40 percent of the Republican primary voter who believes that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim.” Trump is happy to indulge those voters. Noting Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” he encouraged his audience to suspect the worst: “There is something going on with him that we don’t know about.”

Suspicious attitudes toward public figures are more likely to find expression in the voting booth in times of anxiety and uncertainty. Over the past decade, Americans have gone through a brutal recession, an underwhelming recovery, two costly and inconclusive wars, and the rise of an ominous new terrorist threat abroad. Many Americans feel they’ve been punished or left behind, and not without reason.

The CBS/New York Times poll found that 64 percent of voters “would be concerned or scared about what he would do if he became president.” You find Trump frightening? A lot of his supporters would say: Glad to hear it.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan won re-election on the theme, “It’s morning in America.” In 2008, Obama offered the nation “hope.” This time, fear, disenchantment and even hostility seem to predominate. Getting behind Trump is a way of expressing those feelings.

Trump’s existing support isn’t likely to dry up any time soon. Republicans who talk about brokering the convention to deny him the nomination, or somehow drumming him out of the party, simply feed the suspicion of his followers that the elites are out to get him, and them.