WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s unexpected popularity is largely the result of the unappealing mediocrity of the rest of the Republican field. At the beginning of this campaign, many pundits commented that “this time” the GOP has come out in full force, displaying an impressive array of super competent heavy hitters. Well, this is just ridiculous. Most of the 17 contenders are just mediocrities who do a pretty bad job trying to pose as inspired leaders.
And it is precisely the shop worn appearance of so many would-be presidents (Mike Huckabee, Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, among others) that gave Trump an opening. Most of the GOP contenders are tired robots endlessly repeating ultra-rehearsed and bland talking points. Frankly, most of them look like what they are: retreads.
And the young blood, (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul), also look bad: inexperienced, ideological, or positively weird. As for the “reliable” candidates, (Jeb Bush, John Kasich), whatever their records as policy-makers and real qualifications, they look boring and uninspiring.
In an instinctive way, Trump saw all this. He realized that at least one segment of the public wants “Guts and Glory“. They want a “Man“. A Man who looks big and talks big. Never mind the actual substance, the coherence, the feasibility of what he proposes. It is enough to look credible. It is enough to look good on TV. This is the triumph of style over substance.
Well, Trump knows how to blend generic populism, (“I’ll make America great“), plain demagoguery, (“I’ll kick out all the illegal immigrants”), personal attacks, (“People fall asleep when they listen to Jeb Bush”), histrionics, (releasing Senator Lindsey Graham’s personal phone number), some vaudeville quality humor, and a lot more.
They are all stupid
But his real strength rests in pointing out, in a ferocious way, how all his Republican opponents are vastly overrated professional politicians who are in the pockets of big donors. They have no vision, cheat the voters, do not deliver, and –most of all—have been around essentially forever.
There is nothing new in a wave of populist, anti-establishment sentiment. Sadly, It happens every now and then in America. “Throw the rascals out”. Trump’s genius is that he managed to feel this wave of disgust for establishment politicians when all the pros and the seasoned pundits did not. Then he jumped ahead of it, and now he both leads it and rides it.
A sorry-looking establishment
Yes, much can be said about the sorry state of a Washington byzantine political process controlled and in a sense “occupied” by a small elite of professional politicians (three terms Senators, 12 or 14 terms Representatives) propelled to the pinnacle of national politics not by personal virtue but by complex alliances with special interest groups who pick this person or the other as the most suitable elected representative to defend “their issues” in Washington, DC.
Beholden to special interests
Yes, it is disheartening to see how large agribusiness controls the allocation of farm subsidies and bogus energy programs like corn-based ethanol. On the other side of the political divide, the Teamsters and various teachers unions protect their interests via their unyielding support to Democrats who really need the large, disciplined and well-organized manpower rolled out by the unions at election time to help Democratic candidates get elected. So here is the bargain: “We got you elected. But now you work for us”.
In all this, there is ever-growing government spending, too much debt, lack of accountability, waste, and a lot worse.
Trump is different
Hence Trump’s appeal. He promises that he will clean house. He can claim that he is a successful CEO, and therefore naturally suited to engineer a complete Washington make-over. He has his own money, plenty of it, and therefore he is not beholden to any special interest. He will take care of America’s interest. He’ll kick ass.
When it comes to the world, he’ll re-balance our trade with China and Japan –in no time. (This is all about protectionism and trade wars). He’ll build a wall on the southern border, and then force Mexico to pay for it. (This is totally preposterous). The bigger the ideas, the better. The point is not to say something doable. The point is to impress. And unfortunately there are millions of Americans who want to be impressed.
There have been other anti-establishment political insurgents. Some did well, at least for a while. But, even as they presented themselves as outsiders, they worked within the system.
Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan
If we look back, in 1976 Jimmy Carter was one of them. As the former Governor of Georgia, with zero connections at the national level, Carter was a most improbable presidential candidate. And yet he won in 1976 because his theme of moral rectitude (“I shall never tell a lie”) seemed to be the right medicine that America needed after the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate.
And Ronald Reagan was another successful populist who could claim that he would come to Washington as the California outsider who would drastically reduce the size of government and cut taxes, this way unshackling the righteous resourcefulness of the average, mostly virtuous, American.
There is no plan
But now, with Trump, we have a different would-be leader. He is the instant political celebrity who stays a celebrity not because he has a coherent program to sell, but simply because he is constantly outrageous. His “vision” is that he should be elected because he is smart, and all the others are weak and ineffective.
Unfortunately, what we observe is that Trump is popular because he keeps his audience attention mostly by being offensive, irreverent and outrageous.
In a sense, he is a conservative version of TV icon Jon Stewart. Stewart’s “Daily Show” was very popular, especially among young viewers. His well-crafted political satire exposed the failings, the ethical breaches, the inconsistencies, and more of the Washington political elites in a funny, biting, and irreverent way. While he obviously targeted the right more than the left, Stewart’s satire was overall beneficial. It is good to remind the public that most of the time “the Emperor has no clothes”.
The critical difference here is that Stewart is not running for office, while Trump wants to be President. And he wants to be President by lampooning his opponents, without having articulated any coherent policy agenda. Exposing other people’s fallacies is a skill. It can work wonders during a campaign. But it is not a substitute for leadership.
Many Americans love this
And here is the larger problem. I can understand how millions of Americans are fed up with professional politicians beholden to special interests who seem unable to take care of basic matters, like rebalancing federal expenditures.
That said, the enthusiasm towards Trump reveals a most superficial approach towards public policy. Choosing to vote for Trump mostly because you find his dismissive and openly offensive rhetoric appealing is a bad idea. And it is equally a bad idea to accept as sound policy Trump’s grandiose rhetoric with all his promises about restoring America’s greatness via trade wars, and more.
It seems that Trump’s supporters treat Trump as if he were a reality TV show hero. The guy who stays on top because he is clever and defiant. But this is not about being clever on TV. This is about running America.
America needs a real heavy weight leader
Yes, you may agree with Donald Trump that South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is a lightweight. But this does make Trump a real heavy weight. A heavy weight national leader will build a majority around a coherent, sustainable agenda aimed at promoting real economic growth, fiscal rectitude, sound national security, government effectiveness and social cohesion.
A large number of people love to watch Trump when he calls all his opponents stupid. But, even assuming that some of them are, this name calling is not a demonstration of enlightened leadership.