WASHINGTON – How do you explain the “Trump Phenomenon”? It is easier than you think. Traditional democratic capitalism is short of breath, ideas and leaders. If this is true in Europe and in Japan, it is also true in America.
The Japanese for the moment trust Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an old school politician with a new varnish. But he is failing. He could not deliver on his promises to boldly transform the country. We shall see how Japanese society will react to the obvious decline of what until the 1980s used to be a self-assured world power.
In Europe it is a mixed bag. Some traditional political forces are doing alright. But there is also a brand new universe of anti-system parties, from the National Front in France, to Podemos in Spain, or 5 Stelle in Italy. These are the new, rebellious parties that emerged in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. (The French National Front is older. But it gained strength after the global recession).
Their policies capture the anger, resentment and fear about an uncertain economic future felt by millions in Europe. Until now, these new parties have been disturbances rather than real political insurgencies. But it may get worse.
We got Trump
And in the US we got Donald Trump. (We also got Bernie Sanders on the far left. But his impact on the system is likely to be much more limited. Hillary Clinton, although taken aback by Sanders’ aggressive campaign, will regain momentum. She is a shopworn old school politician. But the Democrats in the end will pick her. And America may very well follow suit, if the Republicans pick Trump as their nominee).
But so, what about Trump’s rise? Well, it is mostly about American voters who (just like their European counterparts) are at the same time worried, scared, angry, and deeply disappointed in the ability of traditional parties to improve their conditions.
Let’s start with disappointed. Many Trump supporters feel in their gut that America has lost its sheen. We do barely OK. We do not excel anymore. We are no longer number one. (As Trump says: “We are not winning anymore”). Our economy is limping along. We do not lead in most sectors. Most of our consumer products are made in China. Many old fashioned “good jobs”, mostly in manufacturing, are gone –for good it seems.
In foreign policy, nobody can see any victories. in 2001 we went to war in Afghanistan, and it went badly. In 2003 we started another war in Iraq, and it ended up horribly. Thousands of American soldiers dead. Tens of thousands came back without arms or legs. And nothing, really nothing to show for this huge effort that cost American tax payers trillion of dollars. Afghanistan is still fighting against the Taliban. Iraq is a horrible mess, while Iran has extended its influence there.
We are not safe
In the meantime, thanks to irresponsible saturation media coverage, Islamic terrorism is portrayed as a looming threat. We are told that we are under daily attack. Tomorrow it may be our turn to be targeted by a crazy jihadist. Yes, this perception is wrong. And yet many believe this to be factually correct.
And who can fix any of this? Who can make us once again prosperous, safe and proud? Not the Washington, DC GOP crowd. And not even experienced, battle tested, Republican Governors who after all can point to a record as chiefs executives. They are all yesterdays’ people.
A huge opening
So, none of the above.
And so here is a huge opening for Donald Trump.
He jumped on the national scene as the new “No-Nonsense”, “I’ll tell it like it is” brand of leader. And this is his message. “I am rich, because I am successful. And I am successful because I am smart. If you elect me, I’ll put all my talent to work, and I’ll fix America, in no time; trust me. The traditional politicians are in the pockets of the special interests who fund their campaigns. And these people are not just corrupt, they are also unimaginative, weak and stupid. I am the best”
Attitude, not policies
Well, this is about it. Yes, there may be Trump policy positions papers on this and that. But I bet that very few Trump supporters could name any.
They simply like “the Man”. They like the fact that he is self-assured and unscripted. And yes, they like that he is blunt, indeed at times vulgar and openly offensive when attacking his opponents. Who cares anyway? Those Washington professional politicians do not deserve any respect.
Well, now we understand how a deep “disappointment”, created a space for Trump. And it follows that when disappointed voters no longer believe their leaders, they are likely to be also angry, and worried about their future. Hence the craving for someone entirely different.
That said, this is incredibly immature. I understand disappointment. To a degree. The problem is that many voters do not understand that broader issues, such as “lack of innovation” that leads to “lack of new jobs”, may not have quick political solutions. Certainly no short term fixes. You may elect whomever you want, but the issues will still be there. Because they are rooted in systemic weaknesses that cannot be resolved in a short time.
Furthermore, being angry is not a good argument for blind faith in a populist with zero public policy experience. Electing a President entails a lot more than savoring the thought that he will kick the old guard out.
This is show business
Finally, the Trump phenomenon demonstrates how politics is now deeply blended with entertainment. Nobody cares about well-crafted policy positions. Nobody cares about a good resume. People care about how the candidates look on TV.
They want to see who wins the verbal duels. They wait for the clever punch line. In other words, this is the triumph of appearance versus substance. This is why outrageous statements get an applause. This is show business. And in show business the unusual entertainer quite often has an edge.
Now, let’s look at Trump’s large support. In the early primaries he has done very well. However, is the 32% to 34% he is getting Trump’s floor, the base on which he will build an even wider support? Or is it his ceiling?
I tend to believe that this is a ceiling. Many polls indicate that Trump has very high unfavorable numbers. In other words, while 30% of Republican primaries voters really love him, most of the others really dislike him. Besides, in other polls, Trump is no one’s second choice. In other words, at the moment the chances of extending the considerable Trump base do not look that good.
This of course may change. If he keeps winning, even with only 30 or 35% of all votes cast, (remember that there will a number of “winner takes all” primaries), the rest of the party faithful may agree that he is not so bad after all. People want to back a winner.
At the moment Trump’s victories look a lot bigger because the “Establishment” has come to this crucial political battle quite disunited. In a word: just too many candidates that caused a fragmentation of the “non Trump” votes.
Which is to say that being number one with 35% looks positively great when number two is way behind, at 22%, while number 4 or 5 are in single digits. Well, now Chris Christie is gone and, after his South Carolina debacle, Jeb Bush also left the scene. This creates an opportunity for consolidation of the Moderate/Establishment votes around one candidate, most likely Marco Rubio.
But this is not happening fast enough. Ohio Governor John Kasich is still hanging on, (God knows for what reasons). And this makes it a lot more difficult for Marco Rubio, the best placed among the more palatable candidates, to become the rallying point of the traditional Republicans who rightfully see Trump as a calamity and a guarantee of a major defeat in November.
The Establishment Republicans may still have a chance to coalesce around Rubio, this way making him a much stronger candidate. But this window of time will close very soon.
Will Trump mania fade?
Who knows, may be the “Trump mania”, based on Trump’s behavior rather than his policies, may fade. It is true that in this celebrity saturated American culture, the shelf life of at least some celebrities is not that long.
Still, this may not be an issue for Trump. He does not have to campaign for another year. He needs to keeps his momentum going for just a few more months. After that, he may have secured enough delegates to win the GOP nomination.
And that would be an extraordinary achievement for a complete outsider.
Winning the White House
But at that point the real fight begins. At that point the battle will be about convincing, not just a majority of the Republican base, but more than half the Nation that he is the best leader for all Americans.
And that is a very high bar. His hard-core base of 35% or even 40% angry Republicans, as loyal as it can be, will not be enough to get Trump into the White House.