Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Trump's rise and the threat to US civility

Published:Wednesday | March 2, 2016 | 3:00 AMMatthew Kopka
Donald Trump
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Recent wins in the Nevada, South Carolina, and New Hampshire Republican primaries suggest that Donald Trump has momentum as an outsider candidate in the party's presidential balloting, and has become the odds-on candidate to win its nomination. Trump appears to have the backing of enough angry voters to win many upcoming party primary elections, even as the field of candidates narrows.

Trump prevailed with 35 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, twice as much as his nearest rival, with a 10-point margin over his nearest rivals in South Carolina, and 20 per cent in Nevada. Yesterday's 'Super Tuesday' elections, when 13 states vote, may have given Trump a margin that will be hard to overcome.

Trump's rise is breathtaking - highly worrying for many - when his candidacy was still being ridiculed several weeks ago, not least by members of the Republican establishment. He has repeatedly said that Obama is not an American, seemed to encourage violence against protesters, and speaks with open hostility about immigrants. Trump says he is going to deport 11 million people.

 

FINAL COLLAPSE OF CIVILITY

 

Does Trump's rise herald a final collapse of civility in American politics, or something worse? Does he have a real chance to be president?

Though he brags about his deal-making prowess, Trump got his start the way many of the rich get theirs - by inheriting several hundred million dollars. With a current fortune of around $4 billion, founded on his father's real estate empire, Trump epitomises the one per cent of Americans who own 90 per cent of United States wealth, who have become the butt of protests on the American left.

Trump's nativist - sometimes overtly racist - rhetoric also appears to be part of his inheritance. Unless there was another Fred Trump who lived on Devonshire Road in Queens in 1927, it was Trump's father who was arrested after dozens of New York police were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan that year. (Since no charges were lodged, Trump told a New York Times reporter, "it shouldn't be mentioned".)

Trump claims he has always had good relations with "the blacks," as he has put it. But in 1973, Trump Management was sued for refusing to rent to African Americans (the company held 14,000 apartments at the time, many built with the government subsidies Trump's father excelled at securing). Trump says that his firm sought to avoid welfare recipients who "wouldn't be neat and clean".

In 1989, Trump infamously took out an ad in the New York Daily News demanding that the death penalty be extended to five under-aged youths who - it turned out - had been wrongly arrested for raping a Central Park jogger. When each was later paid a million dollars' restitution for each year he was imprisoned (one had been held 11 years), Trump was happy to move into the spotlight again, characterising the settlement as "a disgrace".

Trump has tweeted phony statistics suggesting that black people are responsible for most murders of white people, shouted encouragement as a black protester was shouldered from an appearance, and received the backing of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Vizier David Duke and other white supremacists.

The press can seem baffled by Trump, more interested in capturing his excesses than understanding why followers are passionate about him. But Trump's appeal isn't complicated - his followers crave his success and the stuff it has bought him. They cleave, if naively, to his outsider populism.

 

TRUMP'S FOLLOWERS

 

Trump's garbled syntax, his resort to snarling when words fail, suggest he's not so different from his followers. They love to see him turn to poke a finger in the eye of the Establishment - at least at its media lens. Trump's backers relish the idea that their votes might empower him to punish those they believe have stolen wealth they were entitled to, including US companies offshoring jobs; they love the idea that he will "make America great again!" There are a lot of revenge fantasies floating around America these days; to the degree that Trump ignites them in followers - or would enact them - he's frightening.

Trump points to just enough of the uncomfortable truth about the degree to which the economic game is rigged to make business-as-usual politicians squirm: Both parties have worked with big corporations to ensure a steady flow of immigrants to the country, he tells voters; this keeps wages down and a large supply of cheap labour available. Trump offers no real solutions to such problems (a national living wage might be the first best way to address the immigration issue). But Trump's manner of pointing out the hypocrisy makes him exciting for white voters who have not seen real wage rises since the 1970s, who suffer declining indices of well-being.

Indeed, white middle America is in decline. A recent study by Princeton economists shows that middle-aged white death rates are climbing much faster than they are for any other group. Whites, especially those in rural areas, struggle with poor health, addiction, and alcoholism, along with increasing rates of suicide.

This is the stark reality, the shrinking of privilege and living standards - against a backdrop of multicultural globalisation - that's fuelling anger across lower middle-class white America. At least until the recent rise of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party has not attempted to mobilise such people in decades.

Trump also says that he would bomb "the (expletive)" out of ISIS and that he'd "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding", the torture method that resurfaced in Afghanistan.

There's little reason to think the impulsive financier -very definition of a loose cannon - wouldn't use American military power in punishing, irresponsible fashion.

If Republican voters don't coalesce around another figure, immediately, Trump is their candidate. While former Florida governor Jeb Bush has dropped out of the race, the split between remaining candidates like Ted Cruz, a religious right candidate, and candidate Marco Rubio, supported by wealth backers, will continue dividing voters and give Trump victory.

The question of whether Trump can win November's general election could depend on his opponent. Trump remains deeply unappealing to many. A recent Gallup poll found that he was the least favourably viewed candidate in 25 years, looked on with disfavour by 60 per cent of Americans.

 

TRUMP'S OPPONENTS

 

But Trump uses up lots of media space and oxygen, in part because he's entertaining and draws watchers - the number of independents leaping on his bandwagon will be watched nervously. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders holds a 10-point edge against Trump in head-to-head matchups, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, for now, losing to the Republican upstart. The reason: Sanders appeals to many of the same fed-up independents Trump does.

There remains a serious likelihood, nonetheless, that Clinton and Trump will face off in November. Clinton has money and her party Establishment's backing, a large chunk of so-called 'super-delegates' who will vote for her no matter what. (The process isn't necessarily fair). Clinton wins in southern-state primaries, where voters are more conservative, may put the nomination out of Sanders' reach.

While Trump may not arrive at the July Republican convention with the votes to win outright, any attempt to deny him the nomination would cause furore, likely sparking an independent candidacy; Trump has threatened independent runs before.

Clinton, like Trump, also has strong negative ratings -less than half of Democratic voters in New Hampshire and Iowa said they found her trustworthy, with similar findings in Nevada. While Trump has plenty of skeletons in his walk-in closets (including the issue of immigrant labour, legal and illegal, that he has employed) if one or another of the scandals nipping at Clinton were to bite her more deeply, a Republican opponent might surge to victory.

 

SOMETHING TO WATCH

 

In different times, in a world where greater decency prevailed, Trump might already have faded. Instead, he has been emboldened, and in the run-up to the Nevada caucuses told audiences that he "would like to punch" one protester in the face. There's enough in Trump's past to disqualify a less grandiose character from running for dog catcher. There were signs at recent Republican debates that some party voters were tiring of his vulgarity; such disenchantment could grow.

A boor like Trump gives everyone something to watch when he shows up at the party, tending to grow more tiresome as the evening drags on. The question - of momentous importance to the republic - is whether Republican partygoers will ask to have Trump removed, or (should he prevail among them) whether the American people are ready for leadership that shades perilously close to outright fascism.

- Senior Writer Matthew Kopka is a Florida Interdisciplinary Ecologist. He has been writing for 'The Gleaner' since 2003.