For over two decades he made overtures about wanting to run for President, but it never happened. Pundits and observers claimed that this was merely a ploy to bolster his public standing and enhance his brand. They were proved wrong when Donald Trump launched his campaign and is now contesting for the White House.
Within days of his announcement, Trump found himself at the top of every major poll among the Republican candidates. Political experts and psephologists stepped in again and were quick to dismiss his meteoric rise as a “flash in the pan”. Well, it has been over two months since his candidature was announced and he still finds himself on the top of every poll, including the poll conducted about the recent Fox News debate where an emphatic 66% thought that he was the winner. All this despite the many controversial statements and claims of a lack of specificity to his ideas. So what is the reason behind his staying power and why do the American people seem to gravitate towards him? Let’s begin with look at the state of traditional politics in America.
When the traditional politician plans to launch a campaign to run for office, a sad discovery is made that the cost involved to pay staff salaries, run TV adverts, manage a social media campaign, conduct polls and research is in the order of millions. For a Presidential campaign the cost could go as high as half a billion dollars. To understand how high the stakes are, it is said that Obama and Romney spent a total of 1.7 billion dollars for their campaigns. Seldom does a candidate self-fund a campaign, hence the candidate has to either opt for a large number of small donations or a small number of large donations. The former is clearly the more honorable option, but often takes time and relies largely on recognition of the candidate. For new candidates it is an impossible proposition. Hence the second option is chosen and tacit quid pro quo deals are struck. When the candidate gets to office, he or she first has to fulfil obligations to the big donors that includes voting for bills and backing of projects. The folks who pay their salaries with their tax money are often a distant second priority.
On the communication front, most politicians have mastered the art of talking a lot without saying anything. During the campaign the candidate has a team full of advisors that includes strategists, pollsters, media experts and handlers. These people are responsible for the political spiel and spin that emanate from the candidate. A great deal of precaution has to be taken that no offense to potential voters is caused. As a result, the candidate ends up saying only what the audience wants to hear.
The combined result of the power of big donors and highly controlled politically correct communication is a candidate who operates almost on autopilot. He or she sounds, behaves and reacts disingenuously, often toes the party line and always serves the interests of corporate houses and lobbies. The voters have heard these empty promises, seen them deliver very little and have felt their hopes destroyed. But since the US has a two party system the voters seem to have very little choice and the absence of any reforms with respect to campaign finance means that the narrative of the wealthy buying politicians is not going to change any time soon.
America is also far from being in respectable shape. The Islamic State is wreaking havoc, the US economy is sluggish and then there is a problem of illegal immigration. Many voters are fed up of feckless politicians proving totally ineffective in solving their problems.
And then Trump storms into the presidential race. Trump is wealthy enough to fund his own campaign and that means he will not have to go before rich donors with a begging bowl. His brutally frank talk has resonated with voters who despise the phony political baffle. Trump has been on the right side of many issues. Upon launching his campaign, Trump aggressively highlighted the serious problem of illegal immigration that has plagued the United States. In just few days after these assertions were made, Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old American citizen was shot by an illegal alien who had several felony convictions and was deported from the United States five times. The news was received by many as another example of the government being ineffective in protecting its citizens.
Trump also attacked the establishment for its shameful treatment of wounded war veterans – another issue that resonated with everybody. While President Obama seems to lack any cohesive strategy to deal with ISIS, Trump says he would aggressively pursue them and bring them to their knees. He even suggests he will bring the oil from Iraq back to the US and use the money to re-build the country. Trump has always hammered China and he was proven right when China recently manipulated their currency to gain economic advantage, which led to chaos in global stock markets. While most candidates toe the party line, Trump is balanced in attacking both parties equally. This has resulted in both establishment Republicans and Democrats slamming and ridiculing him. The press, which is also hand in glove with most establishment politicians, has been equally vicious.
With the powers that be almost united in their attack, Trump seems to have become the lone anti-establishment warrior for millions of voters who have had enough and are enthused with Trump’s tough talking and open calling-out of the pretenders. What Trump has also done is get many who would normally not tune in to get engaged with the political process. The Fox News debate attracted 24 million viewer, most of them clearly tuning in to watch Trump say it like it is. Trump means rating for TV and hence you see most media houses eager to get Trump on their stations. This ensures the Trump juggernaut keeps going. While it is too soon to call the winner of the nomination, the indications from the polls show that Trump clearly has a huge advantage.
Critics complain that Trump has not put forth any specific plans. But that hardly matters because Trump has struck a chord like never before. For them, he is a man who is hugely successful and will make them like him. He is under no compulsion so bow before the establishment, be it big donors, the mainstream media or even his own political party. A recent Fox News poll suggests that has around 25% of Republican voters supporting him. While that’s not enough to secure the nomination, the number can increase as other candidates drop out of the race.
Much like the outraged TV anchor in the film Network, Americans are telling the powers that be, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” These people see Trump as the man of the hour who can make their country great again.