How did Donald Trump, a man rated one year ago with no chance of becoming a presidential nominee, turn Republican voters to his side? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The rise and rise of Republican wildcard Donald Trump

Presumptive Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Presumptive Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump.

So what has long been inevitable is now confirmed – Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate for the 2016 United States election. To write this is to accept the frailty of conventional wisdom. One year ago, no one – including those paid princely sums for their prophecies – accepted this outcome as even a remote possibility. Now the result smashes the glib assuredness of punditry.

Trump’s announcement of his candidacy in June last year, made after he descended a gilded escalator in the New York tower that bears his name, was accompanied by snorts of derision or delight. The start of Trump’s campaign coincided with Jon Stewart’s final months as the liberal host of the satirical The Daily Show, and he greeted the announcement as a “gift from heaven”. For the comic, the candidacy was a generous fount of ridicule – the quixotic quest of a man born to be lampooned. “Thank you ... for making my last six weeks my best six weeks,” Stewart said gleefully. But now the joke’s on him. 

“Trump, we now know, had been considering running for president for decades,” the commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote this week. “Those who didn’t see him coming — or kept treating him as a joke — had not yet absorbed the precedents of Obama and Palin or the power of the new wide-open system to change the rules of the political game. Trump was as underrated for all of 2015 as Obama was in 2007.”

No amount of rhetoric offered to oppose Trump – and there is a mountain of it – has mattered. Gallons of ink have been spilt on agonised editorials. Late-night hosts have treated Trump’s ego as a piñata. His own party has described him as dangerous and deranged. Bafflement, fear and nausea have been expressed. But if anything, the slew of lofty criticism has only confirmed for Trump’s supporters that out-of-touch elites are conspiring to retain the status quo that their man promises to dismantle. “Trump [will not] be defeated by the putatively scathing critiques of the commentariat (including this one),” wrote The New Yorker’s editor in March. 

There has been a mutual incomprehension between Trump’s supporters and critics. The “scathing critiques” have mostly been a litany of Trump’s sins, rather than an examination of the frustrations with which he has so successfully communed – namely the disintegration of American industry and the commensurate despair of blue-collar workers. Between 1999 and 2013, the suicide rate for white middle-aged American men rose 20 per cent after a long decline during the 1990s. Rates remained stable for the young and the old, and the numbers had actually declined for African-Americans and remains lower than whites. Andrew Sullivan argued this week that the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, would have to “moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers [Trump] … and address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class.” 

If countless critiques haven’t mattered, nor have the vulgar, intemperate words of Trump himself. By the measure of precedent, one-tenth of the things he has said should have torpedoed his campaign. Take your pick: that most Mexicans are rapists; that Vladimir Putin is an enviable leader; that the probing questions of a female news anchor were the result of menstruation. Trump has endorsed torture, encouraged violence at his rallies, and threatened riots at the GOP convention should he be denied the candidacy. Garrulous and impulsive, Trump has daily offered hateful and ignorant epithets. But none of these have counted. 

Or perhaps they have. Trump is the first presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower to have never occupied elected office. His candidacy, originally thought novel, is almost revolutionary. Trump promised to be different – and he has been. He is never anything but himself. Trump doesn’t gag unsavoury aspects of his personality – he celebrates them. For his supporters, his vulgarisms and conspiracy theories aren’t grounds for dismissal – they’re proof of a man unencumbered by manners or orthodoxy. 

What seems simultaneously attractive and dangerous about Trump is his lack of shame. There is a wild brazenness to Trump, apparently made more compelling for its lack of sophistication. This shamelessness has given Trump an asbestos suit. He walks comfortably through fires that he himself has lit. He doesn’t yield to criticism or qualify statements. He reinforces them. In the face of “politics as usual”, this narcissistic obstinacy – this refusal to be embarrassed – might seem heroic. Trump has discovered, perhaps accidentally, the rewards of being unapologetic. Insincere retractions or qualifications are precisely the kind of cynical contortions that have numbed or enraged voters. 

Desperate comparisons have been made with Adolf Hitler’s rise in a Germany bedevilled by unemployment, injured pride and the distrust of foreigners. There are echoes of Weimar today. But America offers its own precedents for craven populists and demagogues. Perpetual presidential candidate George Wallace was the four-time governor of Alabama, a man who announced upon coming to office: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” A Democrat, Wallace nonetheless ran for the presidency as an independent in 1968 and won 13 per cent of the popular vote. 

But perhaps a closer parallel to Trump is Huey Long. Like Wallace, he was a southern governor, a gifted, craven and corrupt demagogue who was nonetheless praised as a populist hero. In 1933, Time magazine reported Long’s appearance at a party: “His strident voice rang out louder than usual as he barged around among the other diners. He sat down with strangers, made himself objectionable with vulgar greetings. Spotting a plump girl with a full plate before her, he marched to her table, snatched the plate from her, yapped: ‘You’re too fat already. I’ll eat this.’ ”

But unlike Trump, Long proudly declared his impoverished origins – even though he was born to middle-class parents – and promised to provide Louisiana with improved education and infrastructure. Trump is a hereditary billionaire and the only infrastructure he speaks of is his own. When Long first ran for governor in 1928, he used the phrase “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown”. But in 2016 it seems a good part of America wants just one king and minds not if he is jester as well.

In a year in which any moderate Republican candidate would likely have become president, the GOP is now led by a man who seems destined to gift the Democrats a third consecutive term in the White House – though I appreciate that Trump’s very nomination should chill any confidence I might have in speculations. Regardless, general polling suggests Trump’s electoral toxicity. He has profoundly alienated black, Hispanic and female Americans, and his own party has already scripted the Democrats’ attack ads. “If Donald Trump’s plans were ever implemented, the country would sink into a prolonged recession,” former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in March. “Donald Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin, while [he] has called George W. Bush a liar. That is a twisted example of evil trumping good. There is dark irony in his boasts of his sexual exploits during the Vietnam War while John McCain, whom he has mocked, was imprisoned and tortured. Dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark.”

Regardless of the outcome in November, the phenomenon of Trump cannot be ignored. His success speaks of enormous anxieties – anxieties also reflected in Bernie Sanders’ unexpected popularity. While vastly different men, there are similarities in their campaigns. Both are hostile towards free trade arrangements and both – although Trump is inconsistent on this matter – incline towards isolationism when discussing foreign policy. Both campaigns have spoken to declining American labour, wage stagnation, general economic alienation. If Trump were to win the presidency, it would likely be secured by industrial, working-class states that have traditionally voted Democrat. 

For now, though, we wait for each party’s convention in July and the official start of the general campaign. We wait to see if a man who has validated America’s darkest passions, who has championed torture and the expulsion of Muslims, who seeks economic protectionism and praises dictators, might acquire the nuclear codes. “I tremble at the thought of Trump being president,” John Howard said in February. “There’s an instability about him that bothers me.” 

We’ll see in November if a sufficient number of Americans think the same.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Flipping his Whigs".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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