Donald Trump’s campaign for presidential office has resulted in a long list of controversial remarks and actions. Martin Healy looks to examine how Trump’s popularity continues in spite of this.
“We are going to make our country rich again, we are going to make our country great again.” US president hopeful Donald Trump was quick to stick to his campaign slogan during the introductions in the Republican Primary debate last month. He quickly followed this up by mentioning his ‘billions’, the military, and then his plan to remove ‘Obamacare’.
Trump makes for an intriguing figurehead during this presidential primary. The key comes from that “Make America Great Again” mantra – Trump is attempting to cash in on the political disillusionment that has sunk into American life since the Watergate scandal. A decade of financial ruin, wars, mass shootings and whistle-blowers has allowed Trump to craft the idea of a country that America can be once again. Just like Nigel Farage and UKIP, he is idealising a nation from the past that has never actually existed.
It is not difficult to see why Trump has generated a lot of headlines. His rhetoric is blunt, but effective. What comes across as racism and empty statements to some can also be exciting and refreshing to others. The oft-stereotyped “Average Joe” can look to Trump’s campaign and see a man taking risks and looking to create change – he is a rich man that brings echoes of the “American Dream”, the everyday man taking a shot at Washington.
What has allowed Trump to sustain his popularity? For one, it is certainly difficult to go long without hearing his name in the headlines. Trump is a conveyer belt of sound bites and quotable statements. From his Twitter feed alone, blogs can find a constant stream of material. The media circus surrounding his campaign makes him unavoidable, perpetuating his image week after week.
Make America Great Again’ is vague rhetoric, but that makes it universally easy amongst his supporters in Middle America.”
It does not even matter if the media are mocking him. Instead, it serves as a constant reminder of his opinions and actions. His controversial and ridiculous statements surrounding Latin American immigrants earn him mockery from blogs and social media, and from people outside of the US, but it keeps his “telling it how it is” persona alive. No other candidate is able to declare such strong, often-bigoted opinions like Trump and not only continue to run, but continually top opinion polls.
Returning to the similarities to Farage, Trump is side-stepping the clean and airbrushed world of modern politics, which is earning him supporters from those who want ‘personality’ in their presidential hopefuls. In many Irish circles, his name produces ridicule, but everyone has an opinion on the man, which creates a potential avenue into elected office.
As the Republican Party’s policies and candidates have generated a growing tide of critics in recent years, Trump is distancing himself away from the party. Despite being the Republican frontrunner, he has talked before about running independently if his party nomination falls through. Trump also does not mince words with other Republican candidates, recently and consistently mocking fellow candidate Jeb Bush and his brother George W. Bush, stating that the former president was at fault for the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The Republican Party, which was a presidential force during the middle and late periods of the twentieth century, has suffered trying to return to the White House since the end of the Bush regime. Trump’s self-interest and independence aids him, as he can distance himself from a party suffering from an identity crisis. He can safely criticise the Bush presidency of the 2000s due to the nasty legacy it left in its wake. Running as an independent, however, would effectively win the election for the Democrats as the conservative vote would be split. As such, the party has to stick with Trump through his myriad controversies. As long as his popularity sustains, he holds a powerful bargaining chip within the party.
That popularity, despite slipping from its high in the late summer, looks set to continue. Trump’s polling numbers remain relatively steady in spite of himself. Recently he picked a fight with the centre outlet of conservative, right-wing America: Fox News. Trump declared that the station has treated him “very unfairly”, though he has reneged on his ‘boycott’ of Fox’s programming.
Few can doubt his ability to draw crowds. The first Republican debate was watched by over twenty million people. With the most popular shows on American television consisting of reality TV, Trump’s reality persona provides drama and entertainment that no other candidate can. Presidential elections are often criticised as being glorified popularity contests, but in Trump’s case, his attitude allows him to thrive as a reality star that entertains the American public whether they like his policies or not.
Considering his “Make America Great Again” slogan, there are parallels to how former President Ronald Reagan got in and sustained himself in the White House for two terms. In a recent essay for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about the legacy and endearing love America still has for former Hollywood icon John Wayne. Wayne is beloved for his fictional persona, which has been incorrectly transplanted onto Wayne’s real life and personality. Like Reagan, Petersen states, both men “hitched their images to an ambiguous idea of a return to simple American values, to when a man could be a man.” The same people who idealised men like Wayne in his birth place of Winterset, Iowa are the same who have given such support to the Trump campaign. “Make America Great Again” is vague rhetoric, but that makes it universally easy amongst his supporters in Middle America.
The modern world is often vilified as a scary place in the media, and as America battles with its own self-image in the age of surveillance, drone warfare, and Islamophobia, Trump stands as a platform for the unattainable. It is hard to deny the cult of personality that has risen up around himself and his followers, but at the same time, it is easy to dismiss any potential he has of electoral success. His potential presidential term may be guaranteed to fail, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be elected to serve a term to begin with, as long as he continues to cynically move to the demands of a huge and conservative sector of the United States.