Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States, and the GOP certainly doesn’t seem happy about it. It’s not just the GOP that appears to be less than happy about Trump; pundits, politicians and prognosticators alike have thrown up their hands, cried to the heavens, and declared the Fates mad. There is some justification to their distress. Trump is not, after all, what the GOP would typically want in a standard-bearer. He has little political experience, his positions are all over the map, and his grasp on economic realities can be described as tenuous at best.
So how did the GOP, Trump, and the voting public all get to this point? Well, there are several factors at play here, but the most important one is that Trump plays to the weariness of voters with the political process in general. The bailout of the auto and banking industries, the slow economic recovery hallmarked by lower paying jobs and decreased purchasing power, the constant wrangling between the Obama Administration and his GOP counterparts in Congress; these have all led to a sense of malaise that has voters fed up with their current crop of elected leaders. Trump, who regularly and bombastically ridicules these career public servants has tapped into this dissatisfaction, and, much to the GOP’s dismay, Trump has become a sort of cult hero or prophet to his loyal core of rabid followers.
This is an important distinction, as Trump does not enjoy the support of the majority of the voting population, or even the support of most of the voting members of the GOP. To GOP faithful, such issues as scuttling the Iran nuclear deal, abolishing the government-funded healthcare boondoggle known as PPACA, and scaling back affirmative action are all worthy positions for the GOP to take. Trump has come out in support of all these things, and his supporters don’t care. The GOP, the political haven for the Christian right, naturally looks askance at the thrice-married Trump, who has also declared bankruptcy four times to avoid repayment on the debt he incurred in making bad business decisions. Again, his supporters don’t care.
What the GOP failed to take into account prior to Trump’s ascendancy is that Trump was shrewdly tapping into public dissatisfaction to build a personality cult. In discussing how Saddam Hussein came to dominate the political life of Iraq, Abdi noted in the Journal of Social Archaeology that Hussein preached a “nationalist ideology (which) further stressed the distinctness and ancientness of Iraq.” While America is by no means ancient, Trump has preached his own brand of nationalist ideology, complete with blaming foreigners and immigrants for America’s ills, and promising to make the nation great again. Even in a party such as the GOP, partially defined by a belief in American exceptionalism, this strain of nationalism is so foreign and virulent, that the advent of Mr. Trump threatens to fracture the GOP, perhaps permanently.
In Bernie Sanders, the Democrats have their own version of Mr. Trump; yet, while Mr. Sanders constantly nips at front-runner Hillary Clinton’s heels, Mrs. Clinton remains the party’s standard-bearer (although Mr. Sanders remains a Clinton indictment away from seizing that role). In a sense, though, Sanders simply represents the extreme left of what is already a left-leaning party. He is hardly redefining what it means to be a Democrat, while Mr. Trump is pulling the GOP in an entirely different direction.
Oddly enough, Trump is hardly the first populist member of the GOP to threaten to fracture his party. Teddy Roosevelt very nearly destroyed the party with his irrational vendetta against his one-time friend, President Taft. However, Roosevelt was no political newbie, having once been president himself, and he split the GOP running as a third-party candidate. What Trump is doing is not unique in other countries, but hardly common in the U.S. Trump’s candidacy more closely resembles that of Argentina’s Peron, Germany’s Hitler, or Italy’s Mussolini. More recently, one can point to Russia and Putin, or Venezuela and Chavez to draw obvious parallels. In what must be of great concern to the GOP, in wife Melania, Trump even his oven version of the Evas, Braun and Peron, the glamorous former model who would bring a previously unknown element to the normally staid White House.
How this will all end is not known. Trump is not favored by the majority of the electorate, but he may not have to be. The GOP is split, with stalwarts such as House Speaker Paul Ryan refusing to support Trump, but considering that he is the GOP’s nominee nevertheless, how much sway will they hold come election time. As the persistent campaign of Sanders shows, Mrs. Clinton is not the most popular person within her own party. While somewhat unlikely, it is still entirely possible that Sanders supporters will cast their votes in favor of fellow populist Trump come November, giving Trump control of the White House, and the direction of the GOP for the foreseeable future. However unlikely that might be, is it any more so than a cult of personality making Trump the nominee of the GOP?
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