My disdain for the tone of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency in 2016 knows virtually no bounds. From advocating torture “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to labelling Latino immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”, his views feel morally reprehensible. Yet the more I watch his political manoeuvring, the more impressed I am with it.
There can be no doubt that Donald Trump is running a fantastically successful campaign – in no small part because he mentions it at every event and debate. As he said himself after achieving victory in South Carolina, “Actually I won everything, I won short people, tall people. I won fat people, skinny people. I won highly educated, OK educated, and practically not educated at all. I won the evangelicals big and I won the military.” While his ascendancy to the top of the polls last summer could be attributed to simple name recognition, it now must be accepted as more than that. He has 743 pledged delegates, 227 more than Ted Cruz, he’s won twenty one of the thirty seven states who have so far voted, and he is the overwhelming favourite to be the nominee. He is running an incredibly astute campaign that has taken advantage of the insatiable desire of the 24-hour media for stories, the American peoples’ disillusionment with Washington and the radicalisation of the Republican Party. Let’s look at these in turn.
Last summer his ascendancy to the top of the polls could be attributed to simple name recognition, it now must be accepted as more than that.
Donald Trump understands and works the media better than any other Republican candidate. According to The New York Times, Trump has received the equivalent of $1.9 billion in television coverage, equivalent to 62% of the candidate-focused TV coverage of the GOP race, despite having spent only $10 million on paid advertising. This has always been Trump’s plan. When exploring the notion of running for President, Trump believed he could revolutionise the race by dominating the media and dictating the discourse. He does this by doing what political strategist Lynton Crosby would call ‘throwing a dead cat on the table’. This means that whenever the media begin talking about Ted Cruz or John Kasich, Trump will say something outrageous, such as his recent
comments about punishing women who undergo illegal abortions. It halts the conversation, suffocates the other candidates of media attention and allows him to promote the issues he wants to talk about. This constant media attention has given him legitimacy as a candidate and allowed him to dictate the issues of the race for the GOP nomination.
In addition to playing the media, Trump is also vastly helped by his outsider status. The American electorate are angry. The American dream appears to have failed them and the politicians in Washington seem only to serve big business, the rich and themselves. The perception is that America is in decline and that career politicians are unable or unwilling to arrest it. Donald Trump, with his desire to “Make America Great Again”, is perceived as the perfect outsider who can make a real change. Tom Hartnick, an unemployed delivery driver from Nevada, summarised this sentiment speaking to The Guardian – “Frankly, I couldn’t tell you what Cruz’s or Rubio’s policies are. I don’t know if they would be good or bad for the country. I don’t know enough to know. But I do know that if Fox News is treating them with kid gloves then they’re not calling their own shots. They’re serving someone else. I believe Trump is the only one who will serve the American people.” As a result, Trump’s lack of experience has been turned from a negative to a sign of the fact that he is there truly to serve the people.
The perception is that America is in decline and career politicians are unable or unwilling to arrest it. Donald Trump is perceived as the perfect outsider who can make a real change.
Trump has also benefited from a Republican party that has veered to the right during the Obama Administration. The rise of the Tea Party and figures like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin mean that Trump’s political views do not represent those of a radical but rather the consensus of many Republican voters. Indeed beyond immigration, his positions are moderate when considered within the context of the GOP. He is more left wing than Cruz or Rubio on taxes, more left wing than Rubio on military spending and on abortion he had to move significantly right to get in line with many mainstream Republicans. Whilst he makes offensive remarks on what seem like an almost daily basis, he is often expressing views held by many Republicans, publicly or privately.
When all this is considered the Trump candidacy is not so surprising. After all this is an election cycle when media coverage is more crucial than ever, just ask the most thoughtful and best qualified GOP candidate John Kasich (and if you don’t know who John Kasich is then you’ve proved my point). This is an election cycle where mistrust of Washington has hit an all time high. This is an election cycle when the Republican Party has veered right yet again. And as such perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is an election cycle where a Trump candidacy is a not just possible but increasingly probable.