In the dog days of August, the news channels have turned themselves into the Trump show. Bernie Sanders rouses the biggest crowds in obscurity while Trump floods the air waves.
Commentators still dismiss Trump as a summertime fling, a bad boy escape before voters settle down with a serious choice. But Trump is more than a celebrity. He has earned his high disapproval rates, but he also enjoys support across the Republican party. His ugly posturing over immigration expresses the fears and anger of much of the Republican base. And unlike his rivals, he speaks to the discontent of American voters more generally, particularly white male voters. Trump's tropes are not simply ravings. They are making a case that many Americans want to hear. Consider his major themes:
Unlike politicians, I am independent
By self-funding his campaign, Trump argues that his wealth sets him free to do what is right for America. He openly scorns his rivals as politicians utterly corrupted by the need to raise money. As a onetime donor, he knows the game better than anyone, and charges that "Jeb and the others" are "puppets" to their big donors. "These are not people that are doing it because they like the color of his hair, believe me. These are highly sophisticated killers. And when they give $5 million or $2 million or $1 million to Jeb, they have him just like a puppet. He'll do whatever they want. He's their puppet, believe me."
Americans of all parties are disgusted by the big money in politics, and believe overwhelmingly that politicians are compromised by it. Trump's argument – they have to serve their donors; I am free to do the right thing for America – is a powerful one.
America doesn't win anymore; I can make it win
Trump's second central trope is that America keeps losing – in trade to China, Mexico and Japan, in wars, in negotiations. After immigration, our failed trade policy is his central theme. He openly scorns what has been a bipartisan establishment policy, exemplified recently when congressional Republicans joined with President Obama and the business lobby to drive fast-track trade authority through Congress. Here's Trump in announcing his candidacy:
Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time...
When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn't exist, folks. They beat us all the time.
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they're killing us economically.
The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems.
Americans have watched as manufacturing plants closed, good jobs were shipped abroad and wages stagnated. Unlike his rivals, Trump calls it out. He says our negotiators have been incompetent, that he'd appoint "killers." If Ford wants to move a plant to Mexico, he'd call the CEO up, and threaten to slap tariffs on every car they want to ship back into the U.S. For Americans who have been looking for a leader who will stand up for them, this stance – a clear violation of NAFTA – is immensely appealing.
I Will Protect Your Social Security
Trump's Republican rivals – from Bush to Walker to Christie – have all called not only for repealing Obamacare, but for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Trump has joined the pledge to repeal Obamacare, but he strongly dissents on Social Security and Medicare. He promises that "I'll bring the jobs back," and that will provide the resources to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Trump scorns his Republican rivals: "Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And it's not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut." He makes it clear: "I'm not gonna do that!"
Cutting Social Security and Medicare is popular among America's elites, but is loathed by the vast majority of Americans. Trump's stance puts him on the side of the voters rather than the money.
I'll build a strong military we won't have to use
Trump also distances himself from the broad interventionist consensus underlying American foreign policy, in stark contrast with the hawkishness of every Republican contender other than Rand Paul. Trump touts his opposition to the invasion of Iraq – an invasion supported by leaders of both parties, including Bush, Clinton and Biden. He suggests that Germany ought to deal with Ukraine, that we shouldn't police the world. He argues that South Korea is rich enough to defend itself from the nutcase across its border in North Korea. Trump mocks the nuclear deal that Obama made with Iran, but has not joined his rivals in promising to trash it. Instead he says he'd make certain Iran adhered to it or suffered the consequences. This is not a Dick Cheney Republican.
At the same time, Trump brags "I am the most militaristic person there is." He promises to build the strongest military in the world so no one will ever dare challenge it (never mind that we already have that force).
Americans have no desire to police the world. They are reluctant to intervene, but want to win when we go to war. When American soldiers lives are at risk, they want the military to go in with overwhelming force to win. Our current "indispensable nation" posture – with an endless war on terror, drones bombing several countries, troops and fleets and bases dispatched across the world, humanitarian intervention in Libya, meddling in Ukraine, face off with China in the South China Sea – utterly contradicts those attitudes. Trump's trope speaks directly to widespread American attitudes.
Immigration: I will build a wall
Trump has made immigration – and his bigoted slanders of Mexico and undocumented workers – his signature issue. Immigration, he argues, is another way failed policies undermine wages and take our jobs. Republican strategists had hoped to use immigration as a populist argument to appeal to African American and white working people, but Trump uses a sledgehammer while they would have preferred a stiletto. When Trump released his racist, fantastical immigration posture, his rivals scrambled to embrace one or more of its noxious elements – the wall, the armed border, the stripping of birthright citizenship, the booting out of 11 million undocumented workers and their children.
America is a land of immigrants, but nativism – the fear and loathing of immigrants – has been American as apple pie. Each wave of immigration has generated fierce reaction, particularly when the economy stagnated. Now, ironically, the influx of immigrants is receding, but the anger and fears have continued to build. For whites unsettled by a more and more diverse America, for workers displaced from good jobs and forced to settle for lower wages, from taxpayers angered by the costs of educating "those people," Trump's bigotry can appeal.
The Man in the Balcony
Despite efforts to paint him as one, Trump is not a populist. He isn't rousing people to take on the entrenched interests and clean out the stables. He isn't educating people on the policies we need to transform the country. He isn't calling for raising taxes on the wealthy or breaking up the big banks.
He is calling on the silent majority to give him power. Trump says he needs flexibility to make deals, and doesn't want to be wedded to any program. So he entertains his audiences and sells his brand – worth billions he tells us – as our salvation. He isn't Paul Wellstone or Bernie Sanders; he's Benito Mussolini. As Esquire's Charles Pierce wrote, if the Sanders campaign's symbol is the grassroots organizer, Trump's is the strongman on a balcony.
Trump argues America only needs a "great leader" – himself of course – to make the country great again:
Now, our country needs – our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote "The Art of the Deal." We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military...
And we also need a cheerleader. We need someone who can take the brand of the United States and make it great again. We need – we need somebody – we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that.
This is nonsense. Trump's bigotry is offensive; his posturing risible. It's hard to believe anyone takes him seriously. But he may well be far more than a summer romance. He's already cut his rivals down to size, and may mock Jeb Bush virtually out of contention. In many ways, Trump is the Republican id unleashed. For years, Republicans have used race-bait politics to consolidate their support among white, working class voters. For years, they postured about military action for partisan advantage. For years, they have worshiped Ronald Reagan as a man on a horse who rode in to save the country.
Now Trump's tropes recycle these themes, in more nationalist, bawdy and bigoted rants. And in indicting our failed trade policies, defending Social Security and Medicare, questioning mindless interventions, he strays from the Republican gospel to appeal to the concerns of working Americans. He's calling out the phonies and offering himself as a true man on the horse to make America great again. The Republican establishment may just find themselves reaping what they have sown.