Trumpism: Did Swift-boating McCain Go Too Far? Or Will the Rest of the GOP Have to Start a Third Party?

There is a lot many do not know about Donald Trump. They know he is rich, of course, but they probably don't know he is one of the oldest candidates. If elected, he would be 70 ½ years old at the time of his inauguration--the age when we have to take mandatory withdrawals from our IRAs and 401k's because we are getting ... older. He is two years senior to Hillary Clinton, who is currently 67. More on this subject below.

Way more important, Trump is tapping into a strain of American public opinion regarding immigration and the legitimacy of the Obama Presidency to capture now close to 20 percent support for the Republican nomination for that office. That percentage does not sound like a very compelling number, but with now 18 candidates in the GOP field, it could become a very big number, especially when the contest shifts to the later primaries where winner-takes-all rules could award someone with 20 percent of the vote the entirety of a state's convention delegates! It all depends on whether a large number of candidates remain in the race for a long period of time.

This journal has chosen to cover the Trump campaign as entertainment rather than as a political event. That being said, recent polling--even away from the usual political pollsters' work--demonstrates that The Donald is very forcefully representing a fairly consistent set of political views among the GOP base of Tea Party and evangelical Christian voters.

For example, polling by the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, politically unaffiliated organization in Washington, D.C., shows that:

  • Sixty-nine percent of white evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage.
  • Tea Party members overwhelmingly believe (56 percent vs. 24 percent) in the free market as the solution to climate change (if they even believe in climate change as a reality.)
  • Seventy-seven percent of white evangelicals are more likely to attribute severe natural disasters to biblical end times; only 23 percent of Tea Party members can be classed as climate change "believers"--in common with the same percentage as Republicans generally.
  • Most importantly for Trump, 37 percent of Tea Party members favor a policy that would identify and deport all immigrants in the US illegally--the highest percentage among any political subgroup in America.
  • Similarly, 58 percent of Tea Party identifiers oppose raising taxes on Americans earning more than $250,000 per year.

The notion that Donald Trump is out of step with the mainstream of Republican opinion on the issues he seems to care most about is patently absurd. He instead seems to be coming on strong in the polls precisely because he is doing the best job of identifying with the GOP's basest values. Underneath the verbal assaults, however, Trump also seems to be benefitting from an unstated assumption: namely that, because he is a reported multi-billionaire, he has unique ability to actually get done what he threatens to do (like charge Mexico for each illegal immigrant; get China to change its currency policy; persuade European nations, Russia and China to support new sanctions on Iran, etc.).

None of these campaign assurances have any reliable basis in either fact or articulated strategy. But The Donald has not been forced to debate any of these issues. He also gets a lot of "silent majority" type of support for his show-business reputation for firing people. Many in the GOP base have been angered by politicians letting those who fail in their managerial duties "resign" (e.g., Kathleen Sibelius, the head of the VA, etc.) rather than be discharged.

Trump is a master at intimidating interviewers: he came to public prominence outside of his real estate-development world as a frequent guest of New York radio race-baiter Don Imus (famously kicked off the air for his derogatory and defamatory comments likening the Rutgers University women's basketball team to a collection of whores). By way of contrast, Trump enjoyed a worshipful presence on the Imus radio program (Imus first designated him as "The Donald"), which often parodied the relationship between Trump and the black heavyweight Mike Tyson (who was portrayed as a virtual Trump field hand).

Trump is attempting to literally personify the "angry white males" who are at the heart of the modern Republican Party base. Whether there are enough of those sorts of folks to deliver the presidency to Mr. Trump is certainly an open question, especially among Republican leaders such as Senator Lindsay Graham. But there clearly are enough to deliver him the GOP nomination in an ultra-crowded field.

This past weekend, it appeared that Trump had made his first major mistake in attacking the war-hero status of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2008 and still a United States Senator from Arizona, because he had allowed himself to be captured.

One by one, most of Trump's rivals--as the immediate Twitterverse showed--stepped up to distance themselves from Trump's remarks. They recognized that a goodly number of the Tea Party, evangelical and "angry white male" base of the GOP actually are veterans themselves and have a rather high regard for soldiers who survived captivity in the way Senator McCain did. They also called attention to the fact that Trump never put himself in harm's way of capture through military service: he grew up in a time when the draft lottery prevailed, and he was medically deferred. That's why his age actually may matter in the campaign. (Trump graduated from the Wharton School at Penn in 1968.)

But not all of the other 17 candidates joined in bashing the Trump piñata, especially those who would hope to benefit by inheriting the support of the base that Trump has heretofore captured. Senator Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum seemed happy to praise McCain's heroism, but eschewed any direct criticism of The Donald. This situation is exactly Trump's advantage--the author of The Art of the Deal certainly knows how to divide and conquer.

The best evidence of whether Trump has talked himself out of his leading position for the nomination will not only be the immediate polls following the weekend events, but also the reactions of right-wing talk radio commentators: angry white males like Rush Limbaugh, who has lately fallen in sort of puppy love with Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Most likely, Limbaugh will attack the press rather than The Donald. But the weekend events demonstrate, nonetheless, that the most likely source of any "Stop Trump" movement will be Trump himself--he has already scored his first own goal in Iowa!

(Note: The author is a board member of the Public Religion Research Institute cited in this blog.)