By Bernd Debusmann
Take note of a new phrase in the U.S. political lexicon: the Trump Phenomenon.
It was coined by pundits who are perplexed by the enduring popularity of Donald Trump, the New York billionaire who wants to become U.S. president, among a segment of the electorate that cheers him on no matter how outrageous his statements or bizarre his behavior.
In his latest salvo, Trump on Monday called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. His statement was quickly condemned by both Democratic and Republican politicians. Conservative pundit and Trump admirer Ann Coulter, meanwhile, tweeted “GO TRUMP, GO!”
For months, Trump has been the leading contender in the race to win the Republican Party’s nomination as its candidate for the 2016 presidential elections. His campaign has been unlike any other in recent history. He has gone way beyond the hype, distortions, exaggerations and embellishments that are standard features of American elections.
Among Trump claims that fact-checking organizations have rated as complete fabrications: “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the twin towers collapsed on September 11, 2001; the Mexican government “is sending” rapists and criminals across the border; the Obama administration plans to admit 250,000 refugees from Syria (the real number is 10,000).
Trump’s campaign slogan is “make America great again” and to do so, he has offered proposals that are sweeping in ambition and short of specifics.
He wants to make the Mexican government pay for a “beautiful wall” along the 2,000-mile border to keep illegal immigrants out while the 11 million undocumented Mexicans already in the country would be deported. He wants to stop U.S. companies from outsourcing jobs to other countries.
Trump has offered proposals that are sweeping in ambition and short of specifics.
He would forge close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin. He would “knock the hell out of ISIS” and kill the family members of ISIS terrorists. He favors establishing a national registry for American Muslims, an idea that evokes memories of very dark chapters in history — Nazi Germany’s register of Jews and America’s internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Trump has insulted rivals for the Republican nomination and mocked their personal appearance in language that is unusual even in the toxic atmosphere of contemporary American politics.
Take his comment on former Hewlett Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina, the only woman competing for the nomination: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”
On Florida senator Marco Rubio: “I have never seen a young person sweat like Marco Rubio… He drinks more water — he’s like a machine. Water, water, water. Sweats, gives a speech. Think of Putin. Pretty tough cookie, right? I think [of] Rubio and I’m saying, you have to be cool. You have to be really cool. And Rubio’s going to meet him and walk in, and he’s sweating — sweat is pouring down. And Putin’s going to look at him and say, ‘What the hell is wrong with this guy?'”
“Idiot,” “lightweight” and “loser” are labels Trump routinely pastes not only on members of the administration but also on Republican rivals and establishment figures.
When Trump launched his invective-rich campaign in July, analysts across the political spectrum predicted he would flame out soon, repeating the rise and fall in the 2012 Republican primary campaign of such figures as pizza chain mogul Herman Cain or Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman.
But Trump is defying conventional wisdom by tapping into the disgust of a slice of the Republican electorate with conventional politicians.
Outrageous, bold, controversial
Who are these anti-establishment voters? According to various polls, they are mostly white, mostly older Americans without college education who trust their favorite candidate more than they trust the media and the fact-checking organizations that expose his fabrications. Which explains why media criticism has not affected Trump’s standing.
Some of it has been harsh. “Trump is a bigot and a racist,” said the headline over an opinion column in the Washington Post. An editorial in the New York Times asserted that “if it’s a lie too vile to utter aloud, count on Mr. Trump to say it, often. It wins him airtime, and re-tweets through the roof.”
Unlike all the other candidates, the media-savvy billionaire has not taken out a single television ad. He knows how to get media attention for free.
“One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.”
“It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries (and lived in nine). He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.