US Elections: How Donald Trump took hold of the Grand Old Party

  • AFP, Washington
  • Updated: May 05, 2016 09:26 IST
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater. (AP Photo)

Billionaire Donald Trump has capitalized on his media savvy and the anti-establishment anger of Republican voters to become the first political neophyte to capture the party’s White House nomination since World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

In 2010, the Grand Old Party had been overtaken by the insurgent Tea Party, whose mission was to upend politics as usual, ousting Republican and Democratic stalwarts in favor of fresh faces.

The party as a whole eventually embraced that message, but Trump took it to the next level -- and made that voter rage the center of his unlikely presidential run.

“The overarching environment here is anger on the far right,” James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, told AFP.

Thurber said voters were mad that “those in the establishment have not done what they said they would do -- that is, shrink government, get rid of the Affordable Care Act and stop the liberal drive with respect to gay marriage and rights and social issues.”

“Trump is unique, it’s hard to explain, but certainly his voters come from that far angry right. They feel that they’ve been left behind.”

The Republican party machine even -- perhaps inadvertently -- directly contributed to Trump’s rise.

During Barack Obama’s first term, Trump championed the cause of the so-called “birther” movement, questioning whether Obama was born in the US to challenge his presidency.

“The Republican Party looked at that and thought, ‘Hey, this is a way to energize our base.’ In the short term they did very little to stop him,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“That gave Donald Trump prominence in the Republican Party, and now that prominence that it gave him is something that many people in the party are coming to regret,” he told AFP.

“What he is is a reflection of a Republican Party that is addicted to short-term benefits and ignorant of long-term considerations.”

‘Anger is driving them’

When Trump declared he was running for president on June 16, 2015, it drew little attention and two-thirds of Republicans said they would never vote for him.

But three weeks later, he labeled Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, sparking a firestorm that proved to be the lift-off of a mold-shattering campaign to “Make America Great Again!” -- fueled by obsessive media coverage.

A former reality TV star who flaunted his billions, Trump paradoxically tapped into white working class anger with attacks on immigration, free trade, and a sold-out political class, which he freely admitted to having paid to do his bidding in the past.

Treated as a joke initially and then as a passing phenomenon, Trump leaped from three percent support in the polls to the head of a 17-candidate field.

Winning primary after primary, he forced out early favorites like Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former Republican presidents.

Many traditional conservatives remain wildly opposed to his candidacy -- notably those with advanced degrees -- but Trump nevertheless has rallied the support of more than half of Republican voters.

His popularity now transcends typical ideological barriers. He is both conservative and moderate, a devout capitalist who slams free trade, a supporter of gun rights who promises not to touch Americans’ Social Security benefits.

“I don’t think it’s a coherent conservative philosophy that’s driving them -- I think it’s anger that’s driving them,” Thurber said.

The dormant xenophobia lurking on the American right also plays a role in his success, Hudak notes.

Some of Trump’s rallies have erupted in violence between his white supporters and black or Latino protesters, with the candidate tacitly approving the scuffles.

Media star

Trump’s other trump card, as it were, has been his total domination of the airwaves. Seemingly every day, he gives a televised interview. Thanks to him, the Republican primary debates attracted the biggest non-sports cable TV audiences in US history.

Through a mix of spectacle and controversy, Trump fine-tuned his campaign to hit media buttons -- whether by criticizing Republican senator and war hero John McCain or proposing that the US border be closed to Muslims.

His promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico was a tailor-made TV soundbite, played and replayed for maximum effect.

He is the only candidate whose rallies have been shown from start to finish. All that free coverage has allowed him to save tens of millions of dollars he would have spent on campaign ads.

“His celebrity status was the greatest asset he brought to this, and that celebrity status was enhanced enormously by 15 seasons of ‘The Apprentice,’“ long-time Trump confidant Roger Stone told Politico.

“To voters, there’s no line between the news and reality TV. It’s all TV. It’s all television,” Stone said.

“If you see Trump in ‘The Apprentice,’ he’s in the high-backed chair. He’s perfectly lit. He’s perfectly made up. He’s perfectly coiffed. He’s perfectly dressed. And he’s decisive. He’s tough. He’s making decisions.

“He looks and acts like what you think a president should be.”

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