The unstoppable rise of Donald Trump

The unthinkable has come to pass. A former reality television star and world-famous blowhard is the presumptive Republican Party candidate. But how did “The Donald” outflank party favourites to come within a hair’s breath of the most powerful office on earth? Here is a frontline report from our man in Washington DC.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – so we were all wrong. Donald Trump, derided by pollsters, pundits and political rivals when he launched his White House campaign 11 months ago, will be the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States. It is extraordinary, by any measure.

The Republican Party – aka the Grand Old Party (GOP) – might be grappling with its limited demographic appeal these days. But it has a proud history.

Its honour-roll of past presidential candidates encompasses Abraham Lincoln, who won the Civil War and ended slavery; and Ronald Reagan who, arguably, hastened the end of the Cold War.

At the party’s national convention in July, that list will grow to encompass the name of a reality TV star who enlivened one debate by bragging about the size of his penis; and who, on another occasion, claimed a female journalist had questioned him so harshly it was as if she had “blood coming out of her . . .


Yet to focus only on Trump’s essential…Trumpiness…is to neglect the broader issues that have fuelled his rise.

There are angers and passions in America that have been building for years but are only now reshaping the political world. They are rooted in factors ranging from economic malaise to the ever-increasing tendency to get one’s news solely from those who share one’s views.

And those dynamics are roiling the left as well as the right.

Had a few thousand votes in Iowa and Nevada gone the other way back in February, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – the kind of left-winger customarily written off as a no-hoper in U.S. politics – might really have overcome Hillary Clinton and become the Democratic nominee.

Parallels between Sanders and Trump can be easily overstated. The two men are cut from very different cloth, ideologically and temperamentally. But they both exhibit a powerful appeal to those who believe that The System – party elites, the mainstream media, big business – is against them. Attend a Trump event in Iowa or a Sanders rally in Brooklyn, and it’s crystal clear that many people see the America of 2016 through this lens.

This is the fourth presidential election I have covered in the United States since leaving Ireland in 2003. This time around, things feel more in flux than ever before. Yes, there was more romance in 2008, when Barack Obama fought an epic battle to become the first black president. But the drama now is of an angrier kind. No one, if they’re honest, knows what comes next.

When Trump began his campaign last June with a meandering speech at his gilded Manhattan headquarters, many thought it was a novelty act or a publicity gambit. Normal service would soon be restored. A conventional – and apparently more electable – candidate such as Jeb Bush, George W’s younger brother, or the handsome young senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, would surely become the GOP’s standard-bearer.

But it soon became clear that Trump was immune to the normal laws of political gravity. He did things no one thought you could do and got away with them.

One early example came when he said that John McCain, a Republican senator and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, was “not a war hero” despite having served several years as a POW during the Vietnam War. (Trump’s reasoning: “I like people that weren’t captured, Okay?”)

Later Trump called for a ban on non-citizen Muslims entering the United States. He rose still higher in the polls.

In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. One of Trump’s biggest assets is his willingness to poke a finger in the eye of conventional mores generally, and the Republican establishment in particular. Whatever happens, he never backs down.

The trait appalls many independents. But it has earned him an uncommon ardour from the GOP grassroots, who feel they are either condescended to, or ignored, by the party elites.

Trump’s support tilts heavily in the direction of older white men, especially those without a third-level education. Once, those people would have followed their fathers into decently-paid manufacturing jobs. Often, those jobs don’t exist anymore. And what, they ask, has Washington done about it?

In Ohio alone, 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since the early 1990s. They don’t call it the Rust Belt for nothing.

Previously, these resentments have been capitalised upon not, primarily, by politicians but by the stars of the conservative media world. To listen to radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or Sean Hannity is to encounter a bellicosity that has no real parallel in Ireland or Britain. But when Trump took a similar approach as a candidate, heavier on rhetoric and theatrics than policy detail, he found a large, welcoming audience.

The figures are there in black and white, in the exit polls conducted among primary voters. Take Virginia, once a Republican stronghold and now a battleground state. “Do you feel betrayed by politicians from the Republican Party?,” GOP primary voters were asked. More than half said they did. Asked to describe their feelings about the government, 85 per cent said they were either “dissatisfied” or “angry.” And on the “ban Muslims” question? Sixty-three per cent agreed with Trump’s position.

In the end, the most serious Republican rival to Trump wasn’t a centrist type like Bush or Rubio. It was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a figure more dogmatic – and even farther to the right – than the billionaire businessman. Cruz also ran as an outsider, most of the time. His denouement came after he shifted tack to present himself as the establishment’s one hope of derailing Trump.

So now Trump barrels on into a general election where Clinton will be, barring a cataclysm, his opponent.

It will be nasty. It will be personal. And it will be between two candidates who are disliked by a broader swathe of the American public than any equivalent figures in modern times.

Once again, the odds are heavily against Trump. His favourability ratings with Latinos are dismal. His numbers with women are not much better. African-Americans have, for years, voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers.

But even if Trump loses, the sentiments that powered his rise will not necessarily weaken. They could shape American politics in volatile, unpredictable ways for years to come.


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