How did it come to this?
A question asked by Republican politicians and officials across America.
On May 3rd voters in Indiana will select their preferred Republican Party. Instead of being a heroic last stand of Ted Cruz and the patchy anti-Trump coalition, Indiana may signal the moment when the defences were breached and the nomination all but sealed for Donald Trump.
Nine months ago I wrote a blog post called ‘What we know about Trump as a candidate’. Posted very early in the primary process, I drew attention to his difficult relationship with the Republican Party, and offered a little commentary on why he might be doing so well.
As Trump edges towards the nomination now is a good time to review the rise of Donald Trump, and see if we have learned anything new in the past nine months.
A Brand Campaign
When students of history and politics look back at the rise, and hopefully fall, of Donald Trump, they will undoubtedly investigate his ability to brand.
Trump is not a political mastermind: he has ridden a wave of anti-D.C. populism, fuelled by his own celebrity and popular media, and through the process created his own brand. The Trump brand is massively important for his business ventures, the golden letters of his name adorning his luxurious hotels across America.
Trump has taken this lesson from the business world and applied it to politics. In commercial dealings, he uses his own personality as a symbol of his broader brand: in politics he has done exactly the same. His message to his supporters is that while he may not know the details of every wonkish policy decision, he is essentially selling himself to the electorate. His brand? Brash, tough, ruthlessly pragmatic, successful.
He also realised throughout his campaign that as much as he could positively brand himself to his supporters, he could brand his opponents negatively. Lil Marco, Lyin Ted, Low Energy Jeb, and now Crooked Hillary.
These are childish, lamentable attacks for adults to throwing around in a national debate, but his obvious determination to repeat them as often as possible has hammered the nicknames into the minds of Republican voters.
Donald Trump is not a political mastermind. He alienates groups that he does not need to alienate, and contradicts himself frequently when discussing national policy. Where he has shown considerable talent, however, is in branding.
Understanding the Media
Closely related to Donald Trump’s ability to brand himself and his opponents is his understanding of the media.
His ability to manipulate and control the media certainly deserves credit. His outrageous, often divisive, statements have ensured that headlines remain fixated on Donald Trump, all the while with the caveat to his followers that the ‘liberal media’ will purposefully seek to slur him.
Understanding his own persona, he uses television appearances to say little of content, but merely to aggrandise his own popularity. It is staggering how he is allowed to avoid and duck clear statements on national issues. When he has run into trouble, it has often been because he has answered such questions, like his misguided comments on punishing women who have abortions.
He performs for the camera, and for Twitter. From his petulant trolling online to his slightly camp hand jestures during interviews, Donald Trump courts the media to keep the spotlight solely on him. The result has been to add fuel to the fire of his brand.
Of course he is immensely aided by his own celebrity. Before his campaign Donald Trump was a well known, if often risible, character in American popular culture. That alone garners him more attention than, say, Ben Carson, an outsider candidate who had a penchant for saying as extreme comments as Donald Trump.’The Donald’ was bound to be covered wherever he went and whatever type of campaign he ran.
Capitalising on his celebrity status and manipulating his media coverage, Trump has managed to ensure his brand has been omnipresent throughout his campaign.
The broader significance of Donald Trump has been to open up a conversation about anti-establishmentarianism.
A ‘common-sense backlash’, an anti-elite movement, or simply a weariness with politics that has morphed into anger, this sentiment has been latched onto by the Trump brand this year.
Analysts have speculated that the rise of Bernie Sanders was indicative of a similar discontent among liberal Americans. However, the supporters of Bernie Sanders were largely young Americans tired of money’s influence in politics. This liberal anger has existed for years, but been exacerbated by the Citizens United decision of 2010 and the global recession. It is possible that Barack Obama’s popularity among liberal Americans kept a lid on this resentment, but Hillary Clinton’s perceived closeness to Wall Street left ample room for a populist message like that of Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s audience is different. The conservative anti establishment movement is driven by different factors and motivations. Ideologically, many of these Americans were galvanised by Tea Party Republicans to strip back the powers of government. The near hysteria that swept some Republican groups with the passage of Obamacare was whipped up by these Tea Party voices and divisive rhetoric in news media.
At the same time, Republican standard bearers have failed to explain the benefits of globalisation to their voters. Instead, grass roots conservatives see rising migrant levels and a decline in American manufacturing, compounded by stagnant socio-economic opportunity.
Whether these two broad groups of discontent will markedly determine how the general election proceeds is yet to be seen: these demographics of anger make a lot of noise, but their raw political value has not been wholly understood yet.
Nevertheless, within the confines of the Republican primary, the anger vote has been pivotal, and its implications will shape how both parties adapt to the changing mood of the nation.
One thing that has not changed over the past nine months is Donald Trump’s weakness when it comes to explaining what he will actually do. For the most part, he has managed to survive with vagueries and assurances instead of promises and plans.
Many of his policy arguments boil down to his own ability to negotiate. When he describes a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, he uses the terms “probably the toughest deal in the world right now”, as if the opening line of his show The Apprentice.
In a broad sense, the Donald’s foreign policy is one of ‘America First’: retrenchment of spending overseas, yet improvement of domestic military capability. He advocates closer relations with Russia, for an undescribed purpose, and retreating from decades-old alliances in Europe and Asia.
Added to which, the San Bernardino killings resolutely pushed Trump into a hawkish stance towards ISIS, publicly calling for water boarding of captured fighters and the killing of family members of the terrorist organisation.
Domestically, Trump has called for the temporary banning of Muslims, a wall to separate Mexico and America, and offered a tax plan that has earned scorn from economic analysts. He would repeal Obamacare, and replace it with something, and would bring back manufacturing jobs, somehow.
Could he win
Should Donald Trump effectively clinch the Republican nomination with a win in Indiana the question of the moment will be can Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
At the moment, the answer would seem to be no.
Trump has surpassed all expectations within the Republican primary, but this achievement in itself is not enough to discard all evidence that he would lose in a national election.
Donald Trump has incredibly high negatives. He is viewed negatively by 70% of women in America, and even if he selects a female running mate it is unlikely to mitigate his historically bad image amongst this half of the electorate.
Coming out of 2012 the Republican Party saw the need to reach out to hispanics. Hispanic Americans may become the battleground demographic in years to come, but so far swing towards the Democrats. Donald Trump runs with a 77% unfavourable perception among hispanics.
Trump also hurts the Republican Party among younger voters. An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll of a potential Hillary Clinton – Donald Trump election shows Clinton winning by 25% among 18-24 year olds across the political spectrum, and 33% among 25-34 year olds.
Simply put, it does not seem likely that the depth of support he enjoys among certain parts of white America is enough to offset his alienation of women, ethnic groups, and young people. There aren’t enough angry white men for Trump to win a general election, a group disproportionally represented in the Republican primaries.
Added to which, Democrats come to presidential elections with a geographic advantage: Republicans already struggle to crack the ‘blue wall’. The ‘blue wall’ refers to 18 states, rich in delegates, that the Democrats have won in the past 6 presidential elections collectively netting a total of 240 electoral college votes. Only 270 are needed to win the election, meaning battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida are virtually must-wins for the Republicans. At the same time Trump’s negatives with hispanics could put western states like Arizona back into play.
Trump argues that he could win his home state of New York, a big state that traditionally has voted Democrat. However, consider the fact that in the New York primaries, Donald Trump won just under 525,000 votes, while Hillary Clinton brought in just over 1,050,000. New York is not going red under Donald Trump, and given his unfavourables among key swing voters the Clinton camp could instead seek to unseat the Republicans from states like Arizona, Utah, and South Carolina.
Nothing is certain in 2016, but given the current facts available even if Donald Trump could hold the Republican Party together he faces a steep challenge. As exciting as he has been to large parts of the GOP electorate, those same qualities drive away key swing voters in the national election.
In building the edifice of his success during the primaries, Trump may have undermined the foundations of his chances in the general election.