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The Trump Phenomenon: What Does It Mean, and What Will Be Its Effects?

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I do not believe that there has ever been anything in American history like what has happened in the political arena since Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for president.

About this phenomenon, I’ve got questions more than answers. But maybe raising the questions will lead this community to find its way toward answers.

The first question looks back behind the phenomenon to find what in the contemporary condition of America makes this unprecedented phenomenon possible:



What does it mean that a man can speak and act like Donald Trump has been doing and come out leading the pack in polls of Republican voters?

I’ve got thoughts of a general kind — Trump’s rise fits in a general way with the picture I paint in my new book WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST — but would be glad to see the picture in greater resolution.

I agree with John McCain about Trump “firing up the crazies.” And I agree with pundits who say that “the Republican Party is reaping what it has sown,” because the force that’s taken over the Republican Party (since, say, the rise of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh) has specialized in fomenting craziness in a large swath of the American public that has tuned its attenna to the fear-mongering, hate-mongering, reality-detached signal on the right.

But that only begins to scratch the surface, and the question remains to be addressed.

Then the second question leads out from this remarkable phenomenon in search of how the political scenario for the nation will be affected by Trump’s rise to his present domination of political discourse and of the Republican field.

In what ways will the scenario of American politics play out differently up through the election of 2016 than it would have had Trump not jumped into the arena?

Where the future is concerned, a whole new set of uncertainties besets us. (Although the saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is clearly not true — think of how the South has characterized its reasons for fighting the Civil War — at least what happened already happened.) And with the Trump phenomenon, it surely matters whether he fades quickly like a Herman Cain or, as I expect, remains a factor for months to come. And foresight is surely not 20/20.

But Trump’s taking up all the attention-space may already be having important consequences.

On MSNBC last night, Steve Karnacki indicated that 1) Ohio governor John Kasich may be the Republican candidate with the best chance of winning the general election, 2) Kasich’s present standing in the polls would deny him a place in the first presidential debate in a couple of weeks, and 3) without being able to get attention, because of the Trump phenomenon, his candidacy might well be suffocated before he even gets well started.

There’s also the question of how Trump’s ugly pronouncements will affect the Republican brand.

He is at the same time different from and similar to the other candidates. As many have pointed out, the ideas, positions, impulses, attitudes, etc. that Trump puts out are at a fundamental level those of the Party as a whole. But he just presents it more blatantly. You might say, he uses a whistle the whole stadium can hear, rather than the dog whistle that most Republican politicians use.

So how will Trump’s run affect public perceptions.

1) Will people recoil from a Party that wears such a face for however long, with the support of a goodly chunk of its electorate? Or

2) Will Trump make the other candidates — and the eventual nominee — look more benign, by comparison, than would be the case without Trump?

It is a question, in other words, as to whether Trump’s impact will be to discredit the Party by exposing the ugly force that’s taken over the GOP or whether he will distract people from noticing the more subtle ways this ugliness is manifested in the Party as a whole.

I’m interested in hearing what people here think.

  • amber waves

    we can look to italy and thailand in recent years where right wing billionaires have successfully used populist rhetoric to gain power.  

    a)he has enormous assets to buy an election.

    b)he is running in a historically fractured Republican contest with the most candidates ever

    c)these candidates have enormous staying power with millions of dollars in PAC money to stay alive to the convention

    d)Trump can run an a 3rd party candidate and do enormous damage

    e)his 99% of his ideas are held by the other republican candidates.

    There is one bad scenario for dems. Republicans go to Rubio/Bush to unify against Trump. They do this because of Trump remarks towards Mexican-Americans, and their perception that this group is the primary swing vote in the key swing states. Rubio/Bush are the strongest team the Republicans can put up against the Hillary machine.  However if trump runs as a 3rd party candidate, then Rubio/Bush have no chance.

    Another scenario. What happens if Trump is assassinated?

  • CADeminVA

    Every time I hear a Beltway-insider pundit bring up Michele Bachman, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich as examples, I think “You don’t get it.”

    Trump’s persona is not a product of usual Republican politics. He is a reality-TV star who has relentlessly marketed his “brand” to create an outsize presence; he casts a far bigger shadow than warranted. He is, at the same time, the only person who can take on Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, and for him the RNC is almost an after-thought, as his warnings issues today indicate.

    He has dominated the new cycle for weeks now and shows no signs of slowing down. As a self-proclaimed “million-dollar donor” to former candidates McCain and Romney, he can diss them with impunity as “bad investments.”

    The GOP kissed his ring in past cycles and didn’t say boo when he was spouting birther nonsense (what were the results of the “investigative teams” he sent to Hawaii? There were none.) Now they are being stalked by the monster they helped to create.

    I have a scenario wherein he decides that rather than show up for the debate next month to get gang-tackled by an army of Liliputians, instead he makes himself available on another network for an interview at the same time. My wife thinks that’s not likely, but I’m not so sure. The media frenzy that would erupt in such a case is not to be discounted.

    He has thrown down his marker today: Be nice to me or I will run as a third party candidate. Let’s see who backs down. I don’t think it will be The Donald.