Donald J. Trump is a perplexing presidential candidate.
By virtually every “conventional” standard, he shouldn’t be in the position he’s in, as the “presumptive” nominee of a major political party in the United States.
Trump has the highest overall unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate since Gallup started tracking favorability in 1992. Seven out of 10 women have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Among men, Trump fares slightly better, but only slightly – 6 out of 10 men have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. When you separate the electorate by race, Trump’s numbers get even worse. Among Hispanics, 85 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Among African Americans, 80 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Even among White men, 47 percent have an unfavorable opinion – a shocking statistic given that White men form the Republican Party’s core constituency.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that we are still in the midst of a bitter primary season. Unfavorable ratings tend to rise during election season as the barbs, negative ads and heightened partisanship are taken to their highest levels.
But Trump has also earned much of the criticism that he has received.
Trump’s unfavorable ratings are not artificial. He is, in many ways, a despised presidential candidate.
And for good reason.
Trump has refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and has a history of making patently racist statements. Virtually every time Trump mentions a minority group, he blurs them into monolithic entities, using the definite article the, as in “the Hispanics” or “the Blacks” to describe them. Last year, for example, Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. How did he respond to the outrage over his statements? “I’ll take jobs back from China, I’ll take jobs back from Japan,” Trump said during a visit to the U.S.-Mexican border in July. “The Hispanics are going to get those jobs, and they’re going to love Trump.” Similarly, in 2011 Trump proudly declared that he has “a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
Trump has targeted religious minorities for discrimination. In December, Trump demanded a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Again, Trump was criticized. And again, he responded with a familiar retort: “I’m doing good for the Muslims,” Trump told CNN. “Many Muslim friends of mine are in agreement with me. They say, ‘Donald, you brought something up to the fore that is so brilliant and so fantastic.” As you can see, Trumps statements about religious minorities follows a familiar pattern. Like other racial instigators, Trump responds to accusations of bigotry by loudly protesting that he actually loves the group in question. However, the language – “the Muslims” – is telling.
Trump has repeatedly attacked women, despite claiming to “cherish” them. In the 1990s, for example, Trump boasted that it didn’t matter what anybody said or thought about him “as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” On Rosie O’Donnell:”You take a look at her, she’s a slob. She talks like a, like a truck driver.” Trump made it abundantly clear during the presidential campaign that his values remain unchanged. “Look at that face!” he said of Republican opponent Carly Fiorina. “Would anyone vote for that? … I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Trump has trafficked in ugly conspiracy theories. Trump based his 2011 presidential campaign on the discredited notion that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is illegitimate. Trump claimed to have sent people to Hawaii to investigate whether Obama was really born there, and insisted that the researchers “cannot believe what they are finding.” And just last week, Trump alleged that Ted Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he murdered President John F. Kennedy, parroting a story by the tabloid newspaper National Enquirer. “What is this, right prior to his [Kennedy] being shot, and nobody even brings it up,” Trump said in a phone interview with Fox News. “They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
All of this should have caused Trump to be overtaken by a “legitimate” presidential contender by now, an “establishment” candidate who could better position Republicans to appeal to the general electorate in November. And if not an establishment candidate, perhaps one who isn’t a racist, misogynist, or bigot who believes conspiracy theories are reality.
But that hasn’t happened. And now that all of the remaining candidates have suspended their campaigns, it is extremely unlikely to happen. [Clearing the 1,237 delegate threshold would remove the possibility completely; until then, though, Trump is only the presumptive nominee.]
There’s a reason for that.
Despite his unfavorable ratings, Donald Trump IS a legitimate presidential candidate. And he can win in November. There are a lot of people who will argue otherwise. But don’t be fooled.
That point is worth repeating, bolding, and underlining: Donald J. Trump can win in November.
Sure, it may be unlikely. But if there is one lesson that the political class can take from the success of Donald Trump, it is this: voters are frustrated – no, downright angry – with the status quo and the political establishment that supports it. Anger is a powerful tool; it can make anything happen. Look where Trump is now. One year ago, nobody thought this could happen.
In many respects, it is this same anger that explains the rise of Bernie Sanders.
If this were a “normal” election year, establishment candidates like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton would be running away with the nomination. The May primaries are typically only formalities, opportunities for the presumptive “establishment” candidates to solidify their support, unify their respective party, and pivot to the general election.
Neither Trump nor Sanders should be here.
But they are. And it’s because voters are angry.
They have reason to be.
The economy has failed to deliver real progress to middle-class and working-class Americans, and the gains made since the Great Recession have not been shared by all:
- American households today earn about the same as they did 20 years ago.
- The jobless rate for workers without a high school degree is almost three times what it is for college graduates – and their wages are far lower.
- The minority footprint in the economy is growing – participation for Hispanic men in the workforce is 80% today. Meanwhile, while it is still easier for whites to get a job, the participation rate for white men in the work force is down to 72% now from 88% in 1954.
- Inequality truly is getting worse – it is now as bad as it was in the 1920s. In 2014, the top 10% of income earners in America accounted for half of the income. In 1990, it was 40%. And in 1980, that figure was only 35%.
In the face of these problems, Washington is perceived to have done little, if anything, for the average American. Six out of 10 Americans think the federal government has too much power, according to a survey by Gallup. When asked if they trust the government, 89% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats say “only sometimes” or “never,” according to Pew Research. Gridlock and impotence of elected officials has led to hostility.
Trump and Sanders have both tapped that anger.
Trump says the American Dream is dead and has pledged to “Make America Great Again.”
Sanders says the economy is rigged and the middle class is “collapsing.”
These arguments resonate with voters who feel alienated and resentful. We can disagree with the targets of that anger and frustration. It is appropriate, for example, to criticize the way Donald Trump and his supporters demonize racial and ethnic minorities. It is equally appropriate to criticize Bernie Sanders’ tax plans and question his proposal to break up the big banks.
But there is a dangerous tendency to interpret this anger as stupidity.
It is not.
The driving force leading people to vote for Donald Trump is powerful. It is compelling. It is justified. And it is not going to go away.
It doesn’t matter how many times you say the economy is at or near full employment – which it is. It doesn’t matter how many times times you point out that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back – they aren’t. And it doesn’t matter how many times, or in how many ways, you argue that the southern border is the most secure it has ever been – by any objective standard, it is.
If America isn’t careful – if a Trump presidency continues to be dismissed as an impossibility – he could very well emerge victorious in November. Forget the polls. Forget the unfavorable ratings. It is not guaranteed that Trump will lose. Show up to vote in November. Complacency is dangerous.
Your alarm clock is ringing.
You’ve hit the snooze button too many times.
It’s time to wake up.
The presidency is not a reality show.