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Donald Trump taps into the fear and anger of ordinary Americans - and that makes him powerful

The emerging sentiments that the billionaire’s candidacy appeals to won’t be willed away easily.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

TO SOME, IT surely seems like he’s flirted with running for political office forever. Billionaire Donald Trump previously made his interest in seeking the presidency of the United States widely known in 1988, 2004 and 2012.

He briefly sought the presidential nomination of the now practically defunct Reform Party in 2000. And Trump openly contemplated running for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014.

Entertaining speculation

Cognisant of his track record and apparently insatiable thirst for publicity, many American political watchers assumed Trump would again actively entertain speculation about a potential presidential candidacy at the outset of the current lengthy election cycle before eventually eschewing a run.

To the surprise of these watchers, including this writer, Donald Trump declared with characteristic bravado – “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created” is just one memorable line from his announcement speech – that he would be running for the Republican nomination for president on 16 June.

More surprising still has been his immediately catapulting into the upper echelon of the unprecedentedly large Republican field. There are at least 16 serious candidates for the nomination. And a majority of the national polls taken since Trump entered the race show him in the lead.

Name recognition

Even if the polls indicate solely that Trump is benefitting enormously from his unparalleled name recognition, his showing means that he will be one of the 10 candidates allowed to participate in the first major Republican debate next week in Cleveland, Ohio.

Past and sitting governors and senators from large and pivotal states in American presidential elections, on the other hand, are likely to be excluded because they are trailing well behind in the early polls.

The present state of play gives rise to two questions. Why is Trump polling so well? Could he win the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency?

TV Trump News Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Press Association Images

Some long-time observers argue resolutely that the polls are nothing more than a reflection of Trump’s strong name recognition and the fact that most voters haven’t really tuned into the campaign yet.

They point to his simultaneously rising unfavourability numbers and predict that his candidacy will flicker out nearly as quickly as it has caught fire.

And indeed, a substantial segment of the political commentariat and the Republican Party establishment are hoping dearly for this outcome. In the end, it is likely that they will be proven correct and/or get what they want.

But Trump and the emerging sentiments in the American people that his candidacy appeals to won’t be willed away easily.

Disillusionment

In short, Americans are angry about a lot of things. A large percentage of the electorate, including many older voters, think that the “American Dream” is close to dead.

They worry that their children – facing ever-rising costs for housing, health insurance, childcare, food and other necessities and, above all else, third level education – won’t enjoy the same standard of living that they did.

Moreover, these Americans are profoundly disenchanted with an interventionist foreign policy that sends working class and poor young men and women to fight wars that bear no relevance to their own daily struggles and have resulted in thousands of deaths and catastrophic injuries.

Fear of immigration

And to put it bluntly, many are concerned for the future of a country whose collective national complexion is changing as a consequence of immigration from south of its border. These Americans are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Their political belief systems are neither readily definable nor fixed.

They are not alienated when Trump claims that Mexican government leaders are “killing us at the border and killing us on trade”, or when he says without shame that he knows from personal experience that his Republican rivals will be beholden to their wealthy donors: “Who knows it better than me? I give to everybody. They do whatever I want.”

GOP 2016 Trump Border Source: LM Otero/AP/Press Association Images

Early support

The early polls also suggest that a good number of conservative Republicans are willing to look past the realities that Trump has been married three times and was once “very pro-choice” on abortion.

They also seem to have deliberately ignored his recent attack on the military service of Republican Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. Trump’s poll numbers actually surged afterward.

These Republican voters expressing support for his candidacy, and undoubtedly many other Americans, appreciate what some might call Trump’s brutal honesty and disdain for what is often condemned as political correctness – even when his rhetoric is, at best, uncivil and, at worst, downright racist.

Likelihood of nomination

The campaign is in its infancy, but this is why Donald Trump is riding high in the polls at the moment. Can he win the nomination?

It is extremely unlikely, especially given that both the more moderate Republican establishment and “Christian right” wing will oppose him with the same vigour.

Additionally, the party’s “rank and file” primary voters are very conservative and deeply committed to winning back the White House next year. Donald Trump is simply too different from and too much of a risk for them.

Perhaps sensing this and experiencing the enmity of some of the party’s leadership, Trump has already signalled that he could abandon his quest for the Republican nomination and instead pursue an independent bid for the presidency.

This course of action, as well, is probably far too tall of an order for many of the aforementioned reasons, not to mention the ongoing media scrutiny he will be subjected to and the mutually beneficial stranglehold the two major parties have on the American political system.

But regardless of the extraordinary power wielded by the Democratic and Republican parties, Trump and, crucially, those voters drawn to his candidacy this summer will be a wildcard in American politics in 2016 and in elections to come.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, law lecturer at NUI Galway, and a columnist for TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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