Don’t Count Donald Trump Out Just Yet
Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg took time away from reveling over Facebook’s record-high stock performance to address the ruckus caused by Republican presidential candidate and real estate mogul Donald Trump’s controversy over Muslims. The socially conscious Zuckerberg, who recently became a father, has gone out of his way to illuminate his humanitarian pretensions on social media.
On Facebook, he proffered the following post to comment on Trump: “I want to add my voice in support of the Muslims in our community and anywhere in the world. […] If you’re a Muslim in this community, as the leader of Facebook I want you to know that you are always welcome here and that we will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you.” (Source: “Mark Zuckerberg Says Muslims ‘Are Always Welcome’ on Facebook,” re/code, December 9, 2015.)
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s popularity is performing as well or better than Facebook stock. An Ipsos poll suggests Trump has at least 35% popular support for the Republican nomination. (Source: “Poll: Donald Trump back on top, with Ted Cruz climbing into second,” CBS News, December 10, 2015.)
Another poll conducted by CNN and the WMUR in New Hampshire—one of the key states for the primaries—suggests Trump has 32% support. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s condemnation as well as similar messages criticizing Trump’s stance from President Obama and even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon are fueling the New York real estate mogul’s popularity and mean that we are falling into his trap. (Source: “Poll: Donald Trump nearly doubles lead in New Hampshire,” CNN, December 8, 2015.)
Trump Thrives on Media Attention
Whether it’s bad or good; the more controversial, the better. Trump wants to be noticed above all else. Indeed, a similar approach made one European politician highly popular and almost undefeatable. That politician is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Such are the similarities between Berlusconi and Trump that one might be tempted to call the 2016 presidential election hopeful “Berlustrump” or “Trumpsconi.” (Source: “What Italy Can Teach America About Donald Trump,” The New York Times, September 18, 2015.)
Some have compared Trump to the more nationalist and anti-immigration French or British politicians Marie Le Pen or Nigel Farage. But anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican statements notwithstanding, Trump is more populist and more effective. Unlike Le Pen and Farage, Trump can see his political battle through to the end and win-both the nomination, and the White House.
Why should Americans consider an Italian phenomenon to understand Donald Trump and the way he is conducting his campaign? Italy has often been considered a political laboratory, a place for experimenting with radical political ideas, which then evolve according to local conditions elsewhere. The very concepts of republic, senators, and representatives of the people started in ancient Rome, as did modern law and political parties.
Italy’s Trump-like character, Berlusconi, a media and entertainment tycoon, won several elections for his own Forza Italia party by claiming to have all the answers and delivering all kinds of provocative, if not scandalous, statements. Trump has the potential to repeat and magnify Berlusconi’s approach.
Trump may or may not be aware of his similarity with Berlusconi, which is what makes his ultimate success so likely. The campaign has genuine momentum. However, the campaign is also a media attention generating machine that has tapped into the fears and concerns of a large segment of the population that feels alienated by traditional politics, left or right.
For the traditional and socially conservative Republicans, Trump represents a spectacle that they have no idea how to stop, let alone destroy. The more traditional Republicans attack him, the more voters become convinced that he is the only one who is challenging the establishment.
Trump cannot and should not be pigeonholed as a right-wing fanatic. It is not that simple. Like Berlusconi, Trump is fueling a new kind of populism based on far-right anti-immigrant fodder, while also championing such left-wing staples as increasing taxes on the rich. Trump has often attacked hedge funds on that front to brilliant effect.
The new populism rejects traditional politics, which in the perception of voters has abused the latter’s interests and needs to favor special interests and lobbies. Moreover, like Berlusconi, Trump is a consummate showman and both moguls owe their fortune to real estate, media, and a whole lot of self-promotion and posturing.
Trump’s Supporters Don’t Trust the Establishment
The root of Trump’s appeal, like Berlusconi’s, is the mistrust of politics among a growing number of societal groups. Trump’s fellow Republican Party candidates described him as a “rodeo clown” because they consider his campaign as a kind of circus: loud, rude, and ignorant. Now they are competing with him directly and he is dictating the pace and tone of the issues. Trump only appears to lack serious content.
Trump, like Berlusconi, can get away with saying anything and everything. His comments against TV host Megyn Kelly, Mexicans, and now Muslims have not a dent in his base of support, which only keeps growing. This is because Trump understands the art of selling himself through the media better than the other candidates.
Trump uses effective sound bites. Better still, he uses easily digestible quotes and memorable statements. This is the logic behind his much maligned “ban” on Muslims. Now, Trump knows he needs the backing of the most right-wing Republicans to win the nomination in what is one of the shortest campaigns in history. If he can hold on to extremes among them, he can hold on to the lead.
Once Trump has the Republican nomination in hand, he will shift the rhetoric to win over the most liberal of the Democratic candidate’s (likely to be Hillary Clinton) supporters. Like Berlusconi, Trump’s biggest fear is to be ignored. Therefore, he is constantly reinventing himself, his bombast and frolic representing either the by-product or premise of the media-fueled transformation. The more controversy it generates, the better.
What’s Really Behind Trump’s Muslim Ban?
Trump’s “Muslim Ban” may be his most controversial stunt to date. Nevertheless, while it is easy to fall into the trap, Trump’s policy vis-à-vis Muslims and Muslim nations should be judged against what his actual policy might be.
As author Sam Husseini points out, Trump advocates a non-interventionist and almost isolationist U.S. foreign policy. Trump is actually condemning America’s interventionism in the Islamic world. More than banning Muslims from America, he wants Washington to stop meddling in the Middle East: “Trump appeals to nativist sentiments, but those same sentiments are skeptical of the militarized role of the U.S. in the world — as was the case during Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign.” (Source: “Speaking the Unspeakable: Why the Establishment Wants to Silence Donald Trump,” Counterpunch, December 17, 2015.)
The media has chosen to focus on the “Muslim entry ban”—something totally outside the realm of reality or possibility given the U.S. Constitution and all the checks and balances that exist against any such measures. Trump knows this better than most. Rather than his criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy and interventionism, which the liberal media often ignores.
Trump has accused the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton of killing “hundreds of thousands of people with her stupidity […] The Middle East is a total disaster under her.” Moreover, said Trump: “We’ve spent $4.0 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4.0 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.”
This is more the real Trump speaking and the kind of fodder he might use in the real presidential campaign. Trump would win over as many Bernie Sanders liberals as he would conservatives by focusing on those points, which represent the genuine message of his campaign. As Husseini says, “I think is a stronger critique of military spending than we’ve heard from Bernie Sanders of late.” Even the discussion about refugees has been misinterpreted.
Trump does not agree with letting Syrian refugees into America, but his actual policy, differing from the current one that has led to the bombing of seven Muslim nations (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia) resulting in millions of refugees, would be not to bomb and create refugees in the first place. (Source: Husseini, Ibid.)
That sounds far more pro-Muslim than the strategy pursued by the current resident of the White House. Indeed, to see that this represents Trump’s actual policy toward Muslims, consider the enthusiastic endorsement Trump has recently received from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who is leading the charge to rebuild the Syrian state in order to stop ISIS and restore stability in the region.
Trump Likes Putin. Putin Likes Trump
As the Financial Times reports, fans of Donald Trump’s dream of a U.S. version of President Vladimir Putin, less political and more warrior. Courtney Weaver, a former correspondent from Russia now responsible for following the U.S. presidential election, suggests that Trump becomes clearer in respect to the way his supporters view Putin. The article cited statements gathered during Trump rallies, “Putin is brilliant.” (Source: “Vladimir Putin offers Donald Trump fans a glimpse of the possible,” The Financial Times, December 15, 2015.)
Weaver adds that in a survey in 2014, in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, Putin turned out to be in tenth place, ahead of the Dalai Lama and George Clooney, among the most admired men in America. (Source: Ibid.)
Perhaps predictably, maybe not, Vladimir Putin has returned the appreciation, endorsing Donald Trump. The Russian president praised the New York tycoon as a lively and talented person, and the absolute leader of the presidential campaign. (Source: “Vladimir Putin Chides Turkey, Praises Trump and Talks Up Russia’s Economy,” The New York Times, December 17, 2015.)
Trump has hinted he would strengthen ties with Russia and therefore change the current course of Washington’s foreign relations.
Putin’s endorsement of Trump will not shift the balance of the Republican primary and, more generally, of the 2016 U.S. elections. The many Trump followers concerned by the resumption of the Cold War will continue to support their candidate with conviction. Disappointed by politics, by both Democrats and Republicans, Trump’s generally populist supporters, free from the shackles of ideology will have remarkable weight on the U.S. election to the point of totally flipping the odds.