Donald Trump is a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon in the 2016 Republican primary. Front-runner, the bookmakers’ favourite and after a dominant performance in Super Tuesday, he seems to be in prime position to be the next Republican nominee.
How did it come to this? Trump, a former reality TV star who has never been elected to office, seems an unlikely front-runner. Furthermore, he continually breaks every rule of a conservative presidential candidate.
He has been critical of religious leaders, most notably having an argument with the Pope. He has even questioned the military record of war hero and former Republican nominee John McCain, stating that “I like people who weren’t captured”. This is notwithstanding the many controversial comments the candidate has made about immigration, gender and race.
From a traditional political viewpoint, and certainly from the view of many in the Republican establishment, Donald Trump’s campaign should have been in freefall long ago. Yet he seems stronger than ever.
To explain his appeal, my view is that Trump has achieved what is the Holy Grail of political branding – the “authentic” politician.
Andrew Potter in his book The Authenticity Hoax discusseshow many voters are disenfranchised and apathetic towards the political process. This can be seen in the low voter turnout in the United States and other countries, which traditionally sits around 50 per cent.
For Potter this apathy is driven by politics as a process of spin-doctors and pollsters. Many voters eschew the political process as they view politics as too stage managed and stylised.
As these same voters are often swinging voters this leads to many politicians presenting themselves as “authentic” – a politician who isn’t mediated, marketed and shaped by how their message will play in overnight tracking poll – an appeal they believe will play to this apathetic voter.
Think ofJulia Gillard in the 2010 Australian election when she stated that her campaign was a little too stage-managed and promised the “real” Julia Gillard. A shift in strategy that was met with a collective eye roll from the Australian media and questions as to why we had been presented with the “fake” Julia Gillard up to this point.
Furthermore, John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign was presented in a similar fashion as the “Straight Talk Express”. This strategy was derailed by an ill-informed last-minute decision to cancel an appearance on the David Letterman show.
While the cancellation was reportedly to return to Washington to work on the financial crisis, Letterman quickly discovered that McCain was in fact just three blocks away doing another interview with CBS. The comedian tore down McCain’s claims to a Straight Talk Express.
These campaign strategies rarely excite the apathetic voter as they are seen as just another form of stage management. Often openly being mocked by the media and late-night comedians.
Enter Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election cycle. There is a certain irony that a former reality TV star could be viewed as an authentic politician. Yet this is exactly what many of his supporters love about him and his appeal is strongest with the disillusioned base of the Republican Party.
Trump is not scripted. It is hard to believe that anyone who openly criticises the Pope and John McCain’s military record has a team of script writers behind him. Trump is not stylised. The candidate’s hair alone proves that he is not image obsessed. Trump is not driven by focus groups – unless that focus group has one person in it and that person is Trump.
Furthermore he repeatedly states he is funding his own campaign, which gives him freedom to criticise the Republican establishment not possible by the other candidates.
Trump in many ways represents the epitome of the unfiltered politician many apathetic voters state they are looking for.
His appeal is greatest among those who in a regular election cycle are unlikely to vote.
He has captured a demographic that the Republican establishment did not expect him to attract and this attraction seems to be building.
Trump’s appeal as an authentic politician brings him a form of immunity to the campaign stumbles and critiques that would bring down a traditional candidate. Trump’s outrageous statements on religion, the military, and the Republican establishment just seek to confirm his authenticity as an unfiltered politician.
Furthermore, this immunity makes Trump a remarkably hard target to hit.
Attacks from the mainstream candidates just serve to reinforce his brand as an outsider to the political process.
Will Trump be able to maintain this momentum leading into a general election? This seems unlikely but you need to be brave to make predictions around Trump. There is a danger that his disillusioned base may get bored of his show and return to being apathetic. Anyone watch The Apprentice lately? It is also hard to see how he could capture beyond this group of voters leading into a general election.
The hopes that a mainstream Republican candidate can consolidate support among mainstream Republicans appears to be dimming as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio continue to splinter the vote. Trump’s dominance in the high stakes Super Tuesday primaries means his momentum is now even harder to overcome.
If Trump were a traditional mainstream Republican candidate the media commentary would likely be calling the primary process over. But with Trump breaking so many rules of traditional politics many are hesitant to make this call. Only time will tell if anyone can stop brand Trump.
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