Busting up the party: The visceral appeal of Donald Trump

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
File | AP Photo | Alex Brandon

Reality television performer and businessman Donald Trump has stirred up the presidential election with his campaign for the Republican nomination.

Trump is leading the Republican field in most polls despite controversial comments about women, immigrants, and others, as well as a lack of political experience.

MPR News political editor Mike Mulcahy spoke Tuesday with two political experts about Trump's appeal. Trump has become a hit with voters who are dissatisfied with establishment candidates, but are there larger implications for the future of the Republican Party? And can Trump's populism rise out of a partisan primary process that tends to favor traditional candidates?

Understanding Trump's appeal

Kondik: I have been surprised at the staying power of Trump...He just gets so much news coverage. While a lot of the news coverage might be negative, he himself is on TV almost every day. It's August, there's kind of a new vacuum, this is a slow time in politics, Congress isn't in session.

He's really a different kind of presidential candidate than maybe we've ever seen before in that he's a modern celebrity, a person who's been around American life for decades who is running for president. We've had other presidential candidates in the past who have not served for elected office before or even run for elected office before — people like Pat Buchanan or Steve Forbes in the '90s, or even Jesse Jackson too earlier in the '80s — but Trump is even more famous than all of them and I think that plays into this too. He's this novelty that I find hard to explain because there isn't really much precedent for him.

How does Trump fit into the race?

Johnson: The rest of the Republican field are essentially running like cowards right now because they don't know how to deal with Donald Trump and they don't know how to be candid and direct about the issues they're talking about. This is how Trump comes into play, not just as a celebrity, but as somebody who is influencing policy and narratives.

The last four or five years, really since the 2012 election [and] the Republicans did their big autopsy, they've been trying to clean up their act. they've been trying to downplay sexist or racist or misogynistic comments. They're like a guy preparing for a date: He cuts his hair; he brushes his teeth; he puts on a new suit and then his old college roommate shows up and he's like, 'Let me tell you what this guy is really like.' That is Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is showing the country what the base of the Republican Party thinks like, what they want and what they still desire. And the rest of the establishment candidates have no idea what to do. They've been preparing for the last two or three years to have this much more milquetoast way of expressing their policies so they could get to a general election. He's scuttling that process by forcing them to reveal what their base is really like.

Offensive Comments

Kondik: Just because something sounds offensive to you or me or to whoever doesn't mean it sounds offensive to everyone. That's what Trump has discovered is that he can say things that are politically out of bounds and there are people who respond to that.

The things he's said over the course of his campaign rule out any possibility of him getting any mainline, mainstream support from the party. And I think ultimately that will help prevent him from getting the nomination. I do think there's a price to be paid for the things that Trump has said, but he's just not paying that price now.

Voter dissatisfaction

Kondik: Voters will express these very contradictory thoughts. They don't want to pay taxes but they don't want to cut anything. It's almost an infantile view of what public policy needs to be. I think you see that too in this generic desire for change balanced with the reality that in presidential nominations, it's typically a very established person who gets elected, someone with a great deal of political experience. And [there's] the broader point about how incumbents almost always win re-election even though the public says that it wants a change.

Does Polling Matter?

Johnson: No individual poll matters. I would say even during the heat of the campaign season, no individual poll, or even any individual polling company, whether it's [Public Policy Polling], Rasmussen or even Gallup. It's not the individual polls; It's trends that matter.

So if you see two or three different polls saying that Hillary Clinton is in trouble in Colorado versus a generic Republican, that's probably a fair indicator that she's underwater there. It doesn't necessarily mean that she's going to lose the state... But you have to notice trends.

Fixing problems

Johnson: Many of the elected officials have been selling the American people a story, then they're not being held accountable. I'll say this very quickly because it's key about Trump, Ted Cruz and many of the conservatives who happen to be Republicans. They've been selling the American people this lie that the problems we face as a country are actually very simple, and the reason that they haven't been solved is because of the lack of political will, not because of the actual mechanics of how government operates.

It is very easy for people to turn around and say,'Darn it, I just want the guy with simple answers. But that's just because they're just buying into this myth that what ails this country are budget, immigration, the war in the Middle East, problems with police violence, urban decay, infrastructure, and that those are simple solutions and if someone was trying hard enough, they'd be fixed, as opposed to those are problems we've always had and we probably always will have them.

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