In 1987, Ronald Reagan, the quintessential Republican, urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” denouncing the political climate that divided his world. Now, less than 30 years later, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hopes to return to an era of walls and global separation. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall,” Trump promised as he announced his candidacy this April. What Trump’s political plans, like the construction of a large wall as the solution to illegal immigration, lack in feasibility, they clearly make up for in their ability to tempt and fascinate voters.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Trump’s campaign as a political joke, as many liberals have done- the Onion and similar comedic news sources are having a field day with his campaign- but Trump’s success in the polls implies that his appeal may be based on more than just his ability to entertain. Certainly, voters are drawn to Trump for all sorts of reasons- some admire his impressive business record and his candidness, others believe in the issues and solutions he’s focused on, and a few, “like the joker from The Dark Knight, just want to see the world burn” (The Atlantic). But Trump’s history of racist, sexist, and prejudice-based comments may actually be contributing to his popularity, a frightening possibility that implies something deeply problematic about the reality of American political sentiment in the modern era.
Politicians are generally expected to be “politically correct”- to avoid offending or alienating potential supporters with their comments and to issue public apologies when they do. Donald Trump’s campaign has been the antithesis of this expectation- like a child, he lacks a filter and feels no pressure to apologize for his politically incorrect comments. From dismissing Carly Fiorina’s campaign on the grounds that nobody would vote for “that face” to his rejection of the entire concept of white privilege with his assertion that life would be easier were he “a well-educated black, because [he] believes they do have an advantage” to his famous comment on who exactly the Mexicans are “sending” to the United States- people that have lots of problems and rapists who are bringing drugs and crime – Trump has proven that no statement is too offensive, that the only thing we shouldn’t expect from him is an apology. But perhaps it’s exactly this attitude that has managed to garner him so much support.
To disillusioned Americans, Trump offers a refreshing approach to politics. He takes a hard line, promises to “Make America Great Again,” and doesn’t allow his political opinions to be bogged down by facts. In Trump’s political world, there is no complexity- success is about being commanding, demanding respect, and calling it like you see it no matter who you may offend. And while the prospect of putting this man in charge of our nuclear codes is likely causing presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt to roll over in their graves, nobody can deny that Trump is doing something right. He’s touched a nerve with the American people- perhaps they want a candid outsider who will shake things up in Washington, but it’s also possible that he’s appealing to the darker side of human emotion- to their prejudice, immaturity, and xenophobic desire to vilify foreigners and blame them for the decay of American society instead of focusing on finding real solutions to our real problems. Either way, it’s working.
Whether or not Trump actually makes it much further in this race, his success thus far raises serious questions about American citizens’ feelings towards politicians. Since Watergate, mistrust in our political leaders has been an unavoidable reality, but recently, this sentiment has been intensified by congressional gridlock and divisive political issues. The widely held belief that politicians are innately selfish, corrupt, and ineffective has thrown American voters into the arms of a self-obsessed billionaire with no political experience. Trump’s popularity is a part of a much larger trend, of a widespread disillusionment with modern politics. It’s also representative of an anti-expert, anti-intellectual trend- people are fed up with feeling talked down to by their politicians and are excited to find a candidate who offers simple solutions and one sentence answers instead of long speeches with complicated terms. Despite all of the attention Republicans have garnered recently- perhaps because there are enough of them to populate a small town- there’s still barely any dialogue about the issues themselves. Instead, the Republican campaign has been a competition about who can give the best zinger or get the last word in. This is nothing new in politics, but it is more prevalent today than in earlier campaigns. Trump certainly contributes to this dynamic- he spends about 10% of his time clarifying his political opinions and the other 90% criticizing anyone who steps into his line of vision. Trump embodies the resentment felt towards Ivy-League educated scholars who are perceived as pretentious and condescending. While this perception may have its roots in reality, it’s also contributing to a dangerous disregard for facts and experts, which are being replaced with catchy slogans and populists like Trump.
So maybe, as much as he would hate me for saying it, Trump’s campaign isn’t really about Trump. We still don’t need to be concerned about the White House having “TRUMP” spelled across it in January 2017, but we should start thinking about the issues that his success has revealed. Political mistrust and anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and prejudice, are becoming dangerously commonplace in American politics, and while this frustration isn’t invalid, it is setting us on a dangerous political path.