Moments after the Republican presidential debate last week, a Fox News personality reported what a focus group had to say about the Bar-Scene-from-Star Wars event.
One guy, identified as “Anthony,” said he liked Donald Trump pre-debate but revised his view after listening to the real estate/reality TV big shot.
“He was mean, he was angry, he had no specifics, he was bombastic,” the man said.
Well, stop the presses for Anthony.
The prime-time spectacle of Trump’s toxic mixture of malevolence, testosterone, and narcissism, masquerading as a political program, surely did not surprise anyone who’s actually watched as he’s surged to the lead over the 17-person GOP field.
Beyond Trump’s singular brand of plutocratic populism, sexist slander, and nasty nativism, however, his short-term success also seems an evolutionary consequence of the politics of resentment peddled by candidates pandering to the right-wing Tea Party faction in the Obama era.
“He is the middle finger. He is the fist on the table,” Christine Matthews, a Republican consultant, wrote in a post-debate memo, widely read in Washington.
“Trump has found this group of voters — the angry, alienated hard liners who are not seeking solutions,” she said, adding that they are “looking for disruption and that’s what Trump delivers.”
CLIFFS NOTES: A quick review for fiesteros who shrewdly pursued happy-hour tequila specials instead of joining the 24 million other Americans who watched last week’s debate:
His rivals walked a fine line between disapproval of Trump’s tone and courtship of his voters, as the front-runner played defense against tough questioning by three Fox moderators, most prominently superstar Megyn Kelly, who confronted him about his history of crude comments about women (post-debate, Trump suggested her aggressiveness was due to menstruation).
Among 18,502 words spoken, according to CNN’s debate transcript, there were two mentions of the “middle class,” and “climate change,” “gun violence,” and “student debt” were not referenced.
Despite a widely panned performance, Trump still leads the pack in early after-debate polling, with steady 20-or-so percent support. (In another poll released this week, 10 percent of Republicans said they believe Elvis is still alive, and 7 percent said they aren’t sure.) While he clearly benefits from posing as an outsider, he also apparently benefits among GOP voters from aligning politically with standard Republican positions on issues affecting three key constituencies.
• Women. No contender joined Kelly in challenging Trump over his record of vulgarities about women. True fact: The only topic affecting women was abortion rights, as Trump and the others took Taliban-like positions favoring a government ban on the procedure, amid several calls for prohibition even in cases of rape, incest, and endangerment of a mother’s life, and much Planned Parenthood bashing. No appeals for pay equity or family leave were sounded.
• Latinos. Trump’s demagogic hobbyhorse is immigration, and his sole policy proposal has been construction of an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a fantasy that most other wannabes share. This is likely to alienate further Latino voters who have backed Democrats in recent years. Many polls show that while immigration is not their No. 1 concern, it is the threshold issue: A candidate opposed to a path to legal status for immigrants is disqualified in Latino voters’ minds, regardless of stances on the economy, jobs, defense, or anything else.
• Middle Class. Trump and the others endorsed three economic ideas: a) cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy; b) revoking the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed during the Great Recession; c) repealing Obamacare, in which 16.4 million previously uninsured Americans have enrolled. No word on minimum wage increase.
WHAT HE’S FOR: “We have to make our country great again, and I will do that,” Trump said, summing up his platform.
For now, his strongman promises are enough to command the overcrowded GOP field, but don’t bet the house on him quite yet. Four of five Republicans aren’t behind him, and his numbers remained stalled after they heard directly from him.
Trump’s coarse, mercurial, and volatile style is unlikely to wear as well as that of more substantive candidates with better campaign organization, more personal discipline, and thicker skins. He has made clear that if he is not “treated fairly” by Republicans — whatever that means — he may well launch an independent candidacy.
“A campaign is not a reality TV show. It’s a very tough exercise,” ex-Ronald Reagan strategy veteran Ed Rollins, who “managed” Ross Perot’s 1992 third-party campaign, told the Washington Post. “You don’t have the privilege of just saying, ‘I’m a billionaire, I’m going to build a wall and screw you.’”