WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2015 — Donald Trump is leading a populist revolution. Media elites and GOP establishment are struggling to understand what is happening. Every few days, “the Donald” catches them off guard, launches a grenade that hits its mark, then doubles down.
Talking heads like Charles Krauthammer and Steve Hayes on Fox and the pundits on ABC, NBC, and elsewhere are scurrying to explain that Trump finally shot himself in the foot, that he is playing off the worst fears of the American people and that his “fascism” has disqualified him for a chance at the nation’s top elected office.
Whether it’s his remarks about John McCain, about Muslims or about Hillary being “schlonged,” Trump’s frequent blasts are followed by furrowed media eyebrows, then new poll results and growing despair from inside-the-Beltway elites.
Trump has tapped into something deep that has been brewing for years. His campaign can genuinely be called a “movement.” Trump has become a greater-than-life, talismanic figure for millions of Americans who feel cut off from the “American Dream” and ignored by the political establishment.
Trump is using the mainstream media to go around and through the media; he is using the media to go over the heads of Washington’s political establishment, both Democratic and Republican, to reach everyday citizens directly.
This is not just a repeat of “tea party” disgust. Fury over the negation of conservative majorities elected to Congress in 2010 and 2014 figures in the equation, but this goes deeper. It reflects growing bitterness and desperation from a broad segment of the population—disaffected conservatives, disillusioned Republicans, independents, former non-voters, even many Democrats.
For millions of Americans, the country they once knew and loved has slipped away from them. Their beliefs and values are not just being ignored, but are now damned as racist, sexist and homophobic. They see the leaders of both parties as an elitist cabal that cares nothing for the “small guy.”
Obama and his fumbling policies at home and abroad are partially responsible for the frustration. But as their rage has mushroomed, Trump’s supporters understand that Republican establishment elites who are charged with opposing Obama, don’t. They go along to get along—and things continue to get worse.
The leaders of the Republican establishment, from Mitch McConnell to Paul Ryan to the RNC to the talking heads on Fox, always advocate relief from and opposition to the leftward spiral. But when put to the test or in power, they either succumb to its enticements and collaborate with business-as-usual.
In early December, at a Trump event in Raleigh, North Carolina, nearly 10,000 people jammed an arena intended for 7,500. The vast majority looked white; most were probably young white men.
But there was a sprinkling of black faces. There were people in coat and tie, though most came in street clothes. Although there were quite a few young men, there were entire families and single women present as well.
Most impressive was the connection Trump made with the crowd. They invested in him both their fears and their hopes. He connected profoundly with them. Not by the eloquence of his words—he speaks directly, even brashly in an in-your-face manner that most politicians would studiously avoid.
But there was a connection. The crowd saw in Trump more than just his words; he is a symbol, a bull-in-the-china shop who will break the stranglehold that the establishment and political and financial elites have on this country. We will recover some of the real republicanism we once had.
Trump is not a man of mainstream conservatism, but he is a man of the right—the populist right.
Trump speaks from the hip; his targets are those that mostly ignored by establishment politicians who draw their sustenance from super PACS, the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street.
Whether it be his assertion of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/1l—first denied by the media and the other GOP candidates, but now with evidence to back it up—or his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States until we get a handle on Muslim terrorism, Trump is no novice, no ingénue. He knows his audience, and he prepares his battleground carefully.
Consider his call for a temporary halt to Muslim immigration to the U.S. His strategy was superbly shaped. After making his proposal and drawing the media and his Republican opponents into denouncing it as “unconstitutional,” he produced examples of previous American presidents pursuing similar policies. Jimmy Carter, for instance, refused entry to Iranian nationals and required Iranian students to report to immigration offices, expelling some of them.
There is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952—during the Truman administration. It was incorporated into the federal statutes (U.S.C. 1182), which gives the president the right to bar whole classes of potential entrants for a length of time that he deems necessary.
There were also the World War II actions of President Roosevelt to intern Japanese Americans. The list goes on.
Critics scream that Trump’s proposal would violate constitutional provisions on religious freedom, but Trump is on much stronger ground than they are.
The First Amendment applies to American citizens, not to foreigners seeking to enter this country. The Founders never envisaged thousands of Muslim migrants coming to America; they assumed that the new American nation would continue to be a Christian, if non-denominational, nation. Nor did the Constitution bar the particular states from religious tests and restrictions.
Until this country can establish better and surer screening and verification of immigrants, as Trump demands, is it not better to preclude terrorist attacks like those in San Bernardino, in Boston and on 9/11? Most American people think so.
By throwing that political bomb, Trump again altered the debate and tapped deeply into the public pulse. By laying what was really a trap for his opponents, he not only connected directly to citizens who feel threatened by terrorism, he again went around and through the media. He demonstrated once again that he is not bought-and-paid-for by the establishment, that he is a vocal symbol for the voiceless, that he is greater than the sum of his simple, brash words, for they, in their simplicity, represent a cry by millions who have been dispossessed in their own country, isolated, looked down upon, and ignored.
They want nothing more than to regain some modicum of control and influence in what goes on in their own lives, to command their own destinies and provide security for their families. And they are willing to excuse personal foibles and controversial style to achieve that.
On CBS’s Dec. 9 morning news program, host Charlie Rose asked mainstream Republican pollster Frank Luntz about the results of one of Luntz’s famous “voter panels.” This one was composed of Republicans, a few Democrats and some independents.
Rose asked Luntz, “About how many of them support Trump?” Luntz, with a pained establishment frown on his face, responded, “Probably 40 percent.” You could have heard Rose’s gasp all the way to Greenland. “That many?!” Rose exclaimed in astonishment. “Yes,” replied a dour Luntz.
The media and the establishment haven’t yet come to terms with the movement Trump represents and probably won’t, because to do so would mean the admission of their failure and their arrogant disregard for the genuine welfare of the nation whose interests they supposedly protect.