John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Ugly American redeemed by humour

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The more appalling Donald Trump is, the funnier his campaign gets.
For Trump and his supporters, it's entertainment. Photo / AP
For Trump and his supporters, it's entertainment. Photo / AP

Watching CNN's very good panel of political commentators grappling with the Trump phenomenon on Wednesday, I wondered if the key to understanding it is not to take it seriously.

Seriously, it's entertainment. For Trump and his supporters, it's entertainment. The presidency, if he wins it as it is now obvious he may well do, will be entertainment for him and them.

Give the guy his due, he's funny. The more appalling he is, the more damned funny it is. I'm glued. I thought the bubble might have burst after he lost in Wisconsin but when he won big in New York and clinched the Republican nomination in the Indiana primary on Wednesday, he defied all the conventions of political analysis as well as defeating the last of the Republican Party's battery of conventional candidates.

So what's going on over there? The CNN panel agreed that voters were angry. Presumably they are angry about the things Trump has been telling them: jobs disappearing to Mexico and China under free trade deals, jobs being taken by immigrants, static incomes, a sense that things were not as good as they used to be and that even their mighty United States was not standing up for them any more.

I suspect they are not angry at all. That explanation better fits the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democrat nomination which has been strikingly popular too, though not as popular as Trump's. Senator Sanders is winning with university students, who are not really the "working class" he is talking about, and they know it. It's the poor white blokes in baseball caps the senator is talking about, and their wives and children.

But it's the blokes in baseball caps who are turning out for Donald Trump, the most obnoxious of Bernie's "billionaires". No wonder the students were staging anti-Trump confrontations with his supporters - until they realised that, like everything the Republican Party leadership and its acceptable candidates have said and done, like every serious and excoriating analysis of Trump in the press, they were only making him stronger.

As one after the other his rivals have withdrawn from the race, their support did not coalesce against Trump as the pundits and party leaders expected. Trump's pluralities of 35 to 40 per cent turned into majorities of 55 to 60 per cent.

Not that he has wrapped up the nomination; the panellists and maybe even the party doubt he can beat Hillary Clinton in November. Half the voting population, they point out, has not taken part in the primaries. It reminds me of last year when they told us Trump's lead in opinion polls might not necessarily translate into votes once the primaries got under way.

Anyone who takes politics seriously struggles with the thought that, when it comes to the crunch, American voters will elect someone of such wilful ignorance, bullying tendencies and lacking the dignity of their presidency.

But the scale of Trump's victories of late and the momentum that still seems to be building suggest he could go all the way to the White House.

What sort of President might he be, apart from an appallingly entertaining one at times? He also has the redeeming quality of not taking himself too seriously, unlike the man he defeated in Indiana. It was good to see the back of Cruz. If the next President is to be a Republican, as normally it would be, I'd prefer the ugly American to the sanctimonious one.

Trump's indifference to the conventions of politics and complete lack of experience in government at any level are not totally ominous. He would come to the White House with a fresh mind, if he is inclined to use it, and options unencumbered by obligations to a party's legacy, a personal legislative record or donors to a presidential campaign.

Even in his wilder policy proposals, such as the ban on Muslim immigration, he would add "until we figure out what is going on". He seems genuinely to want to find out.

He may really intend to renegotiate trade deals but it is advantageous fixed exchange rates that really seem to bother him. If he can make floating currencies a condition of free trade agreements more power to his arm.

But the comforting truth is that the presidency is not as powerful as all who love politics like to imagine. It may be the world's most powerful office, there may be a nuclear button, but the US Government is a lumbering, three-legged beast and one leg can do little without the others.

Maybe the boys in baseball caps turning out for Donald Trump are well aware of how little damage he can really do. Maybe they can safely make him President just for a lark. It could be entertaining but when it comes to the point, I'd rather not find out.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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