Phil Quin: Political elite must heed lessons in Trump farce

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How extraordinary that a man so patently unsuited to the presidency has secured the nomination of a major party. Photo / Getty Images
How extraordinary that a man so patently unsuited to the presidency has secured the nomination of a major party. Photo / Getty Images

Doesn't it seem quaint now that the most outrageous thing uttered by the 2012 GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, was that 47 per cent of Americans wouldn't vote for him because they rely on the profligate federal government for handouts?

Donald Trump barely makes it to breakfast before issuing forth any number of statements that make such a remark seem like a greeting card by comparison.

Space doesn't permit a comprehensive recap of Trump's many offensive statements en route to the nomination, but the main targets have included: Hispanics (rapists and murderers), female TV hosts (for the crime of menstruation), his fellow Republicans (lyin' Ted Cruz, low-energy Jeb Bush, little Marco Rubio), the Chinese (cheats!), the Japanese (also cheats!), the media (terrible! sad!), and the primary process itself (rigged!).

How extraordinary that a man so patently unsuited to the presidency has secured the nomination of a major party. Reports abound that world leaders and diplomats are aghast at the prospect of a Trump White House (with the notable exception of Vladimir Putin, who can't get enough of the real estate mogul).

The forces behind Trump's rise will fascinate historians and political scientists for years to come, and Andrew Sullivan's darkly brilliant cover story in last week's New York magazine is a good place to start. He argues Trump is the product of the cultural, economic and political alienation of the white working class. This has collided, to diabolical effect, with the decimation in the digital age of media and political elites who traditionally acted as a buffer against such demagoguery.

But Trump's strengths double as weakness; an attribute he shares with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Just as Obama's popularity among minorities and educated liberals help make him the object of scorn and loathing among everyone else, Trump is similarly detested by anyone who isn't firmly in his camp.

But for Trump and the Republicans, this exacerbates an intractable maths problem. Unlike Obama and Hillary Clinton, whose diverse coalition comprises groups on the rise, GOP voters are dwindling and are increasingly concentrated in insignificant states.

Clinton doesn't need to win where Trump is strongest, but the same cannot be said in reverse. Trump needs to poach states - and millions of votes - from Clinton to have a shot at winning. Barring unforeseen events on a grand scale, he is in for a landslide defeat in November.

People are understandably spooked that pundits like me will turn out to be wrong. After all, didn't he defy expectations by winning the nomination in the first place? Well, no. Trump held a consistent lead in most polls for more than a year. The only reason we're surprised is that we couldn't bring ourselves to believe they were right.

Across all the GOP primaries and caucuses to date, fewer than 5 per cent of America's eligible voters have cast a vote for Donald Trump. Sixty per cent of the Republicans who bothered to participate voted for candidates other than Trump. Millions more participated in the Democratic primaries, and the remainder will wait until November to have their say. Meanwhile, Gallup rates Trump as the most widely loathed candidate of either party in any election since the invention of polling.

Trump's disapproval rating among women (70 per cent) is in Bill Cosby territory, and there are white sheriffs in Mississippi who attract greater affection than Trump among African-Americans. Senator John McCain says he can't remember a time during his marathon stint in elected office when Hispanic voters are as roused as they are today by Trump and his xenophobic antics.

Trump does well among certain white voters, but there's little evidence many of them are former Obama supporters preparing to jump ship. Romney commanded that demographic in 2012 and still lost. This is not to mention the hordes of moderate Republicans - including Romney - who refuse to endorse Trump.

That said, the GOP won't disintegrate, as some alarmists project. Presidential campaigns have a life of their own, and political parties are resilient beasts.

Trump may be a sinister clown, but he has unleashed a potent strain of resentment among millions of voters who feel cheated by political and economic elites. Long after he has launched his next reality television venture, both political parties will need to find ways to connect with these voters - or 2016 will signal just the beginning of a period of unprecedented political tumult with ramifications beyond America's borders.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Phil Quin has worked for Labour Governments in NZ and Australia.

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