From a policy standpoint, its hard to take Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seriously. Trump’s ideas, like for example, building a wall and having Mexico pay for it, are clownishly naive and logistically impractical. Yet for all his ego-stroking, self-congratulatory rhetoric and his absurd policy prescriptions, Donald Trump is striking a chord with frustrated and anxious conservative voters.
On Saturday, Trump spoke to an overflow crowd of thousands of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center. Sure, a few hecklers briefly interrupted the Trump love fest, attempting to unfurl a banner in the midst of the crowd before they were apparently escorted out of the event. However, overall, the large crowd was filled with admirers who boisterously cheered Trump’s every pronouncement, no matter how bizarre the words he spoke were.
Not only did Trump attract an enthusiastic crowd to Phoenix, but Saturday morning a Reuters-Ipsos Poll found that Trump was tied with Jeb Bush for first place in the Republican presidential field. Trump of course leveled multiple attacks at Bush during his Phoenix speech. He took the occasion to depict Jeb Bush as stupid, feckless and a weak negotiator who would fold in about two seconds and who “lobbyists push around like a piece of candy.”
Trump elicited applause for attacking Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, for being weak. By contrast Trump portrayed himself as a strong leader who would make “the military so strong we’d never have to use it”, and he warned that if he is elected “ISIS will be in such trouble.” Of course, he didn’t offer any specifics, he just implied that his mere presence in the White House would make all of America’s enemies cease and desist right before our very eyes.
Trump’s speech was the triumph of style over substance, but there can be no denying that his cartoonishly simplistic bombast found an approving audience of conservatives in Phoenix. His Nativist Know Nothing populism conveniently scapegoats illegal immigrants.
However, with the the help of a compelling personal horror story by Jamiel Shaw whose son, Jamiel Shaw the second, was murdered by a person who had entered the country illegally, Trump has the anecdotes to push his narrative. There is no question that Shaw’s personal story is both tragic and moving, giving Trump’s anti-immigrant message a sympathetic figure to rally behind, that partially softens and obscures the xenophobic nature of Trump’s overall message.
While it would be easy for other Republican candidates to dismiss Trump as not a serious candidate, that would be a mistake. The Republican Party has long courted conservative voters by appealing to their base fears, However, now that Donald Trump has amplified the GOP message, Republican leaders, like Dr. Frankenstein in the laboratory, are trying to deal with a monster they helped create.
By calling every Republican politician not named Donald Trump “stupid”, Mr. Trump is burning bridges rather than building alliances within the Republican Party. However, Republican leaders may be slow to realize that a lot of conservative voters seem to agree with Trump. Republican politicians have spent years cultivating hatred of government bureaucrats and politicians among their base, encouraging voters to choose a “limited government” Republican over a “big government” Democrat. In their critique, however, they have exposed themselves as politicians to incur the wrath of voters disillusioned with the system the GOP has told them to distrust.
Trump’s phony populism has exploited conservative voters’ distrust of the GOP mainstream to his political advantage. In the process, he represents a direct threat to Jeb Bush, whose conservative family is too much a part of the political establishment to earn the loyalty of disgruntled conservative voters. Trump’s speech took aim at Jeb Bush several times, and at one point he told the crowd:
If you people go with Bush, you’re going to lose.
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, it was apparent they believed him. Now to be fair, the group of people assembled to hear Trump speak in Phoenix was hardly representative of the general population or even the GOP primary base. Candidate events tend to draw supporters rather than a broad cross-section of the party. Nevertheless, given the size and the enthusiasm of the crowd in Phoenix, and Trump’s current strong polling numbers, Jeb Bush and the rest of the GOP field had better beware. In the conservative universe, the Trump bump is starting to look all too real.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.