Trump knows audience, but lacks substance

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Trump knows audience, but lacks substance

Even Trump has acknowledged that his campaign, so far, has little meat on its bones.


Bernd Debusmann Jr.

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Published: Thu 20 Aug 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 21 Aug 2015, 10:14 AM

Donald Trump is an unlikely political candidate. He's brash, arrogant, offensive, childish, and so convinced of his greatness that he has called America's leaders "stupid people." He is, however, a brilliant showman who somehow weathers criticism unscathed and has successfully tapped into the exasperation millions of Republicans feel with their own party and with American politics.
Again and again, Trump utters insults and over-the-top claims that prompts seasoned strategists to predict the end of his bid to win the Republican party's nomination as its candidate for the 2016 presidential elections. So far, he has proved the pundits wrong, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment that fears the billionaire businessman will taint the entire party as woman-hating xenophobes.
Trump began his campaign with a verbal assault on illegal Mexican immigrants, calling them "rapists" and "killers" - and actually rose in the polls. Then, he criticized the Vietnam War record of Senator John McCain, a fellow Republican who spent five years imprisoned and tortured in North Vietnam. Predictions that asserting McCain was not a war hero was a step too far proved wrong.
More recently, in the first debate among Republicans competing for their party's nomination, he objected to tough questions by Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly, who has a wide following among conservatives. She had asked "nasty" questions, Trump suggested after the debate, because she was menstruating. Faced with a storm of criticism and accusations of misogyny, Trump refused to back down. Pundits pointed out that women make up 53 per cent of voters in the United States and insulting them is not a wise move. But post-debate polls showed Trump leading the large field of primary contenders - 17 in all - by a wide margin.
What explains this phenomenon? It's certainly not because of the substance of his policies. So far, he has not spelled out any, instead making vague promises to "make America great again" by being "the greatest jobs president God has ever created." His campaign has promised firm policies, on their own unclear timeline, but so far nothing has been forthcoming.
For one, Trump knows his audience, and panders to it.
"There's a percentage of the population that is totally fed up with the political class," right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said on August 10. "Even when he's not on message or when he's not on issues, he comes across as somebody that says things they would like to say, things they have wanted to say, things they have hoped other people would say."
His comments on Mexicans, for example, tapped into a too-often ignored strain of xenophobia with remarks so harsh the rest of the GOP candidates would shy away from even though most of them favour stricter curbs on immigration.
Remarkably, some of the toughest criticism of Trump has come from mainstream conservatives. "This is a campaign that's run on know-nothing xenophobia," Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News in June. "It's not American productivity. It's not American troubles internally. It's not our deficit. It isn't our debt. It isn't our entitlements."
Because of his enormous wealth, Trump has been able to cast himself a candidate who isn't beholden to campaign donors or corporate interests (other than his own). This is an important point that goes a long way to explaining the resonance Trump is having with a certain segment of America, particularly the anti-establishment Tea Party movement
"There is no bigger problem for these voters than the corruption of the political system," Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg recently told the New Yorker. "They think big companies are buying influence, while average people are blocked out."
Here again, Trump knows what he offers and plays to his strengths. At the recent Republican debate, Trump made sure to point out that he's someone who's given money, rather than received it.
"I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me," he said. "And that's a broken system."
In the long run, however, Trump's lack of substance may come to haunt him, once voters begin really having to foresee America with him at the helm.
"His foreign-policy agenda amounts to building a wall on the southern US border and negotiating better deals with adversaries," the Wall Street Journal said after the debate. "He offered no specifics on how to do the latter, and one reason may be that he doesn't appear to know all that much about the world's flash points. His appeal is attitude, not substance."
Even Trump has acknowledged that his campaign, so far, has little meat on its bones.
"I do whine because I want to win and I'm not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win," he said recently.
The Clinton campaign is watching the performance with quiet satisfaction, as Hillary appeals to women and has come out in favour of immigration reform to curry favor with Latinos. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, she is likely to beat him. If he doesn't, and instead runs as a third-party candidate, he creates a three-way race that only Clinton can win.

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