What makes Donald Trump tick?

This soft-spoken conservative from Alabama was the only senator to endorse Trump before he became the presumed presidential nominee.

By Francine Kiefer (Poll Position)

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Published: Wed 18 May 2016, 9:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 18 May 2016, 11:47 AM

Before Republicans in Congress began to coalesce around Donald Trump last week, there was Sen. Jeff Sessions.
This soft-spoken conservative from Alabama was the only senator to endorse Trump before he became the presumed presidential nominee. As one of the Senate's staunchest opponents of the Pacific trade deal and immigration reform, the diminutive Southerner has tried to convince his colleagues that Trump is the right candidate with the right message - that free trade and illegal immigration are killing jobs and wages.
They didn't listen. But, speaking to a scrum of reporters last Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Senator Sessions said he's urging his colleagues to reconsider. The senator said he would be "worried" if Republican congressional candidates separated themselves from the core of Trump's message, because "Donald Trump is part of a movement."
His comment encapsulates a fundamental question facing the Republican Party, members of Congress included: Does Trump's success represent more than the anomaly of a bombastic outsider in an election year where voters are hungry for change?
If he's a movement, then the party is obviously missing something. Adjustments in message and policy - perhaps a complete rebranding - will need to be made, especially if Trump wins in November. Sessions isn't the only one who thinks the party may need to pivot.
But many Republicans believe Trump is an outlier. They describe him as an army of one, a phenomenon, propelled by his celebrity status, his money, his plain and sometimes vulgar and insulting language, and lots and lots of free media. His policy ideas are undeveloped and fluctuating. He has no slate of candidates seeking other offices.
Trump's feat was to stay atop a field of 17 candidates who mostly shot each other. "Fratricide," is how John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., describes the primary race. He and others see little evidence that Trump has brought in new voters, and point out that incumbents are safely winning their primary races.
"There doesn't seem to be any movement party-wide. It's all about Trump," says Pitney.
The question of whether Trump is a movement or a one-off is a hugely important one for the direction of the GOP.
Some insiders say the party sloughs off Trump at their peril.
"It would be a mistake not to study what's going on," says Rep. Dave Brat ® of Virginia, who ousted former House Republican majority leader Eric Cantor from his seat in an upset victory in 2014. Congressman Brat, an economist and professor, likens the Trump phenomenon to a business case study.
"If you've got a competing business that takes away 30 percent of your market share, in this case consumers of politics, what would you do? You would immediately begin studying and seeing why my consumers are going that way, and not my way."
But what if Trump is so unique that his impact is impossible to interpret? Win or lose, can any lessons be learned from such an atypical candidate?
A Trump ally from New York, Rep. Chris Collins staunchly disagrees with the once-in-a-century view. "Bernie Sanders is tapping into the same frustration in America on the Democrat side, so if Trump's an anomaly, so is Bernie Sanders," he says.
In a way, both views are right here. Trump truly is a phenomenon, explains Amy Walter, of the independent Cook Political Report. His celebrity and his ability to understand and manipulate the media are unique to him, she says. But the forces that have contributed to his rise have been building and aren't going away.
They're forces like globalization, demographic and cultural changes, and displacement of people by technology.
Those forces are contributing to a class divide and Trump has recognized that. He may have won only 42 per cent of the popular vote, but he's won almost half of the non-college primary voters.
Inside the halls of Congress, Republicans are still shocked at Trump's rise to presumptive-nominee status after his last two opponents suddenly quit in early May. Most people had expected a contested convention in July. Now they're grappling with the result: what it will mean for their own races, for party unity, and for the White House.
Some think Trump reflects a political realignment and that Republicans would be well advised to study his success and adjust accordingly.
For too long, the GOP has been an "elite" party overly concerned with ideology, says John Feehery, who was spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert ® of Illinois during the George W. Bush administration.  Sessions puts this point more bluntly: "We got a lot of silk-stocking, country-club, good-manners people" who are uneasy with Trump, he said in his comments last week. They don't think he's sophisticated.
"I think we're finding quite differently," said Sessions, who describes Trump - whom he is advising - as smart, hard-working, strong, and courageous. "The party should focus on working Americans. People who make $50,000 or less," the senator says.
But Republicans have very different approaches to to the political terrain of 2016. That has been evident in the divide between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan ® of Wisconsin. Speaker Ryan has yet to endorse Trump - though he appears to be getting closer since he and other Republican leaders met with Trump on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Trump reportedly has said he won't demand changes in the Republican platform, but as observers point out, nominees - and presidents - freely wander from policy platforms.
As for whether a realignment in the party is necessary, it's too early to tell, Pitney says. He points out that even in 1980, it wasn't at all clear that Ronald Reagan would win.
Christian Science Monitor

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