Every age has its heroes. In terms of vote-getting, it’s the individual who manages to rise above the socio-political landscape to create a new and independent powerbase. Roughly 200 years ago Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote about a modern-day Prometheus—Frankenstein that is—who was created out of the abyss of disillusionment and a fear of change. The GOP presidential race may lend itself to Shelley’s Gothic tale of a monster that arrives unexpectedly and, in short order, throws conventional wisdom out of the window and carves a unique niche into the body politic.
Some believe Donald Trump is a recreation of that monster. If so, then “FrankenTrump” would be the perfect representative of the yearning for social romanticism, or a rejection of the march of progress and return to yesteryear when new thought and philosophy was rejected in favor of arch-conservative sentimentality. Trump is a superhero–an “uberman”—of which Americans have traditionally embraced since the early days of literary fantasy. Except, many persons believe Trump—an Ivy League superhero–is much more of a menace to progressive ideology than someone who upholds the ideals of honesty, character and fair play witnessed in likable superheroes you’d find in a comic book.
Genisis of the ‘brash basher’
Shelley’s monster railed against the treatment of the poor and uneducated (e.g. today’s adult White population without a college degree), and Trump tends to mimic this component of the monster’s psyche while also advocating a rejection of the restorative powers of nature in the face of unnatural events (i.e. the presidency of Barack Obama). The similarities between Trump and the monster can be both illuminating … and frightening. Trump is outspoken, brash and headstrong. So was Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Trump is single-minded, unapologetic and tough-as-nails. So was the monster. Trump’s larger-than-life persona runs against traditional humility within retail politics. Take the Iowa Caucuses, for instance. When other presidential candidates rolled up their sleeves, donned plaid shirts and tried to blend into the rows of corn to prove how “middle America” they purported to be, Trump arrived in town in a helicopter wearing his signature Brioni suits and Zellui Tuscany loafers.
Trump’s arrival in politics comes at a time when many believe the nation faces sinister forces worldwide from Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-un, ISIS, bio-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change … even unchecked immigration and changing family dynamics. His appeal to patriotism and a return to a simpler life are the hallmarks of the venerable Romantic-era tale. The Trump campaign has become a rallying point for the disintegrated White working class, particularly its [perceived] popular anger toward immigrants. Trump has been able to capitalize on this division between cosmopolitan “elites” and an increasingly agitated nationalist base.
Tea Party 2.0
Trump’s rise stems from the fact that he is a brilliant political entrepreneur. He took the remnants of the Tea Party (nativism, “birtherism”) and forged a unique political marketplace based on his style much more than on addressing policy concerns. The latent populism has always been there, but Trump’s personal brand has allowed it to grow almost as if it was one of his business entities. Trump learned a great deal from fellow businessman Ross Perot. Instead of creating his own independent political party, Trump simply stole an existing one. Some observers say the Republican Party was ripe for a “hostile takeover” because its vulnerability was derived from a shift to an old but useful powerbase—the South (east of Texas, south of the Mason Dixon line). Trump’s victory in South Carolina early in the primary season provided proof that the modern GOP is much more Southern than it is urban. Fifty-seven percent of Trump’s delegates came from his sweep of six Southern states. Southerners are an increasingly vital component of the GOP base, making up for anticipated losses out West, in the Mountain states, the Northeast and in the Midwest.
Trump’s populist banner mirrors Southern political strategy, evidenced by history including the Jacksonians, Know-Nothings, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Pat Buchanan. All of these parties and candidates emerged from the South or built their power base there. For instance, the populist Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s peaked just as European immigration was about to surge unchecked for 70 years. George Wallace ran for president in 1968 after segregation was dead in Alabama. Ross Perot’s anti-trade campaign peaked when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) were nearing completion. Trump speaks to such issues on the campaign trail as though they were unsettled.
Slaying a weak opposition
Trump has tapped into populist outrage by focusing on an issue everyone is arguing about: immigration. And while most economists will attest that immigrants to America generally don’t take high-paying union jobs or drive down wages, a recent Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans have desired less legal immigration for the past 20 years. By 2015, that percentage crashed to 34 percent; during the same period, those who want more legal immigration climbed from 7 percent to 25 percent of respondents. Surprisingly, only 19 percent of Trump delegates believe that immigration is the number-one issue he should tackle, if elected. Effectively, Trump’s anti-immigrant (Muslims included) populism is peaking now that popular opposition to immigration is only one half of what it was 20 years ago. Much like the monster’s escape from his benefactor, Trump took advantage of a particularly weak Republican presidential field and tapped into voter anger against a range of liberal policies which have taken hold over the past eight years.
Since announcing his candidacy last summer, Trump has ridden roughshod over a weakening Republican coalition, so much so that the Republican establishment is threatening to dump him at the convention in Cleveland. That move, however, may involve a reluctant “shaming” of Trump’s middle- and working-class supporters who are drawn to his economic message of “America first” and who may or may not support those “establishment” GOP candidates up for re-election. Trump’s breakout has reportedly attracted some of the worst elements of American life to his campaign, although most of his supporters are decent Americans who find his approach to politics a revelation. His “outsider” status means that many believe he is someone who will “get things done.” Some of these followers identify with his hard-line position on illegal immigration, his rejection of free trade, his often jingoistic rants about temporarily barring Muslims from entering the country, and his outright repudiation of Obamacare.
Craving the strong man
Some of Trump’s supporters are driven by the pure worship of the “strong man,” and his supporters are willing to follow him anywhere, to justify any misbehavior, to view any opposition to him as a type of irreligious disloyalty. Trump can now gauge his success by the size of his crowds, his success in the polls, his daily press coverage and, most tellingly, how he has been able to dispatch one-by-one a large GOP field into just two opponents since February. South Carolina is the state that effectively launched Trump into orbit and, ironically, the same state whose Indian-American governor removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. The agony experienced by Trump voters may have many sources, including socio-economic and cultural ones. Many political scientists attest that Trump’s revised “Southern Strategy” among supporters is based on economic loss of status because of globalization and technological change. Ben Shapiro hosts a local radio show on KRLA 870 and says that Trump is doing more to pervert conservatism than perpetuate the Reagan Revolution.
“Even as he cultivates idolatry and messages White supremacists and global tyrants, Trump proclaims that he’s a conservative,” Shapiro said. “It’s been a decades-long fight for Republicans to counter the false notion that conservatism is a toxic brew of nationalism, fascism and secret racism. Trump’s followers refuse to acknowledge that their candidate has little to do with conservatism; they’ve allowed him to use the mantle of Lincoln and Reagan and the founders to shield his own egocentric rise from criticism.”
The “Trumpian” tradition in American politics has historic roots. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter released a book called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and stated that whether it be local, statewide or national campaigns, there is a sense of “… heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” among voters. A number of political scientists say that Trump’s near-meteoric rise within the GOP voting constituency may be proof that, nationally, the fractured Republican Party was ripe for a takeover and that the brash billionaire arrived just in time.
“There is a long history of candidates in America running against what they perceive to be conspiracies, or running against groups of powerful interests that have it in for the ordinary citizen, or that have rigged the game against ordinary people,” said Matthew Wilson, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University. He said those suspicious voters are primarily White, lower middle class and don’t always fit neatly into the left-right spectrum. “They are as suspicious of corporate and media elites as they are of Blacks and Hispanics. Trump taps into a lot of that resentment of elites,” Wilson said.
Wilson further explained that, for conservatives, you have to believe that the single most important issue facing America is disrespect for the Constitution. This “dissing” includes an out-of-control, activist Supreme Court, an arrogant executive branch, disrespect for federalism by Congress, and a general disrespect for the Bill of Rights by various government and/or private agencies.
Escape from the ‘establishment’
The media was the first to report Trump’s escape from the clutches of the establishment Republican Party. He doesn’t have a super PAC (political action committee). He has a limited number of field offices and has spent less on television advertising than any candidate in both parties. Yet Trump has not been absent from the airwaves. MediaQuaint, a firm that tracks media coverage of each candidate (and computes the dollar value based on advertising rates) uses the term “earned media” which is simply the calculation of mentions in traditional media of all types such as print, broadcast and online sources like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. MediaQuaint found that Trump is not just a little better at earning media, he’s way better than any of the other candidates. Trump reportedly earned $400 million in free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Over the course of his campaign, Trump has earned about $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. This figure is also more than twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.
Frankenstein fans will remember the monster’s subsequent rampage through the countryside. This time followers are not a pitchfork-wielding, torch-bearing angry mob but, rather, a legion of opponents with I-Phones and Androids who latch on to every outburst.
The rampage has not come without controversy … and violence. Slate Magazine has counted at least a dozen incidents of violence at Trump rallies since his White House bid began in June 2015.
An unchecked rampage
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, remarked about Trump’s request that his followers raise their right hand and “solemnly swear” to vote for him. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, called the pledge a “fascist gesture” noting, “He’s is smart enough—he always tells us how smart he is—to know the images that this evokes.”
Yasmeen Alamiri, a reporter for RarePolitics.com, was standing in the press pen at a Trump rally in late February in Radford, Va., when a stranger called her a terrorist. Later she walked to the edges of the press pen to get a good angle for her Facebook live feed when she heard another man ask security, “Are you there for this terrorist?”
Alamiri left to find a restroom and approached a student from Radford University—where the rally was held—to ask for directions to the ladies room. Alamiri said the young woman refused to help, instead replying: “You’re a member of the media. You are disgusting and sleazy.” At the same event, a Secret Service member reportedly grabbed a Time Magazine photographer by the neck and slammed him into a table. Christopher Morris, a veteran White House photographer, had stepped out of the press pen to get a better shot of protesters and found himself in a stranglehold. The agent’s actions, Morris said, were “unnecessarily violent.”
Nasty rhetoric and violence
Racial slurs, nasty rhetoric and violence at Trump rallies are commonplace against protesters, bystanders and reporters. Assaults have not only been committed by rowdy Trump fans, but by the staff he employs to keep events safe. In a famous line that got the immediate attention of the media, Trump said in a February rally in Iowa: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the living hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”
This month, Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields said she was pulled down by Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, while attempting to ask the candidate a question. The Trump camp denied the incident happened, but a Washington Post reporter witnessed the altercation and said Fields had a sizable bruise on her right arm.
Shortly after at a rally in North Carolina, a 78-year-old White veteran of the Korean War was videotaped sucker-punching a Black protester who was being escorted from the event by police. John McGraw days later was charged with assault and battery … the protester was handcuffed immediately. “Trump kept saying ‘get them out,’ ‘get them out’ and people in the crowd began pushing and shoving protesters … my emotions got the best of me and I was caught up in the frenzy,” McGraw said.
Trump’s campaign rampage actually began much earlier. In October 2015 at the Richmond International Speedway in Virginia, an attendee told the press that he witnessed an “irate gentleman in the crowd spit in another gentleman’s face.” That same month, a student protester was violently dragged out of a Miami rally by his shirt collar. A month later, video showed a gang of men kicking and punching a Black Lives Matter protester at a rally in Birmingham, Ala., a city historically known for a strong Ku Klux Klan presence. Trump responded to the Alabama incident by saying, “Maybe he should have been roughed up … it was disgusting what he was doing.”
‘Fear of the other’
In December, multiple incidents of violence were reported at a Trump rally in Raleigh, N.C., the New York Times described a man “peppering accusations of fascism with profanity,” who was “forcefully shoved into a metal barrier by a Trump supporter. A female protester claimed a woman in the crowd punched her after a verbal confrontation. The next month, a Sikh protester was physically pushed out of a Trump rally in Iowa while fans yelled “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Earlier this month, video emerged of men at Kentucky rally forcibly shoving and hurling racial slurs at a young Black woman.
Kishiya Nwanguma, a Black student at the University of Louisville, attended a Trump rally in town earlier this month. She wanted to get a closer look at the Trump phenomenon and told the Louisville Courier-Journal that she suddenly felt the crowd’s attention turn to her after the candidate saw her anti-Trump sign she was holding and asked that she be removed. Someone promptly snatched it out of her hand and she was subsequently shoved and cursed at by several White men.
“I think a lot of it has to do with ignorance that’s rooted in fear of the other,” Nwanguma said. “None of the people who were attacking me even knew what was on my sign. I obviously stood out in the crowd based on how I looked.”