Following strong victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and a series of states on Super Tuesday and Super Saturday, Donald Trump is resurgent. The billionaire real estate mogul surprised Republican Party leaders with his unorthodox strategy: while RNC chairman Reince Priebus wanted to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to minorities, Trump seemed determined to alienate them. Thriving on shock value as a bid to gain attention, Trump was willing to boldly argue what no campaign has argued before: instituting a blanket ban on Muslim immigration to the US and forcing Mexico to build a wall on the US border were among his more infamous plans. But for all of his inflammatory rhetoric, Trump’s grandstanding is really just a chimerical distraction from the true issues that voters should actually be concerned about.
Like many other candidates in the 2016 election, Trump’s campaign fails to propose realistic solutions for our country’s most urgent problems. Unlike the other candidates, Trump has set a dangerous new precedent for political discourse. He has demonstrated that there is no political price for drumming up anger around a few salient issues, ignoring the rest, and offering no viable policies for either. By polarizing the American public, his rhetoric rules out any kind of reasoned debate. Regardless of whether Trump wins the nomination, the damage is already done. Trump has set a new standard for the political conversation in 2016—insults matter more than policy .
Trump doesn’t want to engage in a policy debate, because he can’t deliver on his most flamboyant campaign promises. Foreign policy is a prime example: from building a wall along our border with Mexico to bringing trade back from overseas, Trump somehow believes that he can bludgeon a deal out of foreign countries while asking, “How stupid are our leaders?” for not doing the same. For example, Trump’s plan for getting better terms on the Iran deal would have been to walk away from the table and double the financial sanctions on the country. Never mind that Iranian sanctions were coordinated by an international coalition including the UN and European Union, who would likely have lost all patience with the US had it pursued such a strategy. Trump argues that “I know the negotiators in the world, and I put them one for each country. Believe me, folks. We will do very, very well, very, very well.” And that’s essentially it. In Trump’s worldview, everybody else is stupid.
This view also holds in debates over national defense, where Trump has painted the other candidates as unable or unwilling to protect the country. In an exchange with Jeb Bush during the sixth Republican debate, the former governor pointed out that Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration policy would alienate the international community. Bush argued that it would be “impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS. The Kurds are our strongest allies. They're Muslim. You're not going to even allow them to come to our country?” Trump’s response was simple: “I want security for this country. OK?” Bush lost that exchange because he tried to highlight the need for nuance in setting foreign policy. In the political environment Donald Trump has brewed, even admitting that maintaining national security requires nuance has become a sign of weakness. Trump himself gives few details about how he would stop domestic terrorism besides the aforementioned immigration policy and expanding access to guns. Trump’s incessant refrain is that we have a problem. A “tremendous” problem. He places so much attention on the urgency of the problem that nobody can question him on the effectiveness of his solution.
Serious government policy is rarely so clear-cut; preventing domestic terrorism is not as simple as banning Muslims from the country, and forcing China to trade fairly is not as simple as retaliating with higher tariffs. Many of the nation’s most pressing problems have not been solved precisely because they are so complicated. For example, fighting our growing budgetary deficit will require tax hikes and spending cuts that will affect almost all Americans. Due to the nature of our democracy, with power spread out between the federal branches of government, the states, and individual people, tackling these conundrums requires a broad national consensus.
However, the candidates of the current election cycle are destroying any chance of building consensus. This is the key: nobody understands how severe our nation’s challenges have become, and voters prefer illusory plans to practical, but painful solutions. Donald Trump caters to this sentiment: he wants voters to believe that Social Security expenditures are so high only because of government waste, particularly fraudulent collection of benefits by individuals posing as elderly people who have in fact, died. A fact-check by the Washington Post found that $31 million was lost to this fraud, a mere fraction of the $823 billion spent on Social Security in the year 2013. In reality, Social Security costs a lot of money because voters are opposed to any cuts to the program.
Trump’s budget plan is even more absurd. An analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget showed that Trump’s massive tax cuts would cost $9.5 trillion over the next ten years, which is impossible to pay for under any realistic rate of economic growth. Not only do Trump’s supporters refuse to face this reality, but his opponents prefer focusing on media coverage of Trump’s antics. Since Trump has orchestrated the current election cycle to resemble a reality TV show, it is unsurprising that hard-to-swallow figures receive little attention.
The impact of Trump’s rhetoric is clearest on one of the most controversial issues: immigration, over which the American public has grown more and more polarized. Trump’s rhetoric has played no small part in amplifying the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. But this nation cannot find a policy-based solution to these issues when members of the public cannot even see eye-to-eye. When half of the nation is angrily calling for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, but millions of Americans have family members who face deportation, the nation isn’t on the same page, and there is no way to find a compromise.
It’s easy for politicians to gain popularity by telling voters exactly what they want to hear, bolstering their greatest frustrations without proposing solutions, but this polarization is ultimately destructive to the future of the country. What results is a vicious cycle of distrust and disengagement. Politicians make unrealistic promises, captivate voters, and win offices. But after the election, sweeping legislative initiatives become mired in gridlock, and supporters feel let down by compromises on the bill. As a result, voters become disillusioned and sit out elections, especially midterm elections, until an even more bombastic candidate arrives on the scene making even more unrealistic promises.
As this cycle has built over the past several years, politicians have found that they stand to gain more by attacking their opponents than defending the merits of their own dubious policies. Neither party has its hands clean. At the height of the Obamacare firestorm, Florida Democrat Alan Grayson infamously declared that “The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.” But Trump has used this tactic more visibly than any politician in recent memory. He whips up a media frenzy; take, for example, the ongoing coverage of his vendetta against FOX anchor Megyn Kelly. His actions may appear buffoonish, but are designed by his campaign to frame the national political narrative on his own terms. His goal is to poison the well, to make the debate focus on the press, on stereotypes, on political correctness—in short, to make the debate about everything except the details surrounding the issue at hand. The solutions to the most pressing problems of the 21st century are so obvious that it is not even worth debating them.
This sense of urgency has allowed Trump to build up a coalition of extremely determined supporters. At the fifth Republican debate, Trump defended his anti-Muslim immigration stance with this bizarre statement: “Again, my relationship with the Muslim community is excellent. I've had people call me at the highest level saying, 'You're doing us a favor' because they know they have a problem very well.” Few outside his base would be convinced that Trump is doing anything but pandering to xenophobia. But for his supporters, Trump has painted himself as the only candidate who refuses to bend national security, immigration, and trade disputes. He is so popular because he refuses to draw a line on how far he would go, and as a result, his message resonates among voters who are willing to accept authoritarian security measures on immigrants and Muslims.
Trump is dangerous. He has demonstrated that, handled correctly, negative publicity is good publicity. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that there are certain lines politicians cannot cross without alienating voters—see the demise of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock after their inflammatory comments on abortion—Trump relishes crossing these lines. Worse, both the press and the voters in twelve of the nineteen states that have voted so far have rewarded him for this behavior. Polls showed that Trump was undamaged by his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, and only a small minority of Republican voters found his comments offensive. Trump has reshaped the standards of political discourse. His brazen character assassination of political figures, countries, and whole nationalities goes hand in hand with his choice to ignore policy. There is no way Trump could have gotten so far with such an array of piecrust promises except by brazenly and confidently defending every one of them. He offers a plan completely out of touch with political reality, distracting voters and the media from this weakness with character assassinations. His made-to-order soundbites are incessantly covered by the media (of which this correspondent has regrettably played a part); at an election cycle where candidates have struggled to obtain speaking time during the debates, Trump has managed to sustain negative publicity about his campaign without losing support.
Whatever happens on November 8, the toxic standards of political discourse that Trump has played a large role in perpetuating will not go away soon. In the past, when politicians faced an uncomfortable question, the default response was evasion. This time, Trump’s penchant for doubling down on his divisive answers has paid off. Trump did what other candidates were afraid of doing, and didn’t back down. Political pundits have repeatedly predicted Trump’s inevitable collapse, but so far his campaign has only been strengthened by controversy. As other candidates watch Trump reaping these political rewards, it won’t be surprising if they soon emulate Trump’s abrasive style.
Take, for example, Ted Cruz. Even before this election cycle, he was known for staging political stunts: in September 2013, he delivered a twenty-one-hour Senate speech against Obamacare. One month after Trump entered the race, Cruz shocked his fellow Senators by accusing majority leader Mitch McConnell of lying to him on trade legislation. David Brooks criticized Cruz for his “apocalyptic” rhetoric during the Republican Presidential debates. Cruz and Trump are building off of each other’s energy. In October, Cruz proposed a logistically impossible plan: abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and transferring all 90,000 former employees to stopping undocumented immigration. It is only the through the rhetoric of fear that Cruz has sustained a following for this unprecedented measure. Given that Cruz beat Trump in the Iowa race, and that his third-place finishes in New Hampshire and South Carolina have kept him in the race for the time being, his plan seems to be working. At the February 25 debate, Marco Rubio joined Cruz in hitting back at Trump with the mogul’s own style of personal attacks. When a critical mass of political figures all buy into Trump-style policy, this nation will see political dysfunction and polarization as never before. It is time for voters to hold candidates responsible for the plausibility of their proposals.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.