By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
Notwithstanding international and domestic criticism, and irrespective of his crude and rude style, Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination has gained momentum, in part, due to his proposal for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration, until the introduction of an effective counter-terrorist vetting process. According to a December 10, 2015 Rasmussen poll, his proposal is favored by a majority of GOP voters (66%:24%) and a plurality of all voters (46%:40%).
Trump is leveraging, not shaping, the current US state of mind - and especially that of Republican voters - which reflects frustration with the federal, state and local political and non-political establishment/elites, as well as with political-correctness in the areas of the economy, crime, immigration, foreign policy, the war on Islamic terrorism, and homeland security.
Trump benefits from the drastic erosion in the stature of conventional wisdom/orthodoxy, and, therefore in the stature of conventional/orthodox candidacy.
Trump is aware of the yearning to resurrect the ethos of the American Dream, which featured the USA – until the 2007-2009 Great Recession - as the only moral, economic and military super-power. He attempts to echo the eagerness to stop the slippery slope of the American state of mind from boundless optimism to pessimism, from patriotism to skepticism, from faith and confidence in American exceptionalism to national and personal uncertainty and anxiety, from expected upward mobility to feared downward mobility.
Did the celebrity status of Trump catapult the number of viewers of the GOP debates to 24 million – three times higher than the debates in 2011? Or, has it been the longing for the rejuvenation of the (Declaration of Independence’s) inalienable “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?
Trump understands the significance of the findings of the December 9 and 15, 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal polls respectively: a staggering majority of 70%:20% of the public believe that the US is on the wrong track (similar to a report by the Pew Research Center); 73% want a change. While the call for a course correction is typical at the end of a second-term presidency, a call for a staggering course correction was issued by US voters at the end of Carter’s, G.H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush’s (second) terms.
Notwithstanding the lack of depth in Trump’s reference to foreign and national and homeland security issues, Trump has managed to leverage the escalating concern about homeland and national security, and growing disapproval of President Obama on foreign policy and national security, as documented by a December 14, Gallup poll and a December 15, 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll respectively. In fact, the lack of confidence in the government’s counter-terrorism policy is starker than it was following 9/11, Ft. Hood (2009) and the Boston Marathon (2013). In recent months, homeland and national security have become the top issues on the public’s mind, overtaking the concern for jobs, government spending, health, climate, immigration and religion. According to the December 9, 2015 Rasmussen Report and a November 16, 2015 Reuters’ poll, the American public assumes that the US is involved in a failed war on Islamic terrorism, that suicide bombings are expected on the US mainland and that the US war on terrorism must be reinforced.
Trump is aware that President Obama has not convinced the American public that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story…,” that “America and Islam overlap and share the principles of justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” that Islamic terrorism is an oxymoron, that “Jihad is a process which purifies the soul” and that ‘ISIS is not Islamic.”
While Trump is aware that the state of the US economy is much healthier than European economies, he responds to the public discontent with the economic uncertainty, job insecurity, wage stagnation (the median household income is below the pre-recession and 1999 levels), the widening gap between disposable income and the cost of living, inflated college tuition and the related mounting debt burden, the perception of bloated entitlements, etc. According to a December 20, 2015 Gallup poll, the index of consumer confidence is trending downward: 38% expect the economy to improve, while 57% expect a persistent slowdown.
Public frustration has been fueled by the increasing crime/murders in metropolitan America, as documented by an October 29, 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service: a 16% rise in crime/murders in metropolitan America, compared with 2014, following the contraction of crime in recent years.
Trump is, currently, perceived by GOP voters to be an attractive, non-orthodox (outsider) candidate. He benefits from Republican voters’ frustration with the Republican Party, which has failed to clip Obama’s political wings, in spite of the Republican majority in the House, Senate and Governors’ mansions.
The identity of the Republican presidential candidate will not be determined by public opinion polls, but by a process of primaries and caucuses, which begin in February, 2016. This process will determine whether Trump’s blunt and unapologetic – sometimes rustic - attitude and bombast have struck a chord with Republican voters. Moreover, global unpredictability and volatility – in terms of terrorism, conventional military and the economy – may produce dramatic events, which will weigh heavily in determining the US presidency.