Donald Trump: The Misunderstood and Maligned Republican Presidential Front Runner?

May 2, 2016

Donald Trump: The Misunderstood and Maligned Republican Presidential Front Runner

by Bunn Nagara

Trump’s success so far should not be a surprise if opponents and punters had not been so smugly dismissive of his chances. They underestimated him and are now reaping the consequences of their misjudgments.–Bunn Nagara

He dares to think Big and unafraid to be Different

First, rivals and critics misunderstood the basis of Trump’s popularity. They disliked his style and persona, finding them distasteful with good reason, but confused these with his public appeal.

THE US political establishment continues to be caught off-guard by Donald Trump’s ever-ascending campaign, which is impacting on the Republican and Democratic establishments equally.

Yet Trump’s success so far should not be a surprise if opponents and punters had not been so smugly dismissive of his chances. They underestimated him and are now reaping the consequences of their misjudgments.

First, rivals and critics misunderstood the basis of Trump’s popularity. They disliked his style and persona, finding them distasteful with good reason, but confused these with his public appeal.

They haughtily branded his approach “populist” but failed to understand that he was also popular. They could not understand the link between populism and popularity, which for Trump works uniquely in his favour. They also wrongly argued that he had nothing to say on foreign policy. It has only now begun to dawn on observers that Trump is known mainly for his foreign policy postures: making allies pay more for security, a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, building a wall on the Mexican border and making Mexicans pay for it.

His opponents have also contended that Trump’s understanding of foreign policy is merely superficial or simply mistaken. Yet, he continues to astonish by winning even more popular support.

Earlier in his campaign Trump was characterised as an equal-opportunity offender. He did not discriminate against any one group by discriminating against all groups.He would trample on the political correctness of left and right, then beat his chest on the vanquished niceties of Democrats and Republicans. And his popular appeal soared further.

If Trump manages to do this without the pomp and heraldry of the Washington elite, as he continues to, it may explain why this elite is out of touch with voters. Much of his grassroots appeal derives from a refusal to conform to Beltway conventions and a proud declaration of this refusal.

Another early criticism that failed to stick was that Trump was not an orthodox Republican. But he could become a contender in the Republican fold, which gave him the platform to promote his campaign. Again his critics fail to understand that it does not matter if he is not an orthodox Republican. What mattered was winning – first the party nomination, then the presidency.

Voters themselves are not as firmly divided along party lines as party bosses tend to think. There were “Reagan Democrats” and there continue to be voters on the fringe of one party and on the verge of another.

A common blind spot among Trump’s critics is that he happens to appeal to “traditional” Republican supporters and also some Democratic ones. Critics remain stumped by his success because they refuse to acknowledge his strengths that blur or transcend party lines.

Still another dismissive and mistaken denial of Trump’s prospects is the criticism that his grasp of issues is shallow. But that did not stop Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush from winning the presidency.

Much in the misplaced and misleading views of Trump’s critics was on display following his speech on foreign policy in Washington on April 27 hosted by the Center for the National Interest. It was said to lack content yet again, but as compere Zalmay Khalilzad put it earlier, the speech was to provide a picture of Trump’s “foreign policy philosophy”.

Still, critics tried to evaluate the details or pick apart the factoids as if it were a blueprint, concluding that it was too general and contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies. And once again, none of that made any difference to Trump’s supporters.

A smarter assessment of the speech would compare it with Trump’s previous speeches. Here he was more mellow and measured, having doused the fire of earlier rhetoric without fully abandoning the rhetorical.

In a word, Trump appeared to be what many wanted him to be: more “presidential”. This solidified his support base while pleasing many on the fence.

In a play for bipartisan support, Trump called for “a new rational American foreign policy” that could be supported by Republicans, Democrats and close allies abroad. He said the US needed to put “America first”, but the realist tone was described by critics as “isolationist”.

A source of Trump’s strength is his ability to be polemical in a way that connects directly to the concerns of the average citizen. Critics wrongly dismiss this as simple populist rhetoric but he is making points and raising questions that other contenders fail to do or choose not to.

He connects resoundingly with Joe Public at gut level, but Washington insiders disregard this at their own peril as mere gutter talk. And he continues to benefit electorally at their expense.

Being blunt and brutally frank, whether or not he has all his facts right, also helps him to project an image of honesty and openness. It is not something that Hillary Clinton, for example, does because it does not come naturally to her – and people sense it.

In another instance of his open bipartisan approach, he likened the victimisation of his campaign by the system to Bernie Sanders’ predicament. Clearly both are not their respective parties’ Establishment favourites, regardless of their level of support, but again party apparatchiks rejected the assertion.

Sanders himself embodied the smug misperceptions of Trump by saying he hoped and prayed Trump would be the Republican nominee, implying that a Democrat would then win the presidency because many Americans would not support him. Increasingly that appears to be an error of judgment.

An Associated Press report from Washington two days ago found that Congressional Republicans are now warming to Trump and switching their support to him.

This includes Congressmen and Senators who had opposed or otherwise not supported Trump before, including some – Mike Kelly, Orrin Hatch, Bill Shuster, Jeff Miller and Tom Rooney – who had until recently supported his rivals.

This is the trigger Trump needs to escalate his campaign and seal his party nomination. Such a move on Capitol Hill is likely to snowball in his favour.

It is not solely a result of Trump’s appeal, of course. His closest party rival, Ted Cruz, has personal liabilities that senior Republicans themselves are starting to turn against.

Yet another of Trump’s strengths his critics ignore at their cost is his ability to change course abruptly and deftly without causing a ripple. His previous controversies concerning women and minorities may easily be forgotten once he speaks against his previous disparaging comments on them – another inconsistency his supporters will not mind.

At root, Trump’s position on foreign policy – or any other policy – is a patchwork in progress. A decisive moment for him would be his choice of running mate, but until then his campaign will press on regardless without being affected by that consideration.

A key aspect of his campaign that his rivals need to consider, but still have not, is the vote bank created by his appeal to US nationalism. His championing of the national interest is unmatched by anyone, and none of his rivals even seem to want to approach it.

Again, they may have reason to regret that. It is now a core election issue in the US, and no campaign has developed it as much as Trump’s.

* Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

13 thoughts on “Donald Trump: The Misunderstood and Maligned Republican Presidential Front Runner?

  1. What if he were the next US President? For sure, America is not going to collapse and America isn’t going to start a world war. I prefer Hillary Clinton because she has experience and a great track record as First Lady, Senator for New York and Secretary of State. But I will respect the choice of the American people. Americans know what is good for them.

    Donald Trump can bring a different perspective to the job and may be like Ronald Reagan who surrounded himself with competent and very intelligent Cabinet members and policy advisers. As a business tycoon, he is adept at choosing people to work for him.

    Remember, there is a huge difference between campaign politics and politics of governance. A President has to deal with reality. Mr. Trump knows that.–Din Merican

  2. I fully agree. Reagan may be just an actor but as correctly pointed out by you, he has able and intelligent advisers. Above all, he was decisive and strong. He lets the world know that if they slapped America, he would retaliate with twice as much force. Don’t play play with America. Contrast this with Carter. He may be a good man but was indecisive. The world knew that if they slapped America, Carter would apologise for offending them and try to find out why the slap was for. He would prevaricate instead of taking decisive actions.. Trump is now showing that America means business and the voters just love it.
    Carter was from Georgia and a Southern Christian Baptist, I think. –Din Merican.

  3. Not a outright front runner though. Donald Trump lacks real substance , presidentially, thrives among the younger generation of the GOP because of his entertaining character, extended from the decade- long ” The Apprentice ” show and the tainted “liar” party since Gulf War.


    It’s like the 1930s – when mainstream policies don’t work (or function badly), people
    turn to alternatives out of despair or anger — including far right and far left alternatives.

    In the 1930s in the USA, before FDR’s New Deal and full employment during WW2, groups such as the American Communist Party had significant support. So did right wing groups and personalities such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long.
    Charles Lindbergh and other conservatives also had favourabe views of
    fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.

  5. Bernie Sanders proved Hillary Clinton’s foundation is not solid. If Trump can appeal to enough anti- establishment on the democratic side, Trump run will be credible because Hillary cannot attract any Tea partiers. Then, enough negative campaigning and Trump has a chance, its not big but he has a credible chance.

  6. What a difference a year makes. From he will never be elected to, well, the institutions will keep him in line if he becomes president. This is limbo-rock.

  7. All 3 are poor choices. In fact when it was kerry vs bush jr, there was an article in economist asking why america has increasingly worse choices. Yes Sec Clinton probably is lesser of evil. It has to be noted she had a larger base before benghazi and very much her leaning towards wall street. For the world – if trump wins i would say this is their worst experiment – a novelty. Take notice of his footages during wwe which he was a promoter , its pretty clear the man can be a pretty nasty and crazy.

  8. Last Wednesday I went to my alma mater, Stanford, to listen to the recently retired US Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who gave a speech on current political affairs. I expected the usual poll-tested blather about “big government needs to get off our backs” and how the Republican is paving a pathway to prosperity. Instead, he called Ted Cruz a “Lucifer in the flesh” & “I’ve never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” He called Trump his “texting buddy & regular golf partner” and he intended to vote for him. To my surprise, the nicest words were reserved for Bernie Sanders, calling him a “likeable guy and the most honest politician in the race.” Boehner predicted that Hillary Clinton would be indicted for mishandling top-secret and confidential documents. In predicting Clinton’s downfall, he suggested that Americans may see the resurgence of Vice President Joe Biden.

    Joe Biden would be a good candidate, if Hillary were to be indicted. That is at this stage is wishful thinking. For me, following the whole primaries on CNN, it is difficult to make sense of what is happening. Name calling, dirty tricks and exposes seem to be the order of the day, these being symptoms of a dysfunctional electoral system. Calling someone a Lucifer in the flesh, no matter how much one disagrees with another is unacceptable. John Boehner should be more rational. After all, he was a Speaker of the House. Both Cruz and Trump are the products of the system which is badly in need of reform.–Din Merican

  9. Did anybody forgot the statement he made about Mexican on his announcement to run for election. If he do win then American politic will end up like Malaysia where politician can say anything to win votes. Remember UMNO politician comment about Chinese, and Indian? Thus, a Ku Klux Klan can say any racist comments since there is nothing wrong during campaign time. I do hope Trump will not win.


  10. Din: Now that he is no longer a politician, I think John Boehner was just being honest. During the presentation, he invited the crowd to make fun of his name, saying, “You can call me boner, beaner, jackass, happy to answer to almost anything.” Expressing his opinion of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he impersonated her, saying, “Oh, I’m a woman, vote for me,” suggesting that the candidate has relied on identity politics. The whole presentation confirmed our worst fears: we’re all doomed.

  11. Donald Trump is a successful businessman billionaire who knows much more about consumer psychology. He does not care about left, right or centre tilt to politics, that columnists and think-tank thinkers give so much importance to. His economic and foreign policy is clear cut and not queasy or ambivalent. He wants to put a stop to jobs going offshore and making millions of Americans jobless. He wants the country’s top business people and entrepreneurs who have set up industries and companies abroad for cheaper costs and maximum profits to relocate to America failing which, he said, he would be going after them if he becomes President. Job creation is his top priority which resonates with the huge underclass. He also wants to make the military great again so that nobody messes around with America. The military establishment should be delighted. He wants China to do mighty lot to correct the trade imbalance between America and China which runs lopsidedly in favour of the latter. He wants Asian allies like Japan and S Korea to bear higher costs for US maintaining its bases and troops in these countries. What will become of “pivotal to Asia” doctrine of America?

    Donald Trump becoming President is definitely bad for Asia. With American firms pulling out, millions of Asians will lose jobs rocking the economies of some of these countries. One only hopes that the reality of office and the global issues he will have to come to grip with will make him rational and realistic in handling them wisely minus all the bluster.

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