The Far-Right Calculus

Donald Trump’s tough talk and his journey to the Republican presidential nomination

For the first time in modern American presidential politics, there exists a viable candidate who seemingly isn’t having his stump speeches edited for political correctness. While many Americans are disgusted at the comments made by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, many are missing the broader political strategy being employed by the Trump campaign.

Donald Trump’s presidential hopes may seem comical to some, but there is evidence of a political strategy at play. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

Now I am a fan of the American late-night shows, and Trump’s entry into the presidential race have compelled retired and retiring late-night hosts like David Letterman and Jon Stewart to second-guess their career decisions, but the polls have proven that Mr. Trump’s candidacy should not be taken lightly. Mr. Trump is running second only to former Florida governor Jeb Bush in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his numbers keep rising despite his disparaging statement (and confirmation thereof) about Latino Americans.

The strategy being employed by the Trump campaign lies in the notion that while politically-incorrect comments may be unsavoury to the vast majority of Americans, they are not necessarily unpopular. While many openly disagree with Mr. Trump’s characterization of Latino Americans to the point of ending business affiliations with the business magnate, he needs only to win the favour of Republican voters at the moment. It seems Republicans, if the party’s other presidential candidates are any indication, while not willing to repeat the comments themselves, seem to hint at an agreement with the billionaire’s characterization of this ever-growing demographic group in the United States.

Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, the Canadian-born junior senator from Texas with Cuban origins, said that he liked Donald Trump and that “he speaks the truth.” Other Republican contenders, while not openly agreeing with the hypothesis that Mexicans are drug kingpins and rapists, are making no effort to distance themselves from Trump. It is as though there is a tacit agreement within the Republican Party that the Latino community is dangerous; a very confusing position to have when you consider the lengths at which the Republican National Committee has attempted to bring Latinos into the GOP tent since President Obama won re-election in 2012.

The comments made by Mr. Trump at his campaign kick-off, the subsequent defence of his comments, coupled with the certainty that more of the same kinds of comments will follow confirms a strategy being played-out. This is not at all a political miscalculation — the strategy is an equation based on Trump’s own idea of where he stands in the Republican race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mr. Trump’s pride will never allow him to admit publicly what he thinks of his presidential hopes at this juncture in the primary season, but the campaign’s tactics suggest that Trump sees himself running second to Governor Jeb Bush in a crowded field which includes more than a dozen candidates. Donald Trump’s standing in the polls, coupled with the fact that his numbers are on the rise and that he possesses more financial resources than all of the other candidates for president combined (including the war chests of Secretary Clinton and the other Democrats), gives Mr. Trump a lot of room to make gains in the primaries.

If money equals speech in American politics, then Donald Trump has the loudest voice by far. By speaking out against the Latino community as he did, he has effectively immunized himself from the threat of controversial comments derailing his presidential campaign, a unique advantage that no other candidate in the race for president has available. Mr. Trump has proven that his candidacy can endure a public backlash. No other candidate in the race can say whatever he or she wants without taking a hit to his or her political aspirations. Business interests, on the other hand, are clearly not immune, but Trump has reason to be indifferent to the Macy’s snub when you consider most of his fortune is tied up in real estate.

The Trump Campaign Math

The two-fold election process in American politics means that a candidate should appeal to their own base before competing for the hearts and minds of all American voters in a presidential election. Mr. Trump’s political calculation is based on the results of the last two presidential election cycles, where the Republican base was left a little disappointed in what many believed were choices too moderate to compete with Barack Obama. Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, although winning the Republican nod in 2008 and 2012 respectively, were never seen by their base as the obvious choice on the national stage, and many Republicans attribute President Obama’s two presidential election victories to a weak Republican alternative for president.

The calculation itself is not meant to alienate the Latino vote, because any Republican will need to carry a good portion of this voting block to win the White House. In the Republican primary; however, Mr. Trump is betting that the hardline conservative vote will be superior in numbers to that of the Latino Republican vote, thus propelling him to the Republican nomination. Governor Bush, having been the chief executive of a Latino-heavy state, who speaks fluent Spanish and whose wife is Mexican-born, will most-likely carry the block of Latino Republicans. Put simply, what many perceive as being Trump’s bellicose talk against Latino Americans is meant to give voters a clear alternative to the front-running Jeb Bush.

Inside the Trump campaign, the mathematical equation looks something like this:

If Latino American vote = Republican nomination, Jeb Bush > Donald Trump;

BUT…

If Hardline / Tea Party vote = Republican nomination, Donald Trump > Jeb Bush.

The Trump political calculus also factors in those variables that place Governor Bush at a disadvantage, despite a solid record as Florida Governor.

In 2016, the Republican Party’s presidential hopes are pinned on the theme of change: change from what they perceive as the far-too liberal presidency of Barack Obama. For many Republicans, Governor Bush is seen as too moderate, especially on immigration issues. Republicans will recall the failure of Sen. McCain and Gov. Romney and make the general assumption that a moderate Republican cannot win the White House.

Another drawback to the Bush campaign lies in the fact that he is a Bush. Recent political memory equates a Bush presidency with war in the Middle-East and a much-needed, but unpopular bank and auto industry bailout in the closing weeks of George W. Bush’s presidency. Older Republicans may remember the presidency of George H. W. Bush, a moderate in comparison to his former boss and Republican Party idol Ronald Reagan, recalling Bush Sr.’s failed attempt to recapture the presidency in his 1992 re-election bid. If the Republican theme is “change”, returning another member of the Bush family to the Oval Office isn’t as appealing to the more conservative members of the Republican base.

For Republicans, the worst-case scenario in the 2016 US Presidential Election would be a rematch of the 1992 Clinton v. Bush campaign, this time featuring Secretary Hillary Clinton (left) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (right) [Credit: Angela Radulescu (Hillary Clinton), Talk Radio News Service (Jeb Bush), from Flickr]

This election cycle is particularly important for Republicans and right-wing voters cannot afford to be careless with the nominee they select, given that Hillary Clinton looks to be the most probably Democratic opponent for the general election. Careless; however, does not mean risk-averse. The worst-case scenario for Republicans who seek change would be a “Bush vs Clinton 2”, especially when you consider that the Clintons won the first round in the head-to-head battle of modern American political dynasties.

Mr. Trump’s tough talk, though no doubt unsavoury to many, is the calculated attempt to woo Republican hardliners who have demonstrated a certain influence in past gubernatorial and senatorial elections. Donald Trump’s image as a tough guy, coupled with his business acumen, the notion that he has his own money makes him an appealing candidate to many on the far-right. It can even be argued that Mr. Trump’s image is aided by the perception of Trump as a victim of corporate America, with NBC, Univision and Macy’s now distancing themselves from the business magnate-turned Republican presidential contender for exercising his constitutionally-protected right to express himself.

The strategy currently being employed isn’t one that will carry Trump to the White House. If he does win the Republican nomination, he will necessarily have to pivot during the general election. Such a pivot to the centre though isn’t unlike anything candidates on both parties haven’t done before.

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