Donald Trump: Playing by different rules

December 10, 2015 5:47 am
Trump has continually tested the limits of what a candidate can say and do with apparent political impunity.


continues to go where no recent candidate for president
has gone before, plunging the Republican Party and America into another
round in the tumultuous debate about immigration, national identity,
terrorism and the limits of tolerance.
Trump’s call for a ban on
Muslims entering the United States marked a sudden and sizable
escalation and in this case one that sent shockwaves around the world in
the inflammatory and sometimes demagogic rhetoric of the candidate who
continues to lead virtually every national and state poll testing whom
Republicans favour for their presidential nomination.
Nothing in
modern politics equates with the rhetoric now coming from Candidate
Trump. There are no perfect analogies. One must scroll back decades for
echoes, however imperfect, of what he is saying, from the populist and
racially based appeals of then-Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968
and 1972 to the anti-Semitic diatribes of the radio preacher Charles
Coughlin during the 1930s.

Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University said there are
few comparisons, adding that, in branding an entire religious class of
people as not welcome, Trump “is further out there than almost anyone in
the annals of [US] history”.
From the day he announced his
candidacy in June, Trump has continually tested the limits of what a
candidate can say and do with apparent political impunity. In that
sense, he has played by a different set of rules. In the wake of his
latest provocation, the question arises again: Will this finally stop
him? Everything to date suggests that those who think it will should be
tentative in their predictions.
Those already drawn to Trump have
shown remarkable willingness to accept the worst and continue to
support him. In reality, it will be another 60 days or more for any
definitive answers to emerge.

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Only when voters begin to make their decisions in the
caucuses and primaries that begin in February will the final verdict be
delivered on the size and strength of the movement that has rallied
behind him.
“This is a new campaign for a new century in which
viral populism, most conspicuous on the GOP side, is the engine of our
politics,” Ross Baker of Rutgers University noted the day before Trump’s
latest outburst.
“Trump, above all others, has sensed this and
is profiting from it. His reading of the anger and anxiety of the GOP
primary electorate is positively seismographic. He senses what’s eating
at people and, in his own bizarre way, is most attuned to the electorate
of any of the hopefuls.”
Even as Trump yesterday sought to
soften slightly what he had said on Tuesday, the condemnations mounted.
He drew rebukes across the globe, from the leaders of two of America’s
most important allies, Britain and France, to Syrian refugees in
Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Rarely has a presidential candidate generated
such alarm abroad.
At home, the condemnations were just as swift
and nearly universal. The harshest came from Martin O’Malley, the former
Maryland Governor seeking the Democratic nomination, who tweeted on
Tuesday that Trump “removes all doubt he is running for president as a
fascist demagogue”.
Hillary Clinton sent out a tweet yesterday
that said in big letters, “Love trumps hate”. White House press
secretary Josh Earnest said what Trump advocated should disqualify him
from ever serving as president, and Earnest added that Republican
candidates who refuse to say they would not support Trump as the party’s
nominee also are disqualifying themselves.

Republican leaders stopped short of that.
But
many who in the past have seemed hesitant to tangle with the master of
the political counterpunch, were quick to state their disagreement.
Former Governor Jeb Bush said Trump had become “unhinged”.
House
Speaker Paul Ryan said this was not what the party stands for. Former
Vice-President Dick Cheney said it “goes against everything we stand
for”.




Others were more tentative. Senator Ted Cruz, who said he
did not agree with the proposal about blocking Muslims from coming into
the country, also commended Trump for focusing attention on the need to
secure the borders of the US.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said there was a more practical way to accomplish the same goal.
But
as the political establishment rushed to criticise Trump, there is
little doubt that he has tapped into a strain of anti-immigrant and
anti-foreigner sentiment that has ebbed and flowed through American
history.

Donald Trump autographs a supporter in Virginia. Photo / AP
Donald Trump autographs a supporter in Virginia. Photo / AP
There are a number of antecedents over the past century
that put Trump’s candidacy and the responses to it into historical
context.
After World War I, a wave of immigration from Europe to
the United States, coupled with fears of the spread of worldwide
communism after the Bolshevik revolution, led to strikes, riots,
violence, anarchism and ultimately a powerful backlash against
immigrants.
Then-Attorney General Mitchell Palmer led a series of infamous raids, rounding up suspected radicals and trying to deport them.
A
rising nationalist and nativist strain fuelled by the war and its
aftermath eventually led Congress twice in three years in the early
1920s to enact strict new quotas on immigration, sharply limiting the
influx of those fleeing a continent devastated by the war for
opportunities in the America.
In the past decade, illegal
immigration from Latin America has repeatedly emerged as a hot-button
issue of US politics, playing out most prominently inside the Republican
Party. Efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, advocated by
then-President George W.
Bush during his second term in office,
faltered because of conservative resistance. Renewed efforts under
President Barack Obama met similar opposition from conservatives in and
out of Congress.
Fears of terrorism have now been layered on top
of the issue of illegal immigration. Long-standing fears about Isis
(Islamic State) terrorism have intensified since the attacks in Paris
and San Bernardino.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump energizes the crowd during a campaign rally at Dorton Arena in Raleigh. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald
Trump energizes the crowd during a campaign rally at Dorton Arena in
Raleigh. Photo / AP
Stanford’s Kennedy pointed to “inchoate, diffuse, free
floating anxiety” brought on by economic strains, the nation’s inability
to extract itself from Middle East wars and a generally unsettled world
as other causes for Trump’s appeal.
Kennedy also noted that in contrast to times past, what once held extreme expressions in check no longer does.
“We’ve
known for a long time that we’re just less trustful as a people. We
have less confidence in our major institutions and our leaders.
He
gets denounced routinely when he does these things, and everyone gets
up and says this is not a voice we should listen to. But nobody has
credibility on the other side. Nobody has the cultural authority to put
this guy down. All the condemnation in the world falls on deaf ears.”
What
once might have seemed inconceivable in political debate has become
acceptable, at least to a part of the population. That makes this moment
a potential inflection point in the life of the country.

Those already drawn to Donald Trump have shown remarkable willingness to accept the worst and continue to support him. Photo / AP
Those already drawn to Donald Trump have
shown remarkable willingness to accept the worst and continue to support
him. Photo / AP

For the Republican Party, it highlights what has emerged as
a deep split between the party elites and at least a portion of the
rank and file.
Next week’s debate in Las Vegas, the final GOP
debate this year, will bring the candidates together in what has become
the most virulent moment of the campaign. Trump will be under fire, but
he has been there before and survived, even prospered. Will this moment
prove any different?
Beyond that, Trump has brought into sharper
focus important questions that will play out during the coming election
year: What can be done to make Americans feel safer? What will impede or
encourage recruitment by Isis? What does it mean to be an American?
What
kind of image does this nation project around the world? Along with the
rhetoric of Donald Trump, the stakes for 2016 have escalated
dramatically.

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