Speaking Of America

Is it time to take Trump seriously?

WASHINGTON • Anyone who has paid even a passing interest in the ongoing US presidential election campaign would have, by now, come across at least one of billionaire Donald Trump's countless shenanigans.

If it's not the preposterous proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US, then it is his wholesale smear of Hispanic immigrants or his tasteless insults against women. Or if not, there is also his mockery of a journalist with a disability and his current attacks on his competitor Senator Ted Cruz's citizenship - just to name a few. Take it all in and the often inevitable conclusion is that there is no way the brash businessman can possibly win the Republican nomination and, by extension, the White House.

His current success at the polls must then be simply American voters faffing about with survey-takers. Once the serious stuff begins at the Iowa caucuses on Feb 1, his bubble will burst.

That certainly has been the prevailing opinion of many American political pundits.

Yet, the longer he stays at the top of the polls, the harder it is to simply dismiss his performance as a momentary blip. There are now just two weeks to go before primary season begins and Mr Trump is sitting on his biggest lead in the polls.

That has forced more and more political observers to think about the previously unthinkable: Can Donald Trump really be the Republican nominee?


Mr Trump has said and done things no other candidate could possibly imagine getting away with, yet it has only made him stronger. We've also seen what the Republican party has deemed to be its strongest establishment line-up in years fail to gain any traction.

Those who continue to argue that he shouldn't be taken seriously and is unlikely to win the nomination have one big factor in their favour - history.

No one like Mr Trump - someone who has never been elected to public office or served in the army or federal government - has ever been elected to the presidency in the long history of the US.

Only one person without a public service record in the past century has ever even secured the nomination. That person is lawyer Wendell Wilkie.

He was the Republican nominee in 1940 at a time when the nomination process looked nothing at all like it does today. Mr Wilkie did not even participate in any primaries. He was simply chosen at the convention. He went on to get soundly beaten by President Franklin Roosevelt at the general election.

Suffice to say that today's candidates have little to take away from the Wilkie episode except how unlikely it is for a political outsider to do well in the race for the White House.


Tied into that is the notion that the party establishment tends to pick the nominee. In recent memory, not only have those with no previous experience failed to secure the nomination, even those who had the requisite background but did not gain the support of the party leadership also found it difficult. The party has a good track record of picking people it is supposed to pick.

In 2012, it was Mr Mitt Romney's turn and despite his numerous failings, he was the nominee. In 2008, it was Senator John McCain's turn and, although the party voters flirted with other possibilities during the early part of the campaign, they all ultimately closed ranks on the establishment pick.


One more bit of evidence that some like to bring up to highlight the tenuousness of the Trump phenomenon is that people have fallen from their perch before.

Two common examples are former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 2012. Both men sat at the top of the Republican pile about a month before the primaries, only to perform dismally when the votes were counted.

Yet, apart from polling at the top nationally at one point, the two examples differ from Mr Trump's campaign in some very important ways.

Mr Gingrich, for instance, stayed at the top for all of one month. Mr Trump has been there for half a year. Mr Gingrich's campaign could not withstand the scrutiny of being No. 1 and quickly faded once the attacks started coming in.

Mr Trump, in contrast, has been Teflon. No one can get anything to stick.

And while Mr Giuliani also sat at the summit of the Republican field for as long as Mr Trump has, he never really polled well in the early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr Trump isn't just No. 1 nationally, he is competitive in Iowa with Senator Cruz and holds a large lead in New Hampshire.

In fact, Mr Trump's performance at the polls so far has been dominant to the point that a Princeton academic concluded he is in as strong a position in the Republican race right now as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Democratic race.

Both, noted Dr Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, have around a 20-percentage-point lead over their second-placed rival and are polling either first or second in the first two states - qualities they share with many dominant nominees, including Mr George W. Bush and Mr Al Gore in 2000.

On the ground, the impressive numbers play out.

On a recent drive out to the more rural parts of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, Trump lawn signs, caps and bumper stickers were a common sight. Yet not a single bit of campaign material for any other candidate was spotted.

At a gun trade show in Virginia over the weekend, the T-shirt vendor selling pro-gun T-shirts also carried Trump T-shirts, but nothing featuring any other candidate.

Ask the locals about Mr Trump and they are quick to tell you that they see in him a man who is unbound by big money lobbyists and a person who speaks his mind.

Now, winning the nomination will take more than doing well out in rural America, but it is an indication of the level of support for the man.

Similarly, the sight of thousands and thousands of people standing in a queue in minus 1 deg C cold in Massachusetts last week to catch a glimpse of Mr Trump casts serious doubt on the assertion that his supporters might not be committed enough to the man to turn up at a three-hour-long caucus to vote for him.

Though the term primary is used to refer to the entire early election season that involves both primaries and caucuses, it differs in one meaningful way from a caucus. It's much shorter. A primary is like a mini-election, you turn up, vote and go home. In a caucus, you have to listen to hours' worth of speeches before you get to cast your vote.

There is one more reason a seemingly logic-defying Trump nomination is something to consider. This entire Republican campaign thus far has been logic defying.

Mr Trump has said and done things no other candidate could possibly imagine getting away with, yet it has only made him stronger. We've also seen what the Republican party has deemed to be its strongest establishment line-up in years fail to gain any traction. Instead, at one point, the race was dominated by a billionaire spouting anti-Muslim comments and a neurosurgeon, Dr Ben Carson, arguing with journalists over whether or not he tried to stab his friend. He insists that he did.


Of course, winning the nomination and winning the presidency are two entirely different propositions. Even if he does somehow pull off the nomination, it is difficult to imagine him getting to the Oval Office, what with his insistence on alienating nearly every minority group. It is also difficult to see him winning key swing states like Ohio and Florida. It would likely take a scandal of significant magnitude to take out Mrs Clinton.

Such a scenario, though unlikely, is not impossible.

What Mr Trump is going to be like as president depends on whether one believes he is simply saying what he does now as a marketing exercise or seriously believes his own rhetoric.

If he believes it, then we can likely expect an abandoning of the Asia pivot as he seems intent on focusing on the Middle East. That could mean pulling out a lot of forward deployed military assets in the Pacific and moving them to the Middle East - an undesirable outcome for those who argue US engagement in Asia is a stabilising force. If he doesn't, then all bets are off.

One way or another, his performance over the last six months means his campaign is no longer a phenomenon to crack jokes about.

How seriously should we take him? We'll find out by Chinese New Year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Is it time to take Trump seriously?'. Print Edition | Subscribe