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Donald Trump and the Dangers of Confusing the Ability to Offend With the Ability to Govern

Why has seeking negative attention proved so successful for Trump?

Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 15, 2013. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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At a time when Donald Trump’s approval ratings among American voters are sinking lower with each passing week, he’s still the candidate of choice for 64 percent of voters who “want a new direction for the country.” At a time when many of his fellow Republicans are refusing to endorse him, and when he’s being mocked by celebrities for having a “small, nationalistic mind,” he nonetheless remains the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, having comfortably won the required number of delegates before the primaries had even finished.

Trump has, therefore, done quite well for being the object of targeted scorn and derision. In fact, it appears that his supporters have come to regard his very contentiousness as a confirmation that he’s a genuine alternative to the political establishment.

Other commentators have noted how it seems as if the more he gets into trouble the more he grows in strength. Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to attack protesters, called for a ban on Muslims entering the US and proffered a staggeringly high number of derogatory remarks about women, but when he’s actually rebuked for such questionable musings, his core support only increases. This was most palpable soon after March 11, when a planned rally in Chicago was called off in honor of fights that broke out between his admirers and protesters. Despite his history of inflammatory comments being partly responsible for such violence, 22 percent of polled Republicans said they were more likely to vote for him as a result.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

This counterintuitive winning over of voters via the provocation of wave after wave of negative attention is nonetheless a manifestation of Trump’s fundamental appeal. That is, much of his attractiveness to Republican and independent voters resides in his supposedly “anti-establishment” credentials, which in the case of Chicago were so thoroughly anti-establishment that they incited violent clashes. At least in the minds of those who champion him, such indignant outpourings appear to reinforce the questionable idea that Trump is a bona fide political iconoclast, a self-made man who has circumvented the traditional routes to political power and influence. He’s spent the least amount of money on his campaign out of all the presidential candidates thus far, and his supporters attest to how they “absolutely love the fact that [he’s] challenging the establishment Republicans.”

It’s because he’s perceived as such an outsider, as a disruptor of the status quo, that his support grows with each attempt to discredit him. His advocates are ready to believe that such attempts come from a corrupt system that feels itself imperiled by his ascent, and so when he’s called out for being incoherent or bigoted, they see such calling-out as confirmation that he is indeed the crusader against the decadent political system he purports to be. They’ve therefore come to classify controversy, criticism and confrontation as a key indicator that he’s doing just the job he’s meant to be doing, which is going against the grain of the political establishment and the media machinery that supports it.

But in conflating the incurring of Washington’s ire with the successful conduct of his role as a political renegade, Trump’s followers and Trump himself have made a big mistake. They’ve set themselves up for a grim scenario where, as the possible future president of the United States, his success is identified with political squabbling and sheer entertainment far more than is healthy or fruitful. In response to charges of being divisive and offensive, he famously claimed he’s “very much a unifier.” But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how, if he enters the White House, he could drop the very qualities that have already brought him so close to its doorstep.

These qualities include the willful rudeness and disrespect that led him to insult Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly last August after a television debate, to take the first of many exchanges between the two. This incident may have helped his approval ratings climb by seven points at the time, but if he succeeds in becoming president, such a perverse relationship between disregard for the dignity of his opponents and approval would only hurt the US political system. It would only motivate him to seek conflict and enmity, so that where Obama’s presidency has been marred by periods of considerable deadlock, his would be flattened by stalemates and standoffs as he sought to belittle his rivals rather than work with them.

This is why a Trump presidency could be a potential catastrophe for US politics, especially when this politics is already motivated far too much by acrimony and infighting as it stands. More often than we care to admit, Republicans and Democrats alike already measure their political achievements and agency largely in terms of how well they hinder the other side, so the possibility of a president who would magnify such a less-than constructive tendency is of great concern. Trump would risk bringing oppositional, antagonistic, discordant politics to the very forefront of US democracy, making it more difficult to solve the major problems of the 21st century.

Trump’s adversarial bullishness is one of the main reasons why he’s elicited so much antipathy (and support) over the course of his campaign, yet it’s also likely that many of us have a rabid aversion to him in part because of what he says about us and the current state of our politics. In many ways, he is the logical next step of a political culture that’s been becoming more polarized and uncooperative for years now; of a culture typified by the Tea Party and growing impingements on freedom of speech. He reflects and magnifies many of our own worst traits, packaging them into a single presidential candidate whose sight makes us recoil in disgust, unable to accept that we’re staring at a part of ourselves. Unless his supporters realize that the ability to offend does not translate into the ability to lead a nation, it’s looking increasingly possible that we could be staring at him and his embodiment of this ugly part of ourselves for a much longer time to come.

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