Donald Trump was laughed at when he entered the race to become the Republican Presidential nominee. From comedian Jon Stewart to election stats super-nerd Nate Silver, Trump’s candidacy was derided and dismissed. They’re not laughing now. After conquering all before him in the primaries, the New York billionaire was officially confirmed last week as the GOP candidate to take on Hilary Clinton in November. Having initially ridiculed Trump, the commentariat (particularly the US Republican-backing media) now find themselves praising the former host of The Apprentice if not for his policy then for his political skill and manipulation of the media. Indeed, it follows that for such an inexperienced, incoherent, verbally incontinent individual to be on the brink of becoming the most powerful person in the world, he must be a political mastermind. With Trump however, this is simply not the case.
Struggling to comprehend the popularity of an aging, orange narcissist, commentators have applauded the clarity of Trump’s message. The slogans are certainly memorable. Often seen plastered across baseball caps, “Make America Great Again” succinctly articulates the grievances of a Middle America left behind by globalisation. “America First”, the tagline for Trump’s foreign policy, might be chilling to those of us on this side of the pond familiar with the far-right Britain First but will understandably play well with disenchanted US voters. It’s only when the Republican nominee gets beyond his fourth or fifth word that the coherence of his message unravels. Trump has performed phenomenal flip flops on a range of issues from the minimum wage to abortion to health care. Though his general election policy platform is yet to be finalised, The Donald’s inability to stay on message means he cannot be regarded as a political mastermind.
Trump rallies were one of most intriguing aspects of the primary season; exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Often lost amongst the protests, placards, and ‘patriotism’ though, was the sheer incoherence of the property tycoon’s speeches. From the contradictory (“Free trade is terrible. Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people”) to the absurd (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created”) the GOP candidate’s thinking aloud resembles the ramblings of a madman rather than a mastermind. Though his nomination acceptance speech at the RNC was somewhat tighter, Trump will not be armed with a teleprompter for the entire Presidential campaign and is sure to relapse into his unintelligible comfort zone at some point. After all, it was such speeches that carried him through the primaries and inspired his fanatical base.
If Trump is not then, a political mastermind, the source of his success and popularity must be elsewhere. What drives everyday Americans to endorse a man who describes immigrants as rapists and murderers, believes his own powers of negotiation can end the Israel-Palestine conflict, and thinks dropping more bombs on Syria would create peace? Trump swept aside his Republican opponents not thanks to any intelligent strategy but simply because he is not a politician. He does not speak the language of Washington, conform to ‘political correctness’, or believe the status quo is good enough and neither do most Americans. Perhaps the final flaw in the ‘Trump: political mastermind’ theory is the comparable success of Bernie Sanders. Despite having an entirely different message and style, the Vermont Senator amassed millions of supporters thanks largely to an anti-establishment sentiment which has swept much of America.
That Donald Trump has captured the hearts and minds of so many Americans points more to an overlooked and disenchanted electorate, tired of politics as usual, than to the workings of an unlikely political mastermind.