When he announced his candidacy in June, it is hard to imagine many predicted Donald Trump would still be leading GOP polls so close to February. At this point, everyone pretty much knows how the story goes. The fair-haired billionaire took a ride down his golden escalator and into the hearts of hardliners, dominating the national media and surging to the front of polls. He promised to build a wall, and he bullied Jeb Bush. And every time we expected him to fade after some rash comment, Trump stuck around.
Over the past eight months, Trump’s image has seen some major changes. He has transitioned from a complete joke, to a confusing anomaly, to a serious threat – on everything from conservatism to national security. As the actual voting in Iowa and New Hampshire rapidly approaches, it feels like it is finally time to panic. A Trump nomination is a serious possibility. Conservative thinkers and establishment Republicans are recognizing and pointing to the damage a Trump nomination could inflict on their party – a likely loss in November being the least of which. Nevertheless, they are left wondering how it happened and who is to blame for letting him get so far. This exposal of party divisions is a distraction, however, from the unique opportunity that a Donald Trump candidacy presents. Maybe one more thoughtful consideration and confrontation of his rhetoric is just what the country needs to refocus dialogue heading into the primaries.
It would be too difficult, and too time-consuming, to go through all of Trump’s controversial statements and positions. What is more practical is to look at the candidate’s now almost legendary campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. The slogan encompasses everything Trump stands for – pessimism, nativism, and egoism. Its tone is as populist as one can get. It gives upset voters a clear, identifiable message: your problems are rooted in America’s lack of greatness, which Donald Trump will fix. Simple and effective.
Trump’s mantra has found continuous success. As of now, he still leads Republican primary polls in New Hampshire with 32.2 percent. The Pew Research Center reported in November that only 11 percent of Republicans say they can trust the federal government nearly always or most of the time, and of adults younger than 30, only about 40 percent say they have “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s future. Trump’s progress over the course of the election is linked to this real, tangible sense of distrust of the federal government. Make America Great Again, as a rhetorical tool, taps into and validates citizens’ pessimistic feelings about their country. A campaign slogan, and its candidate, can only catch on with such enthusiasm if the sentiments it bolsters are prevalent.
In all of his charades and drama, Trump has provided the nation with a populist brand of rhetoric that a substantial number of people can relate to and support. However well Trump does in the future, or whatever your opinions on the Obama administration, the nation’s overwhelming wariness of the government is demanding attention in this presidential election.
The traction Trump’s rhetoric has gained also demands an appropriate response. The billionaire’s slogan implies that America, at the moment, is not “great.” This vague language plays into his hands because it does not need to rely on any specific or numerical metric to define “great.” By way of some of his radical statements, however, we can assume that to Donald Trump, a great America would lack a desire to protect basic civil liberties, political correctness, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims. Trump supporters and opponents alike should take care to discern if those ideals match their conception of the United States of America. His success tells us that a considerable number of our population agree with Trump’s radical, divisive vision. It is then necessary for all citizens to think hard, and confront now, why following Donald Trump’s rhetorical lead puts us on a path toward authoritarianism.
Trump’s rhetoric has done two important things for this country. First, it has highlighted a serious break between the government and its constituency. This break requires serious consideration to ensure our state lives up to its democratic ideals. Second, while Trump’s words seem divisive at their surface, they provide a platform against which Americans can define and mold what it is this country stands for. At this late stage, any and all responses to Trump should take care that they are not simply discounting his rhetoric as idiotic. This only stunts productive political dialogue. Politicians and constituency alike should take this opportunity to directly confront Donald Trump’s version of what truly makes America “great.” If we can collectively identify why Trump’s rhetoric directly opposes our national principles, we can put ourselves on the right track towards choosing our next president.