The ritual of summer vacation in America was somehow alleviated by one excitement: the emergence of Mr. Donald Trump as lead political actor. The egotistic real estate and leisure billionaire excites this reporter to no end. American politics and its accompanying theatre is to me what European major league soccer is to numerous urban Nigerians. Each time I turned on the television to any of the major American news and current affairs networks and saw Trump, I giggled to myself. My American friends and family could not understand why.
For one thing, Trump has enlivened what would ordinarily be a dull run up to the 2016 Republic presidential primaries. Somehow, the man has rekindled some interest in the Republican Party whose fortunes in recent times have been less than glorious. Above all, the man is lending American politics a new language, which I consider a ‘revolutionary’ national service in a political culture where linguistic atrophy has become symptomatic of other declines.
Trump is engaging in a rather entertaining but cavalier way. He is predictably unpredictable. Only Trump knows what he is going to say or do next on the political trail. He is allergic to the obsession with political correctness in Washington and says so by verbally assaulting the high priesthood of political Washington. He has accused the American leadership of being mostly ‘stupid’ hence the declining strength and power of his country. He has questioned Senator John McCain’s stature as a war hero: you do not become a war hero just because you were a prisoner of war! He respects President Barack Obama’s office but is not hesitant to describe the man as ‘incompetent’. He admires Hillary Clinton mostly because she did him the honour of attending his wedding in Florida. He respects fellow Republican presidential aspirant Jeb Bush but has unprintable words about his elder brother, former President George Bush Jr. Under pressure after excoriating Fox News panelist Megan Kelly following the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, he concedes that he respects women except TV personality Rosy O’Donnell with whom he has had a long running publicity battle.
Trump has his own iconoclastic views about nearly every pressing national issue in today’s America. To stem the tidal influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico, he will build a wall on the US-Mexico border and get the Mexican government to pay for it. He will respect whoever emerges as Republican front-runner but will not guarantee that he will not run as an independent except the party gives him the ticket. On the challenge of the rise of China as a rival super power or the trade imbalance with Japan, Trump reels off any number of his friends to whom he will outsource these major international engagements. No facts, no figures, no silly specifics and boring academic sounding plans. Just get the job done. And America seems to like his ‘can do’ approach which contrasts with the long talk and inertia in Washington. He wants to fix the nation by cleaning out the cronyism, boring ‘correctness’ and sometimes unthinking partisanship that holds Washington hostage. Ask him how he is going to fix America and he says: wait till I become president!
In spite of a pile up of the kinds of indiscretions that would ordinarily bury a normal politician, Trump has maintained a confounding comfortable lead in the polls. In the process, the Republican Party is split and confused. A good number of Republicans admire and support Trump’s bid as an act of rebellion against the lack of creativity in Washington. Others are simply bored, dismissing the rest of the pack in the line up of Republican presidential hopefuls as more of the same.
The danger here is that it is hard to convince Trump that he could possibly be wrong on any of the issues he addresses so casually. How do you convince a very wealthy man (he is worth over $10 billion and personally earns $400 million annually) that any of his views or strategies could be wrong when they have worked for him?
There have been timid noises of condemnation of Trump’s unconventional rhetoric. Few have disagreed with his iconoclastic perspectives on major national issues. But no one has had the courage to spiritedly and frontally condemn Trump. It turns out that in America as in my village, it is hard to disagree with a very rich man. When he wears rags, people say that is the new fashion. When he talks nonsense, many will say there is hidden wisdom in it. When he advances a foolish doctrine, many will say maybe that is what gave him all that wealth. If it has worked for him, why dare to question him when your own counter wisdom has condemned you to a life of penury?
His ideological traducers, especially the intellectual vanguards of the Republican conservative movement, are rattled by his rampaging pop star appeal. George F. Will, archconservative syndicated columnist of The Washington Post, has described Trump as ‘a counterfeit Republican… and no conservative’ who should be shown the way out by the party. Others, who may not be so eager to dismiss Trump, insist that he is a curious political phenomenon that needs to be watched closely. My friend, Fareed Zakariah, Time magazine columnist and CNN GPS host, sees him as unique on account of his ability to confound both his followers and opponents without addressing key issues in any serious way.
For this reporter, the lure of American politics is its dramatic flourish and intellectual veneer. Even outright nonsense has a way of being ceded centre stage. Political idiocy sometimes dominates prime time, gets endlessly rehashed, analysed, celebrated and sometimes expensively promoted in limitless media outlets. Trump takes himself seriously and so does a sizeable faction of Republican conservatives, hence his lead in the polls. His current rating is somewhere around 23.3 per cent while his closest rival, Jeb Bush, is trailing at 12.4 per cent. Trump’s lead becomes even more significant given the fact that his campaign has raised very little money, only a paltry $1.9 million against Jeb Bush whose super-pacs have raised in excess of $100 million. Trump’s popularity relies mostly on his personal media outings. His popularity escalates as his views become more controversial and even objectionable.
Some see Trump as essentially political entertainment. Of course Trump who hosts his own TV show, The Apprentice, savours entertainment and relishes his celebrity stature and the immense attention it brings. So, there is a sense in which the man is having a ball while his opponents are griping over his excesses. It reminds you of Mr. Ross Perot, the Texas millionaire with oversize ears who ran as an independent in the contest between George Bush snr. and Bill Clinton. It was Perot that denied Bush snr a second term in the White House while vicariously ushering in the Clinton era with its record economic benefits for America. It would appear that wealthy political gadflies have a superior vision, which their political opponents may not be equipped to grasp immediately. When M.K.O Abiola vied for the Nigerian presidency, he probably saw his long term significance ahead of the rest of us. His entry into Nigerian politics redefined Nigerian democracy and re-drew the political map of the country. The voiding of his election denied the military the honour of exiting the political stage in a blaze of glory. I would not know what Trump has foreseen in the clear and present possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency from 2016.
But Trump is first and foremost a very shrewd businessman. He takes his profit from the outset. He has already achieved a major victory: he is currently the issue among most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats. In addition, what happens to him and his political adventure will largely determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Trump may not clinch the Republican nomination. Even if he did, he is less likely to end up in the Oval Office in 2016 because of his inherent political liabilities and personal negatives. I doubt that he is himself too intent on a job that would condemn him to the boredom of flying to places he would rather not go to make speeches he does not necessarily believe in. But whether he gets the Republican ticket to challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive candidate of the Democratic Party, Trump has become a political factor. If his poll ratings remain as strong as they have been, he is on the way to emerging the Republican front-runner. If however the party shoots him down midstream, the possibility that he will run as an independent becomes real and imminent. That outcome may not get him into the White House but it will almost certainly deny the Republicans the key into the Oval Office. The votes lost to the Republicans will not necessarily go to the Democrats. They will merely degrade the chances of the Republicans and chaperon Hillary Clinton into the White House as the first American female president.
That outcome will be a personal victory for Trump. He will have stopped his fellow Republicans from the presidency because they ‘were not nice’ to him. He will however in the same breadth have ended up facilitating the emergence of Hillary Clinton. He will then enter the history books as the man who bloodied Republican politicians and assisted the Democrats in their bid to hang on to the Oval Office, an outcome into which the man can insert a nice business plan.
Instructively, the Times of London revealed about a fortnight ago that it was after a phone call seeking the counsel of ex-President Bill Clinton that Trump decided to run. In Trump, then, I see a very brilliant and successful business mind engaged in a political project as long-term investment.