US Election Special: The Trump Phenomenon (2/3)

US Election main

By Dafydd Townley

The founders of the US Constitution at the end of the 19th century instilled a checks and balances system to ensure that each branch was subject to the approval of the other two. The separation of powers was designed to limit each branch’s power. The president, as part of the executive branch can veto the legislative branch’s bills. However, with a two-thirds majority the legislative branch can override that veto. The Supreme Court can in turn declare laws unconstitutional. And to round the circle, the Supreme Court members are appointed by the president but have to be approved by Congress. There are other checks and balances in place. The US intelligence community for example has the oversight committees of both the House and the Senate to ensure that they work within the confines of the law. And it’s just as well: according to former CIA director Robert M Gates, ‘some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved’ had that oversight not been in place.[1] The presidential elections are no different. It is usual that two major requirements restrain those running for the presidential candidacies: the appeasement of the candidate’s financial backers, and the support of a targeted subsection of the electorate to reach the White House.

The increase in the cost of running for office in the United States has meant that there is a greater need for financial backing, which in turn makes the financiers more influential on the proposed policies of their supported candidates. Indeed such is the need for finance to gain office that many politicians are complaining that holding office is less about politics and more about fund-raising for the next term. Candidates who have an immense personal fortune, such as Trump and previously Ross Perot, can afford to buck the trend. They are almost solely committed to their own policies because they do not have the normal financial restrictions that candidates face. This allows Trump to announce policies and make public observations and accusations that have been previously regarded as extreme.

Trump 1

Trump’s ability to say what he likes gives the appearance of a shotgun approach to policy, but actually this is just an illustration of the second freedom he enjoys. Most party-led candidates are targeting a specific audience with their policy declarations. Not only the financiers determine the nature of their policies but also the policy’s target demographic. Republican supporters are generally pro-life, pro-business, small government, and candidates’ political statements are usually framed to keep within these boundaries. Furthermore, candidates tend to avoid making statements or suggesting policies that are not within the confines of their part’s political spectrum. Trump has moved away from modus operandi in an attempt to appeal to every voter that stands right of centre. His business acumen is attractive to the working class, his stance on immigration attractive to the far right, and he has some appeal to libertarians and Tea Party members with his opposition to big government.

Political analyst Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com fame suggests that Trump’s support in the polls may not last, and nobody analyses the poll data better than Silver. Trump’s rise, according to Silver is based on one of three theories – his attraction to the populist vote, the lack of Republican leadership, or that there is a media bubble around Trump. All of these theories suggest that Trump’s popularity is not particularly strong and could dissipate in a short space of time. The reasons that Silver suggests are relatively simple ones: that the populist vote is incorrect, that the Republican elite will manage to successfully campaign against him, and that an early loss in Iowa or New Hampshire primaries will affect his standing.[2]

There is a danger though in underestimating the momentum of the Trump campaign. That Trump would be even considered a leading contender at this stage twelve months ago was unthinkable. The Trump campaign is becoming expert at picking up popular discontent with the federal government. The latest Gallup poll into satisfaction with the federal government showed a drop of 14% to just 18%, the lowest figure since Gallup first conducted the poll in 1971.[3] Trump has constantly criticised Obama’s use of executive actions, especially those allowing undocumented mothers and children to remain in the United States.While Trump is seen by many of his supporters as the anti-government candidate the results of that poll should give the Trump campaign further hope. What may damage Trump’s standing as the libertarian candidate is his suggestion that he will also use executive orders to repeal those of Obama. Despite Trump’s assertion that he is ‘going to use them much better and they’re going to serve a much better purpose than he’s done.’[4] It may cost him supporters who wish to see a move away from the imperial presidency of this century.

The issue for the Republican elites however is the lack of a clear alternative to Trump. His ability to manage the press has not given his rivals an opportunity to regain the ground that they have lost. Trump while still not a certainty of winning the Republican candidacy could most certainly do so with a couple of early victories in the primaries. Trump’s rival for the Iowa caucus on 1st February is Canadian-born Texan Senator Ted Cruz, currently polling 27.3% to Trump’s 26.8%.[5] However if Trump has few friends among the Republican leadership, then Cruz has even fewer, and would be a disastrous choice for the GOP. If the other candidates, principally Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, fail to act swiftly, then the unfettered Trump could have an unassailable lead long before Super Tuesday on March 1st.

[1] Robert M Gates, From the Shadows, (New York: 1996) p559

[2] Nate Silver, Three Theories of Donald Trump’s Rise [accessed 11th January 2016]

[3] Joy Wilke, Americans’ Satisfaction With US Gov’t Drops To New Low  [accessed 11th January 2016])

[4] Quote from Bradford Richardson, Trump: Obama ‘led the way’ on executive orders, The Hill, January 10th 2016 [accessed 11th January 2016]

[5] Data from Real Clear Politics [accessed 12th January 2016]

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This was originally published on Dafydd’s own blog and has been republished here with his permission .
This entry was posted in American History, Features and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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