Is Trump the most bizarre presidential candidate?

The bright lights of the Las Vegas strip were an apt setting for the Donald Trump carnival roadshow to end up in last week. Amid the garish neon of the gigantic Treasure Island Casino, the business mogul-turned-reality TV star-turned-potential Republican presidential candidate made his latest stop.

Speaking at an event called The Reagan Revolution: From Ronald to Donald, Trump made his pitch to an audience of Nevada Republican bigwigs and curious onlookers in one of the key early-voting states in the nomination process. In the casino’s ballroom, which featured an ice statue of himself, Trump gave a virtuoso performance that was full of braggadocio and littered with expletives. “Our leaders are stupid, they are stupid people,” he said, before referring to the Chinese government as “motherfuckers” against whom he’d raise trade tariffs.

Despite such a performance — and perhaps because of it — there is no doubt that Trump has injected a remarkable shot of adrenaline into the stilted Republican search for a nominee to take on Barack Obama next year. One perhaps should have expected no less from the flamboyant figure who is a household name in America not for his politics, but his TV show The Apprentice and his catchphrase, “You’re fired!”

But, as Trump’s “will he, won’t he” campaign rolls on, the Republican party may be waking up to the fact that they have bitten off more than they can chew. Trump’s decision to make “birtherism” his first big issue and fan the conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship last week led to one of the more spectacular political bunfights of recent memory.

Trump’s claims to have sent investigators to Hawaii who had uncovered evidence to support him were dismissed in stunning fashion by the Oval office. As Trump touched down last Wednesday in New Hampshire — another key early-voting state — the White House revealed the president’s long-form birth certificate, which birthers had said did not exist. So, instead of being treated as an emerging Republican champion with a tough pro-America agenda on China and business, Trump became a national media joke.

Obama referred to him as a “carnival barker”. A thundering New York Times editorial called the Trump-inspired situation “… a profoundly low and debasing moment”. Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host, called Trump’s birtherism “coded racism”. CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer reacted to his questioning the standard of Obama’s college credentials, saying: “That’s just code for saying he got into law school because he’s black. This is an ugly strain of racism.”

Genuine campaign
Such a media kicking would have sent any other potential candidate running for the hills. But not The Donald. He seemed overjoyed at the slew of headlines. “Today, I am very proud of myself,” he told the press in New Hampshire, before hinting that he will continue to explore the idea of a run. Next month he will attend a Tea Party rally in South Carolina, his growing collection of another early-voting state.

His travels are certainly starting to look like a genuine campaign. His poll numbers among Republicans certainly put him among the leaders, with a Rasmussen survey showing him on top with 19%. “Trump obviously has a slice of the vote. The question is: how big a slice is it?” said Steve Mitchell, chairperson of Republican-leaning political consulting firm Mitchell Research.

That prospect has most Democrats sharing Trump’s delight at all the attention. Many had assumed he was in it just for the fame or to boost his TV show. But, increasingly, it seems he is serious — and even events like last week cannot deflect him from his path.

Conversely, senior Republicans are nervous. Asked last week on CNN about his plans, Trump said he would make an announcement before June. “I think a lot of people will be happy,” he said. His impact has been so potentially divisive that many suspect those happy people would be his Democratic opponents, not supporters of the party he hopes to lead.

Fame game
Whatever his decision, and no matter how well he does in any nomination race, Trump himself cannot really lose. With the bouffant hairdo that is more instantly recognisable than any policy position, the billionaire has long been a master of the fame game and immune to setback. Despite scandals about his private life and business bankruptcies, he has always emerged from the headlines with his ego fully intact.

As he traipsed around New Hampshire in a black limo complete with a security detail, he was swarmed by fans who asked for his autograph and endured only a few heckles on the street. He participated in the usual footwork of New Hampshire campaigning by pressing the flesh in a diner in Portsmouth and then later in Newick’s Lobster House in the village of Dover.

But looking like a campaign does not mean that one can pull one off. Even a showman like Trump must know that if he does run he will face press scrutiny of his lavish lifestyle and sprawling business dealings. He already faces demands to release his tax returns, and the Huffington Post last week ran a story about suspected organised crime ties to some ex-business associates.

His personal life will put off social conservatives who are a key segment of the Republican base: Trump is on his third marriage and not especially devout. His ostentatious lifestyle is out of step with a national mood still smarting from the “Great Recession”. “He has enormous problems with Republican voters,” Mitchell said.

There are inconvenient truths like the fact that he has donated more campaign money to Democrats than Republicans, including Obama right-hand man Rahm Emanuel and Senate leader Harry Reid. Or that Trump has not bothered to vote in many elections in the past 20 years. Then there is his “foot-in-mouth” syndrome. Last week, he claimed a CNN poll showed him neck-and-neck with Obama. He repeated the claim in an interview on CNN itself. When CNN correctly denied it had ever conducted such a survey, Trump insisted he was right and it was wrong.

Trump’s gift for reducing events down to simplistic and populist soundbites has few limits. On Libya, Trump bluntly said the US should just take the country’s oil, rather than assist rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi. “We don’t know who the rebels are, we hear they come from Iran, we hear they’re influenced by Iran or al-Qaeda, and, frankly I would go in, I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff,” he told Fox News. It is a sentiment he has gone on to repeat several other times.

A party in trouble
Yet all this is just the tip of the iceberg, with far more likely to come. That has many top Republican strategists terrified. “When Donald Trump not only dominates the airwaves but also the Republican polls then you know that they are a party in trouble,” said Professor Bruce Gronbeck, a political expert at the University of Iowa. It is a general rule of US presidential politics that the middle ground “independents” hold the key to national victory. Yet Trump, by so aggressively advocating birtherism, has seen his support there dry up.

In New Hampshire only 23% of independents have a positive view of him; in South Carolina it is 28% and Iowa 29%. Trump’s brand is becoming toxic to moderates and many Republicans fear the poison will start to infect their party, even if he does not win the nomination. Perhaps even if he does not run at all.

Yet Trump is striking a chord in part of the American psyche. Away from the clamour over birtherism, there are other elements of his message that resonate. His strident talk against China, which he has accused of “raping” the US economy, is powerful stuff in a country struggling with the mass outsourcing of its manufacturing industry and high unemployment. Trump can say these things so bluntly because he is an outsider to politics: something that also appeals to many disenchanted Americans.

He is filling a huge void in a Republican party that has struggled to build on its victory in last year’s mid-term elections. Instead of finding a united voice, the party appears deeply split between its Tea Party anti-government wing, still powerful social conservatives and a sliver of moderates. “Unifying a group like that looks next to impossible,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

No wonder then that the field of Republican candidates alongside Trump has failed to inspire. It contains semi-famous names such as Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, who have run and failed before. It includes congresswoman Michele Bachmann, from the far right and former senator Rick Santorum. There is Newt Gingrich, who has not held office since the mid-1990s and whose private life is even more colourful than Trump’s. There are virtual unknowns such as former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. The few well-known names — Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — are still on the fence, with Palin looking likely to stay out.

The field is so barren that in the first TV debate of the contest, planned for this week, only four potential candidates have agreed to turn up. “Republicans are run ragged at the moment trying to find anyone. It’s like the Keystone Cops driving around in a clown car,” said Bowler. No wonder Trump was still smiling. He has swaggered into a void in the Republican field and the top party bigwigs have only themselves to blame. –

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