What's Behind the Trump Juggernaut
“I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” – Donald J. Trump, June 2015.
Scott Walker surprised everyone by dropping out of the 2016 republican race on Monday. The Wisconsin governor made it clear that he was sacrificing himself for the greater good, meaning to narrow the field of presidential hopefuls to help stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination.
Never mind that Walker’s campaign had all but fallen apart from lack of funds, lackluster debate performances, and disappearing poll numbers. I guess “let’s stop The Donald” sounds a whole lot more inspiring than “I’m a broke snooze-fest.”
Rick Perry had almost the same response to the same set of problems, suspending his campaign a couple of weeks ago in the face of the Trump juggernaut. The former Texas governor chided Trump’s divisive and demeaning rhetoric with respect to illegal immigrants, particularly Hispanics.
Meanwhile, the real-estate mogul continues to dominate the polls at 23 percent, according to a national survey published earlier this week. Fellow Washington, D.C., outsiders Dr. Ben Carson and former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina follow with 15 and 10 percent, respectively. More than 20 percent of those polled were undecided, leaving little room for the gazillion politicians struggling to get a foothold in the race.
Which brings up two important questions that have been asked many times since Trump so audaciously crashed the GOP launch party in June and, at least in my mind, have not been satisfactorily answered:
1. What’s behind the Trump phenomenon and the broad dissatisfaction with political insiders?
2. Is Trump’s campaign damaging to the Republican Party and its chances of winning in the general election?
My initial reaction to the billionaire entering the race was decidedly negative. Words like "caustic" and "bombastic" – often used to describe Trump – don’t exactly bring to mind the sort of “reach across the aisle” leadership we need to get Washington functioning again. After four terms of two of the most divisive presidents in American history, the last thing America needs is another divider-in-chief.
Besides, the Reality TV star had pulled this sort of stunt before. Who knew if The Donald was actually serious this time or if it was all just a ratings stunt for The Apprentice?
But as I listened to his words on the day he announced his candidacy from Trump Tower, I realized two things. First, there was no mistaking that he was all in this time. You could tell by the sincerity, urgency, and emotion in his voice. Second, everything he said resonated with my long-standing frustration with the federal government’s fiscal mismanagement and leadership dysfunction.
My words might have been somewhat different, but my messages would have been essentially the same. Not that I have a problem with the way Trump’s thoughts go straight to his mouth without a filter. I actually have a similar affliction. But while many of us may agree that runaway political correctness is one of the greatest problems we face, Carson’s communication style, for example, is as subtle as Trump’s is acerbic.
In other words, there are ways to be direct without creating more problems than you solve.
In any case, Trump gives voice to the beliefs of many Americans: that the nation has long been in a state of decline. That, if we remain on our present trajectory with big government, national debt, and entitlement spending ballooning while our economy remains sluggish, our best years will remain behind us, not in front of us.
And, over the past four administrations, it hasn’t mattered which party is in power or who’s got the upper hand in Washington. Our many problems – fiscal folly, chronic cronyism, loony tax code, broken immigration system, instability in the middle east, the economic rise of China, and aggression from Russia – continue to fester while nothing gets fixed.
That’s what’s behind the meteoric rise of Trump and other outsiders.
As for the second question, I see Trump’s ascension as a benefit to the GOP for two reasons.
While many find the messenger and his choice of words off-putting, most republicans would have a hard time disagreeing with his positions. And the way they’re resonating with folks may actually galvanize the party behind a common platform: a common set of “calls to action“ that whoever wins the nomination must get done if elected.
Secondly, any candidate capable of beating Trump will have to be very strong indeed. That candidate will have to have the party and the people behind him or her 100 percent. For the past two elections, the party has chosen weak candidates seemingly by default. That will not happen this time.
Trump has a self-funded campaign that will not quit. And the field, broad and talented as it is, will have to choose a truly capable challenger if it hopes to topple the giant. If there is a Reaganesque Republican candidate who can bring back American leadership, the specter of a Trump presidency or Trump losing in the general election will almost certainly bring that person to the fore and galvanize the party behind him … or her.
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Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.