There are two clear reasons to believe Donald Trump will not be the next president of the United States. One, Trump may yet be denied the nomination by the Republican establishment’s attempts to derail him; and two, in a general election match up with Hillary Clinton, the odds are stacked against a Trump victory.
Yet whether he wins or not, his candidacy will continue to have a huge and lasting impact on American politics. Despite Trump’s persona dominating election coverage, it is a mistake to view his candidacy − and the very concept of ‘Trumpism’ − solely as an individual-driven phenomenon.
Support for Trump has emanated from a widely dispersed group of Americans. They share some key characteristics: they are very angry at the political system, they feel voiceless and they are ready to embrace authoritarian solutions. The group is also very white and nationalist.
If Trump fails, this group will not simply dissipate. If anything, their worst fear − that the system doesn’t work − will be embedded deeper. With all the focus on Trump’s personality, it is easy to forget that he is as much of a symptom of deeper societal division as he is a unique phenomenon.
The rise of Trump has highlighted and inflamed deep-seated xenophobia within certain segments of the United States. The fact that Trump refused to distance himself from a white supremacist who served as one the KKK’s most senior officials is extremely concerning. The comparison with President Ronald Reagan, who quickly condemned the KKK when they voiced support for his election, is stark.
The loose network of extremist groups that have coalesced around Trump’s candidacy are both driving his support and using his candidacy to revitalize their own groups. For example, Trump’s embrace of an anti-Muslim hate group, the Center for Security Policy, has caused traffic to their website to skyrocket. The damage to American society caused by what many see as Trump’s vindication of xenophobic statements is difficult to calculate.
The damage has also been felt internationally, with some foreign news outlets highlighting Trump’s comments as if he was already the president. Recently, the State Department has been forced to issue official guidance to embassies on how to respond to the international reaction - the first time in decades that this has been done for a candidate for office.
The Republican establishment strikes back
Despite his triumph in New York on Tuesday, the fevered ‘anyone but Trump’ effort in the GOP to deny Trump the nomination may have finally started to work effectively after many weeks of confusion. Party insiders are focusing ruthlessly on pulling as many delegates away from Trump as possible. A concerted effort has gone into gaining control of the ‘unbound’ delegates and there is even an effort to rule Trump retroactively ineligible for his delegate share in South Carolina (given he reneged on a promise to support whoever is the GOP nominee).
If successful, these efforts may deny Trump the prize, but only further enrage and energize his supporters. It is easy to imagine this happening if he wins a near majority of the delegates, but is kept from the nomination through a technocratic and insider-dominated convention. Such an outcome could prove successful for traditional Republicans in the short term, but more damaging in the long term.
Even if Trump manages to win the nomination but loses to Hillary in November, there could be further fracturing within the GOP. Trump supporters may blame the party establishment for ‘sabotaging’ his candidacy from the start, while many who already oppose Trump within the party will feel that their view of Trump as an electoral risk has been vindicated by the result.
There is work to be done in understanding the true effect of Trump on the Republican electorate, but it is hard to see Republican primary voters becoming anything but more anti-establishment and more willing to embrace obstructionism among the Congressional caucus. Many of these voters may be more willing in the future to get involved with their local party and change the apparatus from within. White nationalist groups that have already been making robocalls on Trump’s behalf may decide the time is right to try and influence the Republican Party from the inside.
Trump’s candidacy will also likely contribute to other worrying trends in American politics. The Republican Party fracture, already clearly evident since the Tea Party came to prominence in 2010, looks set to worsen. The anti-free trade movement, long popular on the left, has found new supporters on the right − and Paul Krugman may well have a point about America facing a ‘protectionist moment’. The unusually high levels of political polarization witnessed during the Obama years could be surpassed by even higher levels of division. In a political system reliant on partisan cooperation for any form of governance this makes every challenge even harder to solve.
At 69 years old, this might be Trump’s last chance to win national office. But even without Trump, the movement behind him will find new leaders. Many could run for state elections or Congress. In the not-too-distant future a more credible successor to Trump may emerge and run for president. If such a candidate can articulate a similar vision to Trump, but can avoid the sexism and unforced errors that have stalled Trump’s momentum, they could conceivably be more effective.
It is possible that Trump’s biggest legacy may not be his effect on the November election or the towers he has emblazoned with his name, but the political movement he has initiated.
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