When Donald Trump rode down the escalator and climbed up the stage last June, not many people took him seriously. A businessman with a running mouth, Mr. Trump exhibits a unique style that certainly makes this election year’s campaign battle much more of an entertainment extravaganza than it already is.
However, with the “wall,” the temporary Muslim ban, the derisive comments on Sen. John McCain, Ms. Megyn Kelly, and so many other controversial statements, for the victims, it would only be too cruel to call all this entertainment. Indeed, many have not been pleased, and even more expected him to fall.
At least for the moment, things are not looking this way. Nearing halfway to the nomination and leading his closest rival by more than 200 delegates, Mr. Trump is now a true likely candidate. This fact alarmed many who remained silent on the subject thus far, Republicans and Democrats alike, but it is one comedian’s response that turned out to be particularly intriguing.
Recently, HBO’s John Oliver chose Mr. Trump’s presidential bid as the week’s main story in his late-night program Last Week Tonight. Mr. Oliver set out to discover why many voters supported Mr. Trump, and the results were summed up into four points: he tells the truth, he is self-funded, he is tough, and he is successful.
Eventually all four claims crumbled upon the late night host’s examination, but they nonetheless offer important insight into understanding the Trump phenomenon.
Firstly, good campaigns are always driven by a clear and powerful message. Mr. Trump’s messages cover a wide range of issues, but there exists a consistent rabid tone. While many politicians stay within the bounds of political correctness to avoid PR scandals, Mr. Trump seems to deliberately go above the threshold. The long list of controversies mentioned earlier are all good examples of this particular tactic.
Unfortunately, our highly mediated society seems to suit Mr. Trump’s tactic especially well: As the media continues to pursue sensationalism, the more rabid his messages, and the more amplified they often become—regardless of the news angle. As one journalist pointed out, even in attacking the real estate mogul, one cannot escape from “an unshakeable but difficult-to-articulate sense of complicity.”
It’s worth pointing out that the truthfulness in campaign messages is also important, but there is often a delay before any claim’s truthfulness may be examined—a factor compounded by our general unwillingness to hear about facts contradictory to our established beliefs. So far Mr. Trump has been making masterful use of these two factors.
Shocking one-liners is an effective passageway to a broad voting base, which is the second key ingredient to a successful campaign, but it is not Mr. Trump’s only tactic to grow his following. In the post-Super Tuesday Republican debate on March 3rd, thanks to Sen. Marco Rubio’s yoga jokes, the issue of Mr. Trump’s “flexibility” came under intense scrutiny. Mr. Trump demonstrates tremendous fluidity in his claims (again, truthfulness aside). He talked about the wall and mass deportation when extreme comments meant media attention, but now as the confirmed leading nomination contender, he is also willing to loosen up the hard-line position for “a little give and take.”
Related to the wide electoral base is the third key to a campaign’s success: luck, or the often unpredictable swinging mood of the public. In this election year, the mood is generally anti-establishment. After the drudgery of two Middle-Eastern wars, one economic meltdown, and a streak of political quarrels which involved multiple government shut-downs, the American people are understandably tired of the political rhetoric and suspicious of their politicians’ ability to run the country.
Thus, it is not difficult to see the appeal of a powerful figure who speaks in simple terms, promises a bright future, and doesn’t bother to explain policy details. What we are witnessing is the U.S. public’s frustrated call for strongman politics, and as Mr. Oliver discovered, Mr. Trump is just this—regarded as self-funded, tough, and successful, Mr. Trump is a “strongman.”
Strongmen have led to the demise of many democracies, but for now, there is still much hope for American democracy. There are two more things Mr. Trump’s campaign needs to triumph: money and allies within the power structure. Doubtlessly Mr. Trump is rich, and clearly he is gaining allies, the latest of whom being Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Jeff Sessions. But his eventual opponents will only have equally—if not more—abundant resources and support. In the long term, the truly scary thing is the public’s willingness to surrender its power to scrutinize the operation of politics, and simply bestow that power to one name.
Here comes Mr. Oliver’s new and original contribution to the debate. The last portion of the show concentrated on Mr. Trump’s magical name. Mr. Oliver admits, “Trump does sound rich. It’s almost onomatopoeic…The very name Trump is the cornerstone of his brand.” Mr. Oliver finally identifies his mission: to separate the name Trump from the man that is Mr. Trump. Thus, the late-night host promptly brings up Mr. Trump’s ancestral name Drumpf, which sounds much less grand, along with a series of tools to spread the message, including a DonaldJDrumpf.com website, a red hat with the slogan “Make Donald Drumpf Again,” a Google Chrome extension that automatically changes the word Trump into Drumpf, as well as a campaign song that chants the name ad infinitum. And with the billionaire’s own words, the late-night host urged Mr. Trump to embrace all this and “be proud of his heritage.”
This effort by Mr. Oliver to decouple the name and the man is a proper answer to the conundrum formed between the public’s distaste for the experts and its simultaneous worship of heroes, because only by breaking the name spell, can the voting public realize that whatever hero they choose, in the end the elected is still human.
Mr. Oliver’s effort has showed some promise, as the Google keyword "Drumpf" has surpassed both "Rubio" and "Cruz" in the U.S., meaning more people are aware of the discrepancy behind Mr. Trump’s claims. Meanwhile, the Republican establishment is gathering ever stronger forces to expose Mr. Trump for the man he is.
Later on, no matter the Democratic Party’s nominee, more effort can be expected to push against the Trump brand in politics. Eventually, as the number of his opponents dwindle, a concerted effort will shape up to identify the inconsistency in Trump, which should result in his base shrinking, and Mr. Trump is likely to find himself outspent and outnumbered (in terms of allies). He will still be a “lucky” candidate, only his luck probably will not be enough this time.
In short, Mr. Trump can be defeated. But the real concern is the public’s serious discontent with the broken system. After beating Mr. Trump, politicians should not pat themselves on the back, but instead take a deep look into the mirror, because if the system is not fixed and grievances not addressed, more Trump-like politicians will emerge, and perhaps some of them will eventually succeed.