You would think that Donald Trump’s critics would have by now learned that branding him a racist, sexist, or demagogue does little to sway voters, and that perhaps it might even embolden them.
And yet, now that Mr. Trump is the confirmed Republican Nominee and we are heading into the general election, the media and his political opponents are relying on a formula that so far has failed to defeat him, hanging on to the idea that his polarizing personality and ideas cannot possibly withstand a general election, where centrists have historically shined.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee at this point, when asked about her plan to defeat Trump seems to believe this. When questioned how she would avoid succumbing to the same name calling and personal attacks that drowned Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and practically every other GOP contender that fell into his crosshairs, she has so far clung onto the idea that she can defeat him on the issues. She believes she will succeed where they did not, because unlike other republicans who largely agreed with his platform, she has a policy leg to stand on.
To channel Trump for a second, how stupid are our politicians? Thinking that Trump won the GOP nomination because his adversaries could not present strong enough policy alternatives is wishful thinking and plain wrong. He won because the electorate has become unprecedentedly cynical of politicians and tone deaf to their rehearsed rhetorical cliches. Their gut feeling is grounded in reality. Academic studies have shown that the will of ordinary people now has little to no effect on legislative outcomes in America.
Sure, there is a faction of Trump supporters that are racist, sexist, and craving an authoritarian nationalist to take them to a mythological promise land, but their numbers are not enough to win an election. His rise has occurred, in part, despite his bigotry, not because of it. People are so desperate for authenticity, that they are willing, perhaps all too willing, to overlook the racist, comically narcissistic, side of Trump. By showing off his ugly warts, his unrealistically ambitious promises become more believable.
Take for example, Trump’s latest “gaff”: suggesting that Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage contributed to an unfair judgment against Trump University. The media, and politicians like Paul Ryan and Hilary Clinton, were quick to chastise his very suggestion and declare him a racist.
Rather than focusing on the real issue, the fact that one of Trump’s business ventures was effectively a predatory scam that brings into question his ethics and hypocritical platform, they fell into Trump’s trap and made the discussion about race. Say what you will about Trump, but he is a master at diversion and establishing the narrative of a debate.
Instead, the fight the media and the anti-Trump contingent has chosen is one that has failed to sway voters up to this point: that Trump is a racist. This time, we are told, Trump has gone too far. The media has predicted over and over again that this or that gaff has finally done Trump in and they have been wrong every time. This time is likely no exception.
Part of the problem is that, at least in this case, the argument against Trump is a straw-man. Suggesting that a federal judge’s ruling could be motivated by race is not racist - it is reality.
The truth is, judges, like all people are imperfect and can succumb to bias, subconscious or otherwise. Racism is not binary; it has shades. People, in their heart of hearts, outside of where others can look, know this to be true. We are all a little bit prejudiced, whether we like it or not. And so, to many, Trump’s position, while distasteful, doesn’t look all too unreasonable.
Can a judge’s identity affect his or her judgment? Of course it can. Liberals complain about the bias of predominantly white judges casting unfair judgments against minorities on a regular basis. In fact, last week, the media has been in an uproar over the controversially light sentence that Brock Turner, a white Stanford student received after being found guilty of rape. The judge prioritized the welfare of a white male over the safety of future victims, all the while millions of nonviolent black and brown criminals have been incarcerated for less vicious crimes. This is a case embroiled in institutionalized racism, sexism, and privilege, with you guessed it, a biased judge at the center.
Rather than question the specific details of the case against Trump University or the narcissism of a man that consistently puts personal vendettas ahead of policy, the media has lazily fallen back on the historically unjustifiable position that the legal system is without reproach and that questioning the influence of race on a judgment is de facto racist. They might win the acclaim of those who already dislike Trump but will do little to sway independents or Trump supporters to whom they look like hypocrites who champion the very institutions that the public has grown distrustful of.
Trump, on other hand, continues to position himself as the politician willing to ignore the chorus of establishment criticisms and say what he thinks at all costs. His enemies are institutions like the media and established parties, neither of which the electorate trusts. While these groups think they are taking the high road, it is Trump who appears principled. Rather than become the villain, he becomes an imperfect hero. Meanwhile the media and incumbent politicians look like elites abusing political correctness for gain, attacking common sense when it is politically expedient and ignoring it when it is not. Trump is writing the narrative and everyone is playing along.
Unfortunately for Trump voters (and America should he win) most of his policies don’t add up. He is riding a wave of unprecedented American cynicism that his opponents continue to underestimate. He has single handedly channeled the grievances of millions of Americans and inspired hope for a better America, but he is after all, a salesman, and like a salesman he relies on charm over substance and will over promise and inevitably under deliver. He cares about the win. He is not concerned with what comes after.
Defeating Trump will require listening to and addressing the grievances of the people. Globalization has made the elite rich but left millions of ordinary Americans behind. Illegal immigration, particularly in the southern states, has led to depressed market wages for low-skilled workers. The tax burden has unfairly fallen on a shrinking middle class while elites who benefit most from America’s legal system, infrastructure, and geopolitical dominance can skirt taxes and leave billions of dollars offshore.
Trump, not the democrats nor establishment republicans, has so far been the most outspoken critic of all these issues. His solutions, like trade barriers, a physical wall, and simpler and lower taxes for all, are half baked, irresponsible, and likely ineffective, but they sound good. And while his opponents focus on his rough personality, he focuses on the economy, change, and personal strength, which at the end of the day, win elections.
Hillary Clinton, for all intents and purposes, is the Democratic nominee at this point. Unfortunately for everyone who worries about a Trump presidency, she epitomizes the very establishment that Trump has successfully admonished. His monicker “crooked Hillary” is no mistake. None of Trump’s opponents until now have won when on the defensive, and neither can she.
The media continues to dangerously underestimate Trump, believing he cannot possibly win in a general election where the white male vote alone is not enough to win the presidency. They underestimate the degree to which he has tapped into the grievances pulsing through the veins of middle America; grievances that extend beyond the bigoted faction of his supporters.
If Hillary wants to beat Trump, she cannot rely on winning by default. Presidencies are often won by character, and unfortunately for her, her candidacy already evokes a deep sense of mistrust by many and Trump’s mastery of character assassination could implant that same mistrust with undecideds.