Why Donald Trump matters

Donald Trump is making a lot of noise on the campaign trail. And some of it should not be so easily dismissed.

Nati Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Saturday.

What to make of Donald Trump?

Populist avenger or carnival side show? Straight-talker or corrosive loudmouth? Political game-changer or passing fad?

America appears simply not to know what to do with him. The liberal-leaning Huffington Post is covering his campaign in its entertainment section. But some polls have him leading the Republican presidential field.

Could he really become president? Is he a serious candidate? Did he really just mock Sen. John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War?

The fact is, what Mr. Trump is is no mystery. Strip away the media breathlessness and the magnificent hair, and Trump is simply a candidate speaking aloud the unvarnished worldview of a not-insignificant minority of Americans – at least 17 percent of registered Republicans, if polls are accurate. 

The bigger question is: Does any of it matter?

By the traditional calculus of the news media, probably not. It is not a news flash that Trump is not likely to become the president of the United States, much less the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. His poll ratings will probably get him a podium spot during the early Republican presidential debates, but that might just result in more triage for the Republican Party, not a White House boost.

Trump is making the best of a very fractured field; whether Republicans would rally to him if he were one of the last candidates standing is an open question.

Yet Trump also does matter, and for widely different and often opposing reasons.

A voice. Trump matters because he is a voice for the disaffected conservative – mostly white, mostly over 65, mostly less-educated. This voting bloc might not be decisive, but it will be important, particularly in the Republican primaries. Even if Trump goes away, they won't.

The 74-year-old Bert Hansen, attending a Trump rally in Laconia, N.H., told CNN: "There's some pent up frustration in the population right now.... That's why Trump's doing so well."

A broken bridge. Trump matters because the Republican Party has yet to figure out a way to bridge the gap between that group and the more moderate voting groups that do decide presidential elections, whether they are independents in swing states or (more recently) Latinos and 20-somethings. Trump is the elephant in the Republican room, saying aloud those things that more-electable Republican candidates only skirt in order to remain electable.

A Fox News poll this month asked: "Recently, presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a wall on the US-Mexico border. He said Mexico is, 'sending people that have lots of problems.... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.' Setting aside how Trump worded his comments, do you think he’s basically right on this, or not?"

Some 70 percent of Republicans answered "yes."

Data offer no conclusive evidence one way or another about the violent crime rate among undocumented immigrants, say immigration analysts, including some who favor tight immigration controls. But Trump's rhetoric "is good in the sense that we want an honest debate,” Arturo Carmona, executive director of Latino advocacy group Presente Action, told ThinkProgress. “Latinos deserve to know what is fueling all of these anti-immigrant policies....”

A rogue. Trump matters because he is symbolic of a election process in which individual money – from megadonors, in particular – has grown tremendously in influence at the expense of party committees. The Republican National Committee would surely prefer Trump to disappear, just as it would like for its eventual nominee to avoid carnivorous primary battles.

It won't get its way on either count. At least not immediately.

Is what is unfolding now a new normal in the current Wild West of campaign financing? It's far too early to know. And Trump's verbal fusillades are not likely to become a model for electoral success. But they hint at a process where the election's traditional guide rails are being removed.

A populist. Trump matters because he represents the continued evolution of a certain strand of Republican politicking that has been gaining momentum for decades. He is the next iteration of the Sarah Palin populist – the outsider who speaks boldly but not very specifically.

The conservative National Review points out that his record would suggest he is by far the most liberal Republican in the race, having supported socialized medicine, liberal candidates, and even having been limp on immigration. Yet, for the moment, "Trump has become a hero among the populist Right, even as the conservative base is reputed to have become ever more rigid in its demands for radicalism and ideological conformity," writes Peter Spiliakos.

Mr. Spiliakos likens Trump's run to a piece of performance theater in which his supporters are mostly playing along because they like "watching the heads of Trump critics explode." That would be the Republican establishment and the mainstream media.

They are getting their wish.

In the end, Trump could indeed simply be a fun popcorn thriller for the Republican core before they get down to the serious business of choosing a Best Nominee in a Presidential Role. But like a summer blockbuster, where each bang and boom must outdo the last, Trump is upping the shock value on his great box office run.

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