None of the three men seeking the Republican presidential nomination has yet proven he can lead both his party and this nation. It’s possible that won’t be true by November’s general election, but it is today.
But one of them, billionaire Donald Trump, has shown he can dominate the conversation, and on Tuesday he will prove he can dominate Republican ballot boxes in New York when he wins the state primary by a huge margin. That makes Trump the candidate most worthy of thoughtful consideration.
In a telephone interview Friday with the editorial board, he said several times that his aggressive tone had been a device used to elevate himself above the other 16 candidates who set out to seek the GOP nomination. Some of his actions over the past week suggest that could be so, but it’s too soon to tell.
Trump has brought excitement, new voters and record primary turnouts to his party. While it’s easy to dismiss him as a showman, an assessment of his campaign should start with what he’s gotten right. He speaks to the fears of workers who have slipped on the economic ladder and are afraid their kids will fall even further. He argues that the government is inefficient and riddled with stupidity, and says he’ll fix it. He promises a better tomorrow by evoking a return to 1950s-style international dominance and domestic prosperity.
He has a reputation built mostly on success, stretching back to when he fixed a skating rink in Manhattan in months when others had failed for years. And on his showy business empires.
Can he be as successful handling the nation’s infrastructure, foreign policy and economy? He says we can rebuild the nation with money saved by extricating it from the Middle East after we destroy the Islamic State, and perhaps by being smarter about borrowing at a time of record-low interest rates.
Trump’s candidacy has touched a nerve, but in a way that makes us very wary. He hasn’t merely addressed people’s fears, he has intensified those fears with hate by casting blame on “the other” for the problems of his followers. “The other” has been, at times, Mexicans here illegally and Muslims, women and political competitors, media members and protesters. Trump’s willingness to disparage and inspire contempt for these people is unacceptable.
In our interview, he was more considerate than he has often seemed to be on stages. He says he’s changing his tone to be more presidential, but he still believes it’s reasonable to be cautious, and even scared, of immigrants seeking to make a life here. He says it’s the No. 1 issue that resonates with this audience.
Such a strategy reveals his instinctive skills as a politician, but that manipulation itself is disturbing. He must become a better, more inclusive leader if he is to have any place in the nation’s leadership.
The two other GOP candidates have inspired far fewer voters in this campaign, because they just seem to be selling boilerplate iterations of conservatism.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with his 18 years in Congress and his deftness with state and federal budgets, could certainly manage the nation’s affairs. But he represents much of what grassroots Republicans are rebelling against in flocking to Trump. He is the paternal preacher of the psalm of lower taxes, balanced budget, and what’s-good-for-Wall-Street-is-good-for- Main-Street that much of the Republican congregation is no longer singing. His support of cuts to Medicare and Social Security doesn’t help when these same scared voters are realizing they’ll be deeply reliant on such programs.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s main asset is his brain power, but he represents where the GOP was in 2012, when the tea party movement was thriving. He seemingly argues that everything the federal government does is bad. But many Republican voters now feel much of what the federal government does is crucial — just that it needs to be done far better. Cruz stances such as shutting down the government, adamantly opposing a higher minimum wage and fighting for a “flat tax” that would grant huge tax cuts to the rich and full free-trade support are more symbolic than realistic.
Anyone who doesn’t understand what Trump is doing wrong — by allowing hate, divisiveness and simplistic slogans to have such a big part in his campaign — is making a serious error. But anyone who doesn’t understand where he is succeeding, by addressing the real concerns of voters left behind by a changing economy and frustrated with the failure of Washington to deliver better results, is making a similar mistake.