At the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston the nation was introduced to a youthful freshman senator from Illinois for the first time. Barack Obama delivered an impassioned speech in which he called for bringing the nation together proclaiming that “we are not a blue America or a red America but the United States of America.” His words inspired millions and clearly resonated with many in the Democratic Party leadership who after having lost two presidential elections in a row were eager to recapture the White House. With strong urging from supporters Obama announced his candidacy for president going against the presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. His mantra of “hope and change” energized the African American community which came out in overwhelming numbers to support him. However, it wasn’t just blacks that were inspired by Obama, large numbers of white voters, particularly young college aged individuals not to mention a significant percentage of Hispanics and Asians. The energy and enthusiasm that he generated catapulted him not only to the nomination but to the presidency in 2008.
It was clearly evident that Obama struck an optimistic chord with a large segment of the electorate. After having endured the tragedy of 911 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the nation was poised for change and in Obama they felt real hope that he would be the kind of transformational leader that not only the nation longed for but that the world was also eager to see emerge. Now almost eight years later the country still finds itself greatly divided ideologically and politically. There is growing racial tension and anger in the black community towards police. Violence and crime are reaching epidemic proportions in certain municipalities with the murder rate seeming to increase each year. The world has become more violent and dangerous with the growth of ISIS and other terrorist groups, the emergence of Iran as a potential nuclear threat, growing strains in our relations with China and increased aggression by Russia in Eastern Europe. The economy has been slow to fully recover from the deep recession of 2008 and 2009 resulting in large numbers of people unemployed or under employed despite the reported drop in the unemployment rate. A growing national debt, controversial laws and measures strongly supported by the Obama Administration such as the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of gay marriage have further added to the rancor. The result has been a growing number of disaffected voters, particularly among the white working class.
Enter Donald Trump. The billionaire developer and television personality clearly identified what that segment of the electorate was feeling and developed a message that echoed their sentiment. His slogan of “make America great again” tapped into the anger and frustration that many of those Americans are feeling. His brash and what some consider offensive comments have sparked a movement that has only grown stronger after each primary contest. His supporters are diehard and intractable.
The so called Republican establishment has tried to rally support in an effort to deny him the party’s nomination but so far it has proven to be unsuccessful. His primary opponents have branded him as not being a true conservative or lacking the temperament to be president. Some even took to attacking him personally during the debates and on the campaign trail. Again those arguments and attacks have not been able to sway his minions. What the other candidates and the party leadership have failed to realize is that what Trump represents to his followers is hope. Hope for change from what many see as a decline of American exceptionalism and an abandonment of those ideals that made the United States both the envy of the world and the beacon of hope for many. This group feels that their way of life and their constitutional rights are under assault. They have witnessed good paying manufacturing and service jobs being exported to other countries and increasing regulations that adversely impact many businesses which in turn curtail hiring. Then there are the returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars who have come home to find poor employment prospects and their frustrations further exacerbated by a poorly run Veterans Administration that has precluded many of them from getting timely care. A growing number of coal mines are shutting down due to strict EPA regulations leaving thousands unemployed and many towns going into decline. Add to that the incendiary issue of illegal immigration, the prospects of taking in thousands of Syrian migrants and to what many seems like an attack on religious freedom and what you have is a perfect storm for a populist candidate like Donald Trump.
For the record I am not claiming to be a Trump supporter. I do not subscribe to his brand of politics nor his rhetoric. However, I recognize that he embodies the type of personality that those who do follow him are clamoring for. He offers them the hope that somehow all that is wrong with the country will somehow be fixed under his leadership. The problem is that Trump is using their anger as the means to advance his platform. He stokes the flames of resentment and bigotry by casting certain groups as the villains and as the root cause of all that is wrong with our country. It doesn’t help when there is a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House who have so far been ineffective in curbing the liberal agenda of the current administration. Trump points to the continuous failures by the Republican majority to advance any of the initiatives that a number of them campaigned on and for which they were elected. It appears to Trump’s supporters as though the Party establishment has acquiesced and is no longer listening to them. Trump offers them the promise that this will all change if he is elected president.
However, the reality is that even if Trump is elected president he will still need to work with the legislature to enact many if not all of the programs that he has campaigned on, whether it’s the wall on the Mexican border or enacting new immigration laws. He will have to soften his tone and become more conciliatory if he is to have any chance to implement his agenda. This may be a tall order for someone who always seems to manage to get his way, unless of course he takes the strong man approach and tries to bypass the Congress by appealing to the will of the masses. This would not be an advisable approach as his actions could violate our constitution and it would not bode well for the Republic.
It would be wise for the Republican Party leaders to recognize that the Trump train has left the station and is well on its way to the nomination barring a major shift in the polls. They need to acknowledge that this election is not about anger, nor about conservative ideology. It’s really about hope. In his own way Bernie Sanders has also tapped into people’s hopes. Somehow the Republican leadership must find a way to offer that same hope to those disaffected voters, which could mean that they must resign themselves to the inevitable and reconcile with Trump in order to unify the party or they must come up with a more effective strategy to derail him, although I believe that it may be too late in the primary season for the latter. Perhaps they need to borrow a page from Trump and negotiate a really great deal. In any event it is in the best interest of the country for all sides to dampen the rhetoric, calm the emotions and inject civility into the political discourse regardless of which political party ends up on top come November.