Australian Financial Review
By David Smith
On Friday morning (Australian time), Donald Trump will take the stage alongside eight seasoned politicians in the first debate for Republican presidential hopefuls. Trump currently leads all of them in the polls.
His rise has been stunning. He has threatened twice before to run for president without doing so, and his candidacy at first seemed like another publicity stunt. The media and other candidates refused to take him seriously. This awakened a fury in Trump that drives his campaign now, an out-of-control war rig inflicting chaos on his own side.
Trump has no use for political decorum. As his party struggles to win back Latino voters, he denounces Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists. He scoffs at John McCain's heroism in a Vietnam POW camp, saying he prefers people who don't get captured. When fellow candidate Lindsay Graham denounces him as a "jackass", he publicises Graham's personal phone number.
The more people he offends, the more people Trump wins over. In a party that increasingly believes government is the root of all evil, Trump is the authentic anti-politician. Do not expect him to tone it down as the elections draw nearer. The moment he does that, he ceases to be relevant.
He is unlikely to win. As strong an impression as he makes now, the Republican establishment will get its revenge when the voting starts. To win a primary you need the support of party leaders or grass-roots activists, and Trump has neither. His natural constituency is people who hate politics.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take him seriously. His numbers might be inflated by celebrity, but he has also tapped into something fundamental on his side of politics – a yearning for an all-powerful United States. He embodies the fantasies that many Republicans have dreamed up in response to Barack Obama's presidency.
HOLDING THE COUNTRY BACK
For the past six years, various Republican leaders have fostered the belief that Obama is not really on the United States' side. As a pseudo-candidate in 2011, Trump championed the ugliest version of this — the claim that Obama was not even born in the United States. While he has abandoned the search for the President's real birth certificate, Trump continues to suggest that Obama is holding the country back.
Obama's nativist opponents believe he has surrendered the United States' sovereignty. They see a continuing influx of illegal immigrants as proof the nation no longer controls its borders. Obama's refusal to deport immigrants who were brought illegally as children amounts to treason in their eyes.
Trump simply advocates walling the entire country off from Mexico: "I will build the wall and Mexico's going to pay for it."
For those who don't share Trump's estimation of his negotiating skills, it's hard to imagine Mexico agreeing to this deal. But plenty of Americans feel this is exactly what their country should expect. Why should the world's military and moral superpower accept anything less than total deference from others? Why does the country that brought the Soviet Union to its knees now shrink from confrontations with lesser powers? It is only their own politicians, they believe, who stand in the United States' way.
The long-awaited deal to limit Iran's nuclear program is the sorest point of all for believers in untrammelled American supremacy. In fiery congressional hearings last week, Representative Tom Perry, of Pennsylvania, told Secretary of State John Kerry he should have got a better deal, "and if the Ayatollah doesn't like it, and he doesn't want to negotiate it, oh boo hoo, we're here for America".
CLUELESS NEGOTIATING TEAM
Trump has similarly claimed Obama sent a clueless negotiating team, while "the Persians are great negotiators". The man who wrote The Art of the Deal would have done it differently: "We should double-up and triple-up the sanctions and have them come to us," he suggested. "The negotiation should have taken a week. That's because I'm being generous."
Such actions, in real life, would have lost the support of all other countries and redoubled Tehran's defiance. But that isn't the point.
Obama has finally begun to craft a foreign policy that doesn't rest on the shaky assumption of American omnipotence. He knows that to stop Iran from seeking a bomb he must negotiate, not humiliate. He understands that treating Cuba as a Cold War foe 25 years after the Cold War ended hasn't brought the end of communism any closer. He co-operates with rival powers when he knows the United States can't go it alone. And he refuses invitations into wars that his country would not have the stomach to fight.
That is hard to swallow for Republicans whose idea of a real president is one who tough-talks other countries into submission, an idealised version of Ronald Reagan that not even Ronald Reagan could live up to. Trump is winning for now because he makes promises amazing enough for them to believe.
This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review