Like a tornado or a typhoon, the political tsunami that is Donald Trump is a complex coalescence of current and historical forces whose unforeseen speed and power threatens to wreak havoc on the 2016 political landscape.
Some of these forces formed the subtext for the latest Republican debate Tuesday night. They’re among at least 12 specific factors that have helped to create what could prove for Republicans to be a perfect storm – or a historic disaster:
▪ The reshaping of the two main political parties. It has produced a more liberal, better educated and wealthier Democratic party with many minorities and a more conservative, blue collar, less educated, predominantly white GOP. The latter groups provide substantial support to Trump.
▪ The slow recovery from the Great Recession. It left many middle-income Americans struggling to stay afloat economically and keep their homes. The growing gap between rich and poor, and the resulting resentment, has fueled the two main anti-establishment candidates, Republican Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders.
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▪ Antagonism toward President Barack Obama. It often extends beyond differences over policies and opposition to his aggressive use of executive power to a more personal level, including the strains of racism manifest among Birthers who denied the President’s Hawaiian roots and contended he was born in Kenya. A significant portion of Republicans believe that, including Trump.
▪ Republicans want a strong leader. They believe Obama hasn’t stood up sufficiently for American exceptionalism, apologized too much for the country’s past failings and is a weak leader against global terrorism, underestimating for political reasons the danger to the homeland.
▪ Reaction to the last Republican presidency. Many “small government” Republicans accused George W. Bush of overspending both at home and abroad and strongly opposed the 2008 Wall Street bailout, two factors that helped spawn the tea party.
▪ Republican support for so-called “outsider” candidates. It stems from the belief the GOP establishment nominated weak, insufficiently conservative presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012 and the anger that its congressional majorities failed to repeal Obamacare and stop other presidential initiatives.
▪ The growing cultural divide. Many Republicans are turned off by the cultural liberalism of the two coasts – embrace of secular attitudes in general and of gay marriage in particular – and tend to reflect the more traditional attitudes of middle America. Religious conservatives form a significant component of the modern GOP, especially in Iowa and the South, though Trump is not their first choice.
▪ Immigration concerns spurred by trade agreements. The two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership have exacerbated long-standing economic and racial fears that immigration, both legal and illegal, threatens American jobs.
▪ Resistance to renewed U.S. overseas military involvement. Years of bloody and inconclusive wars in the Middle East have taken a toll on domestic support for sending troops into foreign entanglements. The all-volunteer army has meant that its victims, both dead and injured, are more likely to come from mainstream Americans than the wealthy elites.
▪ Renewal of anti-foreign attitudes. Such attitudes have recurred throughout American history, from the know-nothings of the 19th Century to the pre-World War II isolationists, accompanied occasionally by virulent strains of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-black feelings and, more recently, by antagonism towards Mexican and Muslims.
▪ An increasingly intensive, competitive media environment. The expanded emphasis on television ratings and internet clicks has helped Trump’s outrageous comments and outsized personality to dominate coverage, forcing rivals to spend time responding to him and scrambling for attention while overshadowing serious policy discussions.
▪ Trump’s inherent abilities as a salesman and his celebrity prominence. They have enabled him to personify the GOP’s anti-establishment attitudes. Polls generally show he has both the largest plurality support within the party and stirs the strongest opposition among those backing his rivals – and among non-Republicans.
The last point explains why serious Republican analysts such as Karl Rove question if he can be elected and suggest he threatens the GOP with an historic defeat in an election its leaders have every reason for hoping it can win. They fear that, if the party rejects him, he'll mount an independent candidacy that would doom their chances though he again ruled that out Tuesday.
Only next year’s caucus and primary voters can tell if the Trump tsunami will continue to gain strength, blow itself out if it encounters significant resistance, or if it will – as most giant storms do – cause significant damage to the GOP’s 2016 landscape.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.