The nomination of Donald Trump for President by the Republican Party would be a watershed event in American politics. Only once before has a candidate with no political experience been nominated by a major political party to run for President. That single aberration was in 1940 when lawyer and corporate executive Wendell Willkie received the Republican nomination to run against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. It was Roosevelt’s third term, and World War II had begun. After FDR’s crushing victories in 1932 and 1936, few gave any Republican a chance at victory. Willkie was not an early favorite, but a dark horse candidate for the nomination who gathered strength as the major candidates squabbled and failed to gather a majority.
Other than being outsiders and former Democrats, Willkie was an early supporter of FDR, Trump and Willkie share little in common. Willkie was polite and highly respected. After his 1940 loss, he took a role in the Roosevelt administration during World War II as a roving ambassador. Trump’s vulgar politics are the opposite of everything that was respected in Willkie.
It is the meanness of Trump, coupled with an outsider image, that had made his campaign unique in American political history. There have been third-party candidates with acrimonious platforms, George Wallace in 1968 or the nativist Know-Nothings of the 1850s are examples. Yet in both Governor Wallace in 1968 and former President Millard Fillmore in 1856, the extremists chose experienced politicians. Candidates with little or no political experience who run as anger candidates tend to do very poorly.
The Democratic and Republican Parties have nominated candidates who represented the edges of the left and right, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater are examples. Those two senators, while often derided as extreme, were only a few steps to the left and right of the mainstream thinking in their parties. There nominations are not at all comparable to Trump’s possible nomination.
One of the elements that makes Trump candidacy both unusual and bizarre is that he does not have a firm ideology. Over his lifetime, Trump has been a Republican, then a Democrat and now a Republican. He has backed single-payer healthcare, like Bernie Sanders and has been pro-choice. An argument can be made that he has traditionally embraced the lost moderate wing of the Republican Party that was once occupied by Dwight Eisenhower, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller. The problem is that Trump’s views keep ebbing back and forth like a tide. He has embraced some very conservative positions, while still holding some liberal views. However, this still makes Trump the most liberal Republican left in the race. This is a striking development because it comes at a time when the Republican Party is at one of its most conservative moments in history.
There have been very wealthy businessmen who have desired the Presidency in the past. William Randolph Hearst was one, but after his newspapers contemplated the assassination of President William McKinley, only to have it happen, his political future faded. Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover had extensive careers in the businesses of newspapers and mining, but also served as a governor and member of the cabinet, respectively. Unlike Trump, they did not get a party nomination without any government experience.
While Trump runs a campaign as an outsider, he is an outsider in government experience only. Trump has a deep history playing the political game of contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike. While he claims not to be beholden to any special interests, he is a special interest in himself. In truth, Trump is the consummate insider. His special brand of chicanery allows him to play the outsider role when a large number of Americans are fed up with Washington politics. All that rests on deceit as Trump knows all the insider games and tricks. His campaign is built on lies and ego, probably two of the worst things to be found in a politician.
Trump’s candidacy rests on his appeal to white working class voters. That Trump, a rich kid, who inherited millions, is a hero to working class people is absurd. However, it is true. Trump has probably never worked a day in his life the way most Americans do or developed a callus on his hands. He has no cred as a working class hero, except for the carefully chosen demagoguery that comes from his mouth. It is meant not to uplift or sympathize with the working class, but create hate and blame.
Trump’s campaign is meant to profit on the little streaks of meanness that exist in all of us. This is a common thread found in many authoritarians from Mussolini to Hitler to tin-pot dictators throughout history. Trump is not a believer in the traditions of republicanism or democracy. He is an authoritarian through and through. His willingness to embrace torture and violate the fundamentals of the Geneva Convention expose that openly.
Trump’s demagoguery is a sign of the times that includes the widespread influence of conspiracists like Alex Jones and extremist publications like World Net Daily that care little for the truth. This is not unique to American history, but it had faded for much of the last century as fairly even-handed journalistic practices dominated when there were only three networks and many daily newspapers. The loss of a fair media has helped create the anti-politician furor that is sweeping Trump to the top of the Republican field.
If there is any hope, it is that the general common sense of the American voter will create a firewall from the demagoguery of Trump in November. Dangerous candidates rise and fall in American politics, but when a candidate strays from the mainstream views of his party, as Goldwater and McGovern did, it usually ends in a crushing defeat. The only difference with Trump is that he is a candidate without an ideology. He is guided primarily by ego. That is unique as a major contender in American politics. That is also what makes him one of the most dangerous and unpredictable politicians ever. He believes in nothing but himself. If elected, that represents a perilous and frightening future for American democracy.