There is little doubt that the rise of Donald Trump in the polls is a result of widespread disgust with a contemptuous establishment, as I noted back in June and as Allan Brownfeld and Peter Spiliakos argue, from somewhat different perspectives, this week. Brownfeld writes that Trump “seems to realize that the right-wing cliches which are brought out of storage every four years for voters in Iowa and other unrepresentative states have nothing to do with how Republicans govern once in office,” and Spiliakos notes that “The Republican establishment has created a sense among many members of the Party’s coalition that it doesn’t matter what politicians say during the election season, and it doesn’t matter what politicians want.”
All of that is true enough. But Trump’s rise also is the result of the specific issues he has been talking about, primarily immigration and trade. A CNN poll this week shows that 45% of Republicans named Trump as the candidate best suited to handle the economy and 44% named him as the best candidate to handle illegal immigration. The second choice on both issues was Jeb Bush, at 8% and 12%. Back in June, when CNN asked the same questions, Bush was named by 20% of Republicans as the candidate best suited to handle the economy, followed by Trump at 19%, and Bush was named by 25% as the best candidate to handle illegal immigration, followed by Trump at 13%. Since then, of course, voters were able to watch the candidates debate, a debate which highlighted Trump’s outspokenness on immigration and distinctiveness on trade, issues that have long mattered to many Americans but that many politicians would rather not talk about.
Much attention has been devoted to Trump’s style. But the surprising thing to learn from his current surge in the polls may be that issues still matter in American politics.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.