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The following column by Tom Pauken originally appeared in TribTalk, a publication of The Texas Tribune.
Donald Trump has made a mess of things in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. What was expected to be a race between establishment favorite Jeb Bush and a conservative challenger emerging from a large field has instead turned into a campaign between the outsider Trump and everyone else.
Before Trump entered the race, Scott Walker was expected to win the Iowa caucuses (with Ted Cruz hoping to pull an upset), while Bush was the favorite in New Hampshire. Now, Trump is running first in both states—and just about everywhere else.
Is this just a fleeting moment of political fame for someone with a huge ego who has built a business empire? Or is there something more fundamental transpiring on the American political scene? I believe it is the latter. Trump is tapping into a deep-seated feeling among Americans that our country is in decline, that this decline seems almost irreversible and that only a strong leader coming to power can turn the situation around and "make America great again."
Trump has hit a nerve with the sense of frustration out there among those he calls the "silent majority." This frustration is fueled in part by the perception that we have lost control of our borders, that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from American workers and keeping wages low, that the trade deals touted by the political elites strengthen nations like China and weaken America, and that politicians look out for the interests of those with the big bucks rather than average Americans.
Along comes Trump, a man of action, who promises to secure our borders, end the bad trade deals, stop China from taking advantage of us economically, and bring jobs home to America. Guess what? His message resonates. Voters clearly see that Trump is not part of the "political elite" whom so many Americans have come to despise. So, they sign up to "make America great again."
Let's take immigration policy as an example. Trump is no fool. While he has made a number of seemingly outrageous statements to draw attention to the issue, it is a serious problem that Washington elites have ignored. Trump was smart enough to seek the advice of the most respected conservative in Congress on that issue, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who helped draft Trump's proposals. While most politicians ignore the growing problem of Muslim immigration, Trump tackled it head on by proposing to make it more difficult for Muslims to gain legal entry into the United States. So, his immigration plan isn't just about building a wall.
This leads to another factor that accounts for Trump's solid core of support—his scorn for the scourge of political correctness. In this day and age, people are scared to death of saying anything that might be construed as politically incorrect for fear that their comments could get them in trouble or cost them their jobs. Not Trump. He oozes "political incorrectness." Note the furor over his use of the term "anchor babies" to describe a situation in which women come into the U.S. illegally to give birth to their child to get American citizenship for their baby. When criticized for using this term, Trump blithely shrugs it off as much ado about nothing. There is a certain admiration for a guy who won't be cowered by the media elite's determination as to what one can or cannot say.
Then, there is the money issue. Like a lot of rich businessmen, Trump has contributed to politicians across the board to further his business interests. The term used for this process is "pay to play," and it crosses party lines. When challenged by GOP critics for his contributions to Democratic politicians, his response is to bluntly admit he is buying access but then to say he is so rich that he won't be bought, unlike most other politicians. There is an element of truth in what he says.
More Americans have a sense of desperation, amounting almost to a feeling of despair about the future of our once great nation. It makes it tempting to register a protest vote for someone like Trump to signal one's anger at the failure of Washington insiders to represent the interests of mainstream Americans.
Yet, when all is said and done, it is hard to see Trump as anything other than another "false prophet" who won't lead us out of the wilderness, but could set us up for even more trying and difficult times in the future were he to win.
I wish I could feel otherwise.
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