That joke isn’t funny anymore

The possibility of Donald Trump becoming the world’s most powerful person may have seemed like a joke a year ago (at least, to anyone but him), but now the reality is dawning that it might actually happen. He looks like a shoe-in for the Republican nomination now and will certainly give Hilary Clinton a run for her money in the main race.

It would be easy to scoff at the rise of Trump and to feel secure that anyone who is informed about the world wouldn’t go anywhere near voting for him.  The reality though is more complex – and sobering.

Yes, he quite clearly has no knowledge of the world, little understanding of politics, no policy content and the political views he ‘articulates’ in his speeches represent a series of lazy, ill-informed, far-right prejudices.

Yet this is not a problem for many of the people whose support he is gaining.  They don’t need to know the detail of what he plans to do about the problems he is identifying – beyond knee-jerk statements such as ‘build a wall to stop the Mexicans coming in’ – as this isn’t what many people are looking for.  Nor do they need to realise that he is the one person that will do least to promote their interests as the mass of American society, or as the economically disadvantaged end.

The fact is, they’re angry and scared (for various reasons – from lack of economic opportunity to race), and they’re looking for someone who represents their views – and this is often about identifying with a particular person and their worldview rather than the detail or substance of what they are saying.

So this is Trump’s core audience – and it is a substantial one.  There appears to be little that other candidates can do to reach this audience on this occasion, as it has become connected to a person, rather than actively considering candidates on a policy level.

The audience we really have to worry about though is the group of people that is jumping on the bandwagon as support for Trump grows, as these are the voters and political figures that could get him over the threshold of the White House. This broad group includes various sections of people, including:

– Political opportunists – members of the political elite who see which way the wind is blowing and don’t want to be prevented (by something as inconvenient or minor as their principles, say) from being behind the winner when the result is announced. An example of this group are the other Republican candidates who were ripping shreds out of Trump a few weeks ago but have since undergone a Damascene conversion to his cause and are now publically backing him.
– Party loyalists – voters who are inclined to put party political loyalty before a realistic analysis of what the candidate offers (‘I must support Trump in order to keep the Democrats out’).
– Floating voters – people without a particularly strong political affiliation but who like to look out for their own interests when voting. These people may be inclined to vote for Trump as the support builds for his campaign, as they feel comfortable going with the populist flow, can see how he might benefit them and are able to rationalise the less pleasant bits of Trump’s views to themselves because lots of other people are supporting him now (the ‘other people like him – he can’t be that bad’ argument).

The members of each of these segments in this overall group may intensely disagree with Trump’s views and may even believe him to be dangerous, but may all be inclined to turn a blind eye to the reality of the Republican candidate before them and the dangers he poses, party due to ideology or the pursuit of their own interests and partly because the bandwagon is gathering pace and it doesn’t seem so bad to get involved when lots of other people are doing so.  But, as history shows us, when seemingly rational, informed groups of people ‘turn a blind eye’ like this, things can go very wrong indeed.

The positive conclusion to draw here is that it is still possible to persuade this group to support another candidate, and this is the group that we – and anyone wishing to influence the result of the election from afar – need to focus on.  But the negative conclusion is that there is a real danger of Trump getting in, with perfectly rational people voting for him – and very few of them will be doing so on the basis of his policies.

So, Trump is not a joke – he’s a real threat.  Now is not the time to simply sit back and watch in bemusement or horror as his campaign builds momentum.  Now is the time to start taking action to show people the level of the threat they are facing, and do everything we can to help the Democratic candidate to get over the line.

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