Trump challenges tradition, but his voter support not yet tested

Donald Trump has shaken up the political scene. But his candidacy may be more about the American people than only the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump defies all the usual expectations. He makes statements that are easily proved untrue. He bluntly attacks Muslims, Mexicans, women, the media and his opponents. His tactics, usually presented in an almost affable style, get massive free coverage.

He exudes supreme self-confidence. No matter what he says, his popularity persists.

Trump tops the polls, essentially leading the GOP pack for months. In fact, his aura may depend on his relatively high poll standings. It’s not clear if he would fade out if his poll standing slides or he loses a primary.

With questionable polling and a still-crowded GOP field, we may not yet know how well Trump is doing with the voters. And if he is doing well, what does his success say about the voters and the political temperament of the country?

The answer to the first question will begin to emerge in a month. While the February 1 Iowa caucus participants are hardly representative of voters across the country and probably not even in Iowa, the pundits will surely analyze caucus result for sweeping insights.

By March 1, there will have been enough primaries to let his opponents know if Trump really is the candidate to beat. Just two more months to wait.

From the outset, his opponents have suggested he cannot win the GOP nomination, because he offends too many people. Even if he is nominated, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, is said to be ecstatic at having such an easy opponent to beat in the general election.

Most of his competitors and many media analysts assume that Trump’s actions and statements are out of line with “traditional American values.” They argue that most voters will show they stick to these values when they stop responding to pollsters and start voting.

His opponents and critics believe that regular voters will turn out and reject him. Besides, if Trump appeals to people who have usually been on the political sidelines, it is not certain they will show up at caucuses and primaries.

The possibility that primary voters will back Trump and ignore the proclaimed traditional American values is underlying the concern about his candidacy. He can only succeed if enough people believe in him as a possible president, even if they understand his message is more bluster than real substance.

Heralded traditional American values may not be all that traditional. Take immigration. The American political scene has always included many who oppose accepting new immigrants with different backgrounds from their own. For example, from 1882 to 1943, federal law excluded Chinese immigrants.

Are people worried about the coming change in the composition of the population that will yield a country in which the majority is composed of people of color and not people who look like themselves or Trump?

In the past few decades, the country has changed. Federal laws now require the equal treatment of people, including immigrants, based on a wide range of possible characteristics. Though this equality is not reliably honored, equal treatment has become a traditional American value.

Also, from the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Americans have been accustomed to a bold foreign policy, fostering the belief that the U.S. can take whatever action it wants in the world and other nations must fall in line. Even if, at times, this belief has been based more on tough talk than on fact, it’s traditional.

However, instead of believing America can impose its will on other countries, the U.S. now participates in many international organizations and agreements. It actively seeks to form “coalitions” to pursue common objectives. Other countries do not automatically follow the U.S. lead.

Trump says he wants to “make America great again.” That seems to mean he promises to restore the policies and actions of an earlier period of American history. To do that, he faces the massive task of gaining the help of Congress and a broad national consensus.

Possibly, he is merely stroking those longing for a way of life and world power that is disappearing. Even if the change to a nation with no dominant racial and religious group and the recognition of limits on American power are inevitable, Trump may make some people feel better about their country.

The electoral process will tell us if Trump has staying power. Perhaps more importantly, it may tell us about the values, hopes and fears of the American people.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.