How Perceptions of Donald Trump have Changed

Published on 2016/05/09

I am writing this from New York, where I am currently based. One of the things that has already struck me is just how different the view of Donald Trump is here compared with what people think in Germany and Europe. Yes, Trump is just as much a polarising figure in the USA. But, whereas almost all Germans – irrespective of their political leanings – are unanimous in their decisive rejection of Trump, the situation is quite different here.

Prominent Republican politicians such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney have aligned themselves behind Trump. At the same time, politicians including Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have declared that they will never be able to support Trump. Trump doesn’t make it easy for his (former) opponents, as recently revealed by the conservative broadcaster Fox News: He has branded anyone who doesn’t support him now as an oath breaker. In this regard, he’s actually correct: Fox News rebroadcast extracts from one of the earlier presidential debates, back when there were still 17 Republican candidates squaring off against each other. One of the panel of journalists asked the candidates to declare if they would NOT support the presidential nominee, assuming that they themselves were unsuccessful in their own campaigns. Only one of the candidates stepped forward: Donald Trump. Those who now come out and endorse Trump often have to deal with Trump’s ridicule as he openly regales his audiences with stories of how this Republican and that Republican have called him up to tell him that they have changed their minds and now want to offer their support. And Trump goes on to say that his response to their offers is to point out that, given their earlier negative statements, their revised opinions lack even a modicum of credibility.

Across the media landscape opinions are equally divided. Wherever you turn, Trump is the number one topic. One of the arguments put forward by conservatives is that Ronald Reagan was confronted by the exactly the same kind of flak that Trump now faces before he was president. Reagan then went on to become one of the best presidents the United States has ever seen. This line of argumentation has merit: In the USA, and even more so in Europe, Reagan was either mocked (because of his background as an actor) or demonised. In the fullness of time he became a great president, lifting America’s economy and making a significant contribution to the downfall of communism through his foreign and defence policies. Still, just because things worked out so well for Reagan is no guarantee that the same will be true for Trump.

In another opinion piece it was claimed that Trump gives a voice to ordinary Americans, to those who would otherwise be unheard. So what do ordinary people think? Disaffection with the political establishment is running high. This explains the successes enjoyed by the socialist Bernie Sanders among the Democrat’s rank and file, as well as Trump’s strong position on the Republican side of the aisle. I recently spoke with a taxi driver – a Moroccan who has been living in New York for the last 30 years. He told me that he will be voting Democrat, as he always does. He is clear in his support for Hillary Clinton. In his opinion, the Republicans have never stood up for the interests of little people like him. And yet he doesn’t find Trump quite as off-putting as the other Republican candidates. In the taxi driver’s eyes, Trump stands out because he is not part of the Washington establishment. New Yorkers know Trump, and he’s nowhere near as bad as some people are saying. But he still won’t be voting for Trump, admitted the Moroccan taxi driver.

Hillary Clinton has a clear lead over Trump in every single major opinion poll. Nevertheless, a growing number of journalists are cautioning people not to make the mistake of underestimating or writing off Trump’s chances. When primary season got underway almost nobody credited the outsider with a realistic chance of securing the presidential nomination. A clear majority in the media were guilty of massively underestimating Trump, admitted one unusually self-critical journalist.

Which is what makes it so difficult to predict the eventual outcome of these presidential elections. On the one hand, Trump is sure to mobilise huge numbers of the voters who oppose him – including those who would otherwise not normally bother to vote. I see parallels with Germany’s elections in 1980, when Franz-Josef Strauß, an outspoken conservative who was branded “right wing” by those on the left, campaigned for the Christian Democrats (CDU/CS) under the slogan “Freedom or Socialism”. Strauß managed to mobilise huge numbers of voters, unfortunately mostly among his opponents. Strauß scared large swathes of the electorate because he – just like Trump – was viewed as unpredictable, especially in terms of foreign and security policy. “Security for Germany. SPD” was the election slogan used by the social democrats as they campaigned against Strauß.

On the other hand, Trump is also mobilising considerable numbers of voters who would not normally back the Republicans. While the Democrats increasingly target the mobilisation of minorities, Trump has been targeting white, heterosexual Americans; those who feel that they have been left behind and ignored by establishment politics. This is a group that includes large numbers of blue collar workers, traditionally more likely to vote Democrat than Republican.

But Trump faces something of a dilemma, as many commentators have pointed out: On the one hand he has to become more “presidential” and, if he is to win the backing of voters from the centre, cannot afford to be such a polarising figure. And yet this is exactly what he has built his entire campaign around. The moment Trump ceases to polarise and begins to moderate the way he attacks his opponents is the moment he starts to become boring, opined one commentator. Trump simply can’t deal with audiences that don’t holler in response to his provocative and aggressive attacks.

The presidential election remains enthrallingly poised, despite Clinton’s seemingly unassailable lead.

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