OPINION: Trump, like McCarthy and Nixon, will learn America doesn't like demagogues
The Donald did it. He defied pundits, pollsters and a Republican #NeverTrump movement to become the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. But as Trump plots the next stages of his presidential bid he may want to reconsider his prioritization of demagogic politics.
While Trump's flair for the inflammatory served him well in GOP primary land, he now needs to win over the most diverse electorate in U.S. history. And that's after spending nearly 11 months serially offending nearly every part of it. Moving forward, the ever image conscious Trump may have more to worry about than merely losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton. In the general election, Trump's demagogic leanings could push him over an invisible line that divides public personality from persona non grata with the broader American public.
To be fair, there's more to Trump's policy stances and appeal than firebrand rhetoric. He connected with primary voters through strong anti-establishment tones, threads of economic populism and alignment with many traditional Republican positions.
But the unmistakable hallmarks of Trump's primary bid have focused on stoking anger, prejudice, and even violence to arouse media attention and voters. Thus far, the surprise GOP front-runner has perfected a campaign playbook of below the belt attacks, incendiary statements and misinformation. Trump's played footsie with the Klan and brought juvenile name calling to the forefront of 21st century presidential politics. His most recognizable proposals – the infamous Mexico wall, Muslim ban and immigrant deportation plans – are laced with ethnic and religious discrimination.
The ever opportunistic Trump, a transactional New Yorker, may have simply seen this as the art of the deal in winning over a cross section of angry GOP primary voters for the nomination. And by his calculus, given he's now pulled it off, it probably appears to be an effective strategy.
But employing questionable means to reach a noble end can bring unforeseen consequences. And moving forward in the general election by continuing to dredge up facets of America's historic darkside is a risky proposition. Trump may discover his silent majority is in fact a minority to mainstream American voters who are highly offended by his primary antics.
Trump is certainly not the first U.S. politician to trade heavily in fear, insults, and distortion for personal gain. Richard Nixon dabbled in destructive politics. His Watergate "Plumbers," who maligned journalists and sabotaged political opponents, were an extension of that. We know how that worked out for the legacy of the 37th president.
One of America's most recognized firebrands, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, shot to national prominence stoking 1950s Cold War anxiety. While Trump's prime targets have been Muslims and Mexicans, McCarthy crafted his populist rise claiming the country had been infiltrated up to its highest levels by communists. At first, McCarthy found traction with his red-baiting, becoming a national media figure through his televised, witch-hunt style, congressional hearings. But when little substance surfaced, rather than recant, the senator upped his sensationalist attacks toward anyone who questioned him. By the mid-1950s, McCarthy's bombast and bluster had proven too much for the American public. He was formally condemned by the U.S. Senate, famously skewered by journalist Edward R. Murrow, and generally ostracized for the remainder of his life.
Shifting back to Trump, he and his campaign seem a bit confused as to whether or how to pivot toward a new congenial, less offensive and more presidential tone. Similar to McCarthy, Trump may never be able (nor want) to change course or distance himself from his most repugnant remarks. But if he chooses to double down on the politics of demagoguery, which his recent Hillary Clinton "gender card" attacks and insult riddled sparring with Sen. Elizabeth Warren indicate he may, he does so at his own peril.
Pollsters are still trying to determine whether Trump's surprise rise reflects an unforeseen national movement or an anomaly driven by an ideologically gerrymandered GOP. There is increasing evidence indicating the latter. Shifting from Republican voters to the general public, Trump's negatives are at record highs. But rather than becoming just another unfavorable politician, in many circles Trump risks becoming a pariah. On the entertainment front, in addition to NBC and Univision severing ties, the Donald's derogatory remarks have spurred a movement to remove his Hollywood star. Trump's nomination has prominent Republicans skipping endorsements and the Cleveland convention. Pressed by women and minority activist groups, many blue chip U.S. corporations are reportedly rethinking their sponsorship of the GOP affair.
If Trump continues his status quo of campaigning for the highest office in the land slinging insults, bullying and bigotry he risks losing more than the race. The biggest loser in a demagogic Trump presidential bid could be his legacy.