On a recent trip to Australia, many of my former colleagues and friends asked about current election-year politics in the U.S. and how specifically Donald Trump could be the leading contender for the Republican Party nomination. They were generally incredulous that Trump could be nominated and possibly become the United State’s President and future leader of the democratic free world. In discussions with others from Europe, the inquiries and disbelief followed similar themes. How could someone who advocates banning Muslims be America’s next President?
The explanation to Donald Trump’s election primary success should not be that surprising. It follows similar election themes that are sweeping the world.
First, there is a recent anti-incumbent theme that is clearly evident in recent elections. Polls have suggested people everywhere are tired of politicians who say one thing and do something else. They are critical of politicians who do not solve their nation’s problems, apparently benefit from or at least tolerate graft and corruption, and are unable to move the economy forward creating jobs and economic opportunity.
This anti-incumbent trend seems pervasive. In Europe, recent elections in Poland, Ireland, Portugal. Spain, Slovakia and elsewhere have resulted in a change in government or diminished majorities. In Latin America, popular will has turned against incumbent governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Current Presidents who sought additional years in office are stepping down when terms end in Bolivia and Ecuador because they lack public support to continue.
In Africa, Nigeria recently voted out of office President Jonathan Goodluck. Elsewhere, current leaders often retain their position through force and corruption. In Asia, Myanmar has a new government.
In North America, the conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, lost his post when the Liberal Party led by Justin Treudeau won by a wide margin. In Australia, the Prime Minister was replaced by his Liberal Party and their coalition partner because of lagging popularity.
It is not surprising that U.S. incumbent politicians are also encountering resistance. President Obama cannot run for reelection, but his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has had difficulty securing the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination despite facing what appeared to be token opposition. She is the closest candidate to being considered an incumbent.
The contest for the Republican nomination began with seventeen formal candidates. The more mainstream, traditional politicians like Jeb Bush fared poorly and dropped out of the race. The remaining top candidates are anti-incumbent candidates, namely Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump is the most outspoken, high profile anti-incumbent, but Ted Cruz seems to be as anti-establishment as Trump.
A second theme that seems to cut across geography is an anti-immigrant theme. Trump blames Mexican immigrants on many of the nation’s problems and advocates rounding up 11 to 12 million undocumented residents and pushing them out of the country, which is completely impractical and would devastate the economy but gets headline attention. Cruz, like Trump, sees benefit in building more walls and hiring more border guards on the border with Mexico despite recent data that indicates more Mexicans are going south than north across the Border.
In Europe, anti-immigrant parties have been steadily increasing their presence and influence, even before the Syrian refugee crisis. The National Front Party in France is expected to challenge for the Presidency in the next election and has won local elections more recently. The UK Independence Party seems to be supported by 10% to 15% of the UK voting populace. Anti-immigrant parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Danish People’s Party, Norway’s Progress Party, Sweden Democrats, and Netherlands’ Party of Freedom all are gaining increased attention and likely support for their anti-immigrant philosophy.
Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rant fits the international theme of blaming immigrants for perceived national economic weakness. In the U.S., Senator Cruz mirrors Trump’s positions.
Trump’s progress is also encouraged by the unique American primary nominating process. On average, Trump receives between 30% and 40% of the Republican vote. He had not received the actual majority vote in any primary. Because of multiple candidates, 35% is enough for a plurality. He seems to have a loyal base of disgruntled white, conservative male voters, which gives him a plurality in divided contests. Self-identified Republicans only constitute about 25% of the American electorate suggesting Trump’s attraction to the general American electorate would be comparably small. There is nothing to suggest he can ever realize a majority vote, especially when Democratic Party and independent voters are included.
Donald Trump’s progress should be no surprise. His anti-incumbent and anti-immigrant themes attract a minority group of voters that is sufficient to win a plurality within conservative Republican primaries. If nominated, he will almost certainly lose a general election in a landslide unless the Democrats nominate a professed Socialist.