Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tom Steiger:

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 30 August 2015

What would the ratings be for these early Republican presidential debates without Donald Trump? What are the indirect effects as well? How much more are people reading early presidential primary coverage just because of him? Arguably, no doubt it will be by Trump himself, that he is a job creator just given the coverage he receives.

The political professional class explains his rise to frontrunner among a jammed field because he is “just” tapping the frustrations and anger among a swath of the electorate. That swath appears to be growing then, as his poll numbers continue to rise despite gaffe after gaffe and his insistence on not playing by the “rules.” He’s such a “bad boy” demagogue.

A more sociological explanation would be to think about “authority.” Presidential aspirants campaign on three threads. The first is their qualifications to be president, which is not extensive, only to be a natural-born citizen and at least 35 years old. Taxi drivers have more formal qualifications than that. A traditional qualification for presidential authority is that the candidate be male, white and “successful” (meaning either rich and/or having some power in their life up to the point of running for president). No one questions if we are ready for a successful white male to be president.

Other informal qualifications matter, too. Can a woman be president, is America ready for an African American president, is s/he too old, is s/he too young. Of course, President Obama did not fit one of those traditional qualifications, but this has not led to a groundswell of otherwise racially diverse candidates. Tradition is a powerful force in politics, like going to Iowa.

The last thread is the plan to fix whatever is wrong with America. Funny how candidates never say, “America is great, don’t fix what is not broken, I promise to not change a thing.” One unstated qualification to be president apparently is to think America is not great and needs substantial, fundamental, radical change, that is unless you are the incumbent, then you “stay the course.”

Sometimes It’s not enough that our presidential candidates be people of accomplishment, whether it be deal maker, reality TV star, noted neurosurgeon, governor, senator, former CEO of a tech company, or be a white male natural-born citizen, the candidate that inspires devotion to them and their plan is going to be the candidate to beat. And that candidate must answer the big questions her/his following has. The mundane questions are answered in policy briefings, such as fixing all the programs that are messed up, even the ones that are not. What I am referring to here are the really big questions like “how to make American great again”, or “how to have a political revolution,” “how to achieve the higher ground”, “how to make the new century an American one” (that’s already 15 years old), “how to reignite the promise of America,” “how to create a ‘right to rise,’” among many others.

These three threads match up well to what sociologists see as three societal sources of authority: bureaucratic authority flows from technical qualifications; traditional authority flows from long-standing practices and; charismatic authority flows from devotion to the individual’s exceptional qualities, “heroism” or exemplary character, and the answers the individual provides to important questions. It is charismatic authority that is driving Donald Trump to frontrunner status. I am not a Trump supporter, but I can see that he inspires personal devotion through his acts of “heroism” (making disparaging remarks about women, disrespecting the press [who are only doing their jobs], being crass and crude), and his exemplary character focused on his business exploits and personal flair (reality star). Plus he offers simple fixes (“it’s simple, George, it’s simple”) to the big (political) questions of the day: how to make American great again. Send back the immigrants and make Mexico build a wall to keep its people in, take our jobs back from the Chinese, stop being PC, get tough with the Saudis and force them to pump more oil, seize the oil fields in Iraq, stop taxing rich people (corporations), but tax those corporations that export jobs overseas.

As I finish this essay, Trump’s poll numbers have increased to 32 percent of Republican voters. Trump dominates the news with more vitriol toward Megyn Kelly and throws Univision’s Jorge Ramos out of a press conference. Trump’s growing legion of devoted followers may see these actions as “heroism” and exceptional character, not boorish, racist or misogynist.
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