This week, Donald Trump called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US‘, a discriminatory statement that has seemed to have acted as a watershed moment in how we look at Trump, the would-be POTUS.
His speech was not unique but one in a succession of offensive and hateful remarks and actions which, as well as Muslims, has also been directed at Mexicans, women and disabled people. Each time his words were admonished but he has largely remained a figure of fun.
The jocular way in which we have often viewed and reported on Donald Trump has, I believe, been a contributing factor in giving him the air to make these repulsive remarks. It is understandable to a point. He is the most internationally recognisable of all the candidates, his aggressive soundbites are clickbait/social media sharing/viral inducing heaven and has added a plot twist to what had previously felt like a Hillary Clinton coronation in 2016. Much like the obligatory pantomime villain in his reality TV shows, people wanted Trump to hang around for as long as possible, if only for entertainment purposes.
I am as guilty as anyone for falling into this trap. I watched the GOP debates, for the same reason as I watch Question Time. I know I’m going to dislike one of the candidates, I know I’m going to get wound up by what they say, I know I’m going to have to enter a state of self-enforced Twitter embargo for fear of ‘tweeting’ something that will later come back to haunt me, but I watch anyway. I laugh at what he says, not because I think he’s genuinely funny, but because of the sheer ridiculous of it all. You could argue that I have been a subconscious apologist for Trump.
‘He is a joke.’
‘People can’t actually take him seriously.’
‘He will never win.’
But here lies the problem. We’ve had it wrong for too long.
He is not a joke and his words are not funny. They are inflammatory and dangerous.
People do. They listen. They agree.
His poll ratings suggest differently. He just might.
For too long we have grossly underestimated Donald Trump, as has always been the case, perhaps. When we think of ‘The Donald’ we think of gaudy corporate ventures of a bygone era, plastering his name over anything he can lay his hands on. We think of Celebrity Apprentice with La Toya Jackson, Piers Morgan and Cyndi Lauper. We think of his ‘hair’.
A fading B list celebrity Trump is not, however. This is a guy who has seen four businesses file for bankruptcy yet has retained his power and his wealth, a fortune which is estimated by Forbes to stand at $4.5 billion. It takes a certain type of individual to do that, an unpleasant one maybe, but not one who should be dismissed lightly. Just ask the people of Balmedie, Aberdeenshire.
Arianna Huffington’s ‘A Note on Trump’, was refreshing, a promise to ‘remind our audience who Trump is and what his campaign really represents’ should be commended; far too often media outlets lack the honesty necessary to effective report on people like Trump.
However, the decision to originally cover Trump’s presidential campaign in Huffington Post’s Entertainment section was, admittedly with hindsight, part of the problem. Their reasoning that ‘Trump’s campaign is a sideshow’ has been proven to be incorrect. Indeed, quite the opposite has happened; Trump, through a succession of calculated (yes they are calculated) diatribes has shaped the debate, sidelining many of his fellow GOP candidates on the 14 strong list. Jeb Bush, the early favourite, is all but out of the race with his poll ratings hovering around 3 points. Admittedly this is as much for his own failings, amplified by the TV debates, but he more than most has struggled with Trump’s direction of travel.
The consensus has been all along that Trump cannot possibly win, that the Republican flirtation with the anti-establishment, hardline, straight talking candidate will come to an end in time, just as it had done with Sarah Palin four years ago. Maybe this is why we were too slow in reacting to the reality and the ramifications of Trump’s candidacy and his rhetoric, preferring to view him as a ‘washed-up insult comic’.
Well this ‘washed-up insult comic’ has a 15 point poll lead. Many are still convinced that Trump will not win the early states or expand far beyond his core vote and will therefore be unable to gain the Republican nomination, never mind win the subsequent Presidential election. Nevertheless, as Gary Younge articulates, the ‘hate speech confined to the margins of political life is now out and proud in the mainstream.’ Whether or not Trump wins, his poll ratings stand at 30 (a figure that has increased by about 5 points since the Paris attacks). When combined with Ben Carson’s rating of 15, a man who compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs, it paints a poor picture of the social and political landscape within the Republican Party. If you also consider fellow nominees like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have consistently failed to refute the vast majority of Trump’s attacks, never mind effectively challenge him, it adds legitimacy to Trump’s candidature and his ‘views’.
This is the crux of the issue. We can dismiss Trump as a joke, mock his hypocrisy and repeat the phase ‘yes but he win never win.’ However, the fact remains that he is not a man shouting in a dark room on his own. He has a platform to speak, people are listening and, worst of all, they are agreeing.
What Donald Trump said yesterday had echoes of one of the darkest periods of human history and has, rightly, been condemned by many. But given his previous ‘policy idea’ for creating a database for Muslims, describing Mexicans as ‘rapists’, mocking a disabled reporter and a history littered with misogyny and many other allegations, we should have taken his comments and their impact more seriously, sooner.
We are finally waking up to ‘The Donald’ and not before time. We aren’t finding his jokes funny anymore; let’s stop buying tickets to his show.