Newsmakers 2015: Donald Trump’s populist ascent

The Donald changed the race, whether or not he wins the nomination

Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty

Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty

The folks at Saturday Night Live, of all people, must know the hazards of mocking the ridiculous. Nothing Donald Trump did during his recent turn as guest host of NBC’s sketch-comedy mainstay was going to eclipse the comic surrealism of things he’s said in sincerity—from his assertion that he’s “a leader” on women’s issues to his claim that Mexicans love him. Sure enough, the much-anticipated appearance of “the Donald” on Nov. 7 proved a squib: weak skits playing off Trump’s megalomania and his white man’s lack of rhythm paled next to his actual personality.

So why bother inviting him in the first place? Ratings, baby, ratings. Since he clattered last June into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump’s appearances have without fail yanked all eyes to centre stage, where the 69-year-old has laughed off fellow candidates as losers, dabbled in bigotry and generally plumbed new depths in American political discourse. In a rambling speech announcing his candidacy, he branded illegal Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers and rapists—slurs he subsequently repeated. In later interviews, he ridiculed U.S. military allies in the Middle East, saying they “run like bandits” at the sound of a single gunshot.

For the basest elements of the U.S. conservative base, it was the equivalent of a sugar rush. The tough-talking mogul they know from The Apprentice is tantalizingly close to “firing” the unapologetic liberal in the White House, and never mind that Trump’s offensive remarks prompted NBC to cancel his show. After entering a field of 14 candidates in June, Trump soared to the front of the pack within three weeks, maintaining a lead through the fall over pedigreed contenders like Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Washington veterans like Sen. Marco Rubio. At press time, Trump held 26.8 per cent support among Republicans, 4.5 points ahead of Ben Carson.

Trump’s fusion of demagogic populism with train-wreck television is instantly recognizable to Canadians who followed the rise of Rob Ford. Like the former Toronto mayor, Trump infuriates adversaries through audacity, claiming, for instance, that “there’s nobody bigger or better at the military” than him, when in fact he took four student and two medical deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam. He has styled himself a business visionary, despite the bankruptcies of four of his enterprises, and a net worth that ranks him in the little leagues of global capitalism. To the dismay of feminists, and despite his history of sexist remarks, he remains surprisingly popular with Republican women.

But hard as it is to reconcile his ascent, it’s even harder to stop watching. Supporters tune in to hear him fulminate against real enemies of America (ISIS), and perceived ones (China, Mexico, Barack Obama). Haters look on with horrid fascination, wondering what he’ll blurt out next, and for conventional conservative leaders, there’s little oxygen to spare—which may explain why Trump’s closest rival in the polls, Carson, is a man no less prone to incendiary opinion and off-the-board policy positions than Trump is.

The next great question: Can Trump translate his popularity into a nomination? As the February caucuses draw near, Republican voters typically start considering not only whom they like, but who might win. The Democrats, for their part, appear settled on Hillary Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state who for eight years called the White House home. Her persona is repellent to many voters, but no more, perhaps, than Trump’s boorishness. And for U.S. conservatives, the idea of another Clinton in the Oval Office is about as funny as those skits on SNL.

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