After the latest primaries, Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination for presidential candidate. Even two years ago, this would have been inconceivable. Now it is coming true.
People around the world laughed about Ronald Reagan gaining the nomination in 1980, forgetting that the former cowboy actor had been a career politician for decades. Reagan was Governor of California between the ‘Summer of Love’ and the Fall of Saigon. Trump is different.
If he wins, Trump will be the first President who has never contested or won any previous political office since…when?
The answer is Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952. That’s sixty-four years ago. Since then, every President has had to work their way up the greasy pole and campaign for people’s votes on the way.
Eisenhower was courted by both Republicans and Democrats. Truman was willing to step aside to let him take over in 1948. Eisenhower, the liberator of Western Europe, kept together the fractious Allied military coalition, and in doing so restored democracy and freedom to millions oppressed by fascism. His election victory was by a landslide. The Eisenhower years were good times for the USA. He is regarded as one of the greatest and best-loved US Presidents.
Eisenhower was not the first President whose first contest was for that high office. But Hoover and Taft had cabinet positions, Grant and Taylor were, like Eisenhower, war heroes. They had been part of the governance of the state in one way or another Trump resembles none of these.
True, he has courted political ambitions for three decades, but his actual achievements have seemed to be exclusively in the private sector. Trump is a deal-maker, but then politics is about negotiation. But it is hard to associate Trump with the kind of consensus necessary to govern over competing interests. He is arguably the greatest outsider ever to have a chance of reaching this high office.
How has this come to pass? Trump has been a feature on reality television for years. Non-political media exposure has been a path to election success in America. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Venture, professional body-builders and movie stars, have both been elected as governors. The late Fred Dalton Thompson had an acting career portraying state officials while at the same time being a US Senator. Al Franken, a comedy actor, is now junior senator for Minnesota. There is a cross-fertilisation between media and politics in America that does not operate significantly in the UK. The closest we have to this phenomenon in the UK is Glenda Jackson and Lord Cashman. We Brits clearly like the wall between the screen and the chamber.
The Republican nomination debates gave the US public, despite the presence of ethnic minorities, a load of similar-looking and sounding tall men in conservative blue suits with good hair. Trump was the clear maverick. It was a canny move. While the other politicians have emerged from political machines of one kind or another, Trump appeared outside that. He exhibited personality while the others were bland, political clones by comparison.
Trump deliberately courts controversy. He seems to speak his mind without the filter of spin and does not care whom he offends. His rivals speak carefully because they fear media attacks and denunciations. Trump welcomes these as he probably recognises that being attacked by a liberal media establishment would cement his support. No-one is suggesting that the protest that cancelled Trump’s rally in Chicago has done his campaign any harm and may have done the reverse.
The narrow range of candidates for the Republican ticket perhaps reflects a crisis in the GOP. They lacked real distinctiveness, there was no fire in their bellies. Perhaps, after the fall of the USSR there is no cause to fight for any more. I could not sense a passion for the job amid the bickering in the debates. The office of President should not be held by a programmed technocrat, but by a human, flaws and all. Bill Clinton is still held in higher regard than George H W Bush.
Perhaps it is a sign of the relative peacefulness of our times. Eisenhower got to where he was because of a collapse in global security from the mid-1930s onwards. Had that not happened, he would have had a quiet career in the military staff of a minuscule US Army. But when crisis came, he was the man for the job in war, peace and politics.
I can’t help but wonder whether Trump is a worthy successor to Eisenhower in this respect.
(Image: Gage Skidmore)