Being in the USA during the first Republican debates was not entirely unlike repeatedly watching a small, frail kitten being kicked by an angry man. This was the case for every newspaper, every social media site, and every online news outlet. The kitten was whatever hope and integrity was left in the American political system. The man? None other than Donald Trump.
The appeal of Trump is evident. Amidst the over-rehearsed, poster-boy Republican alternatives, Trump’s cockatoo head stood out like a beacon. Even for non-Republicans, Trump’s outrageous comments offer a laughable caricature of the GOP; the dunce that Democrats can prod sticks at and chuckle over. Every year has a joke candidate, one that works the press but ultimately has no chance of making an impact. However, it looks like Trump may not be the joke candidate everyone anticipated.
Trump does not need to win the Republican bid in order for his comments to carry political weight. This is most keenly felt with his stance on anti-immigration, which makes Nigel Farage look like that slightly eccentric uncle that only shows up at weddings. Ignoring the details of his Hadrian-like wall policy, the very fact that Trump is talking about immigration as a Republican may be dividing. The GOP is far from united on the issue and tries to steer clear of it; whilst Jeb Bush has openly criticised Trump’s comments, Marco Rubio has begun to mark his position away from reforms. Outside the big-hitters, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has stated “we must insist on assimilation—immigration without assimilation is an invasion…. They need to learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves and get to work”. This is a huge step backwards for a country that has spent most of the last century trying to incorporate ethnic diversity into its society. All of this brings back immigration nightmares from the last election – such as when Mitt Romney came out in favour of “self-deportation” – back into public consciousness.
Ultimately, this paints a picture of Republicans as being anti-immigration, even if this is not wholly true of the party as a whole. Hilary Clinton has used this to her advantage, arguing in Iowa that most of the Republican candidates hold the same stance on immigration. This is incredibly damaging for the Republicans when the Hispanic vote is considered. Whilst the GOP gained 44% of the Hispanic vote under George W. Bush, Romney only gained 27%. This number looks likely to go down further. As the Hispanic vote was integral to Obama’s presidency, the Republicans’ stalled progress could have huge ramifications.
The Trump immigration earthquake can disrupt more than just the party members. Last month, two men in Boston gave a Hispanic man a severe beating. One of the men told the police that the attack was inspired by Trump’s anti-immigrant message. Trump’s response to this apparent hate crime? His followers are just “very passionate”. Even if these men are just extreme anomalies, Trump’s genuine support at a grassroots level cannot be ignored. Suddenly, Trump’s racist depictions of Mexicans as “rapists” cannot be an outlandish joke when he maintains his stronghold of the polls. As Trump does little in the way of detailed policy, all his supporters have to thrive on is his message. At present, this is overrun with the targeting of ethnic minorities and women. Trump does not have to win for such prejudice to become far more commonplace in US politics.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump cannot be simply dismissed as a joke any longer. But if not a joke candidate, or a particularly serious candidate, then what is he? We can only hope.