The political class, from both parties, have called Donald Trump “divisive” but his standing remains strong in the polls among Republicans and some Democrats.
That is because the electorate, unlike party bosses, see Trump as a uniter, not a divider. Indeed, if Trump wins it will be precisely because his opponents, from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, are seen as divisive.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Reno Ballroom and Museum in Reno, Nevada, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Lance Iversen)
Polling tells us that Trump is doing well across multiple sectors of the electorate, in contrast to any other candidate of either party. Not only has he already bested all of the strong field of Republican governors (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, John Kasich, Chris Christie), but as The New York Times has reported, he leads among some registered Democrats as well.
The media, regardless of partisan orientation, typically talk about Trump as divisive but millions of Americans are attracted to him. That is because his is a message of American unity, not division. Indeed, Trump’s decision to not participate in this week’s debate demonstrates a sort of independence many voters like. But, that independence—or arrogance—may also prove to be his downfall in the long run.
First, what are those other strengths that help Trump appeal across party and socio-economic divides?
He is socially moderate and can thus appeal to the broad mainstream of American voters. He is politically independent and seen as not owing special interests or lobbyists. He has lived the American Dream in ways that people respect: he worked hard, he made money, he had failures, he bounced back. Despite the fact that he is sometimes called misogynist, people who have watched him on television know that he promotes hard-working, savvy businesswomen equally alongside their male counterparts. Voters feel like they know Donald Trump and that he represents not the worst of corporate America, but the scrappiness of an independent, a fighter, a self-made man, and an American patriot.
Trump clearly loves America and that resonates with citizens of both parties. Republicans have long felt that many Democrats, especially those like President Barack Obama, have not been willing to protect American interests and project American power. At the same time, Republican voters cannot understand why after 16 years of Republicans holding much of Washington (eight years of the presidency, almost a decade of control of both houses of Congress), the country seems less patriotic, less powerful, and gridlocked. Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, have seemed to lack potency and the will to win. Moreover, a conservative purist like Ted Cruz may be ideologically attractive but appear too divisive to get things done.
There are many registered Democrats who find Trump attractive for similar reasons.
The Democratic Party’s game plan is deplorably divisive: it tears apart America’s past, questions the fundamental values of the country, and projects indecision and weakness abroad. The elite of the Democratic Party no longer seem to be interested in advancing the values of independence and basic equality we associate with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead, they appear to support lawlessness when perpetrated by minorities on whites, corruption (if practiced in pursuit of social engineering), and the pitting of one social group against another.
Most importantly, to average Americans, Trump says he will stand up for America. This is the foundation of his success. According to The Washington Post this is music to the ears of voters across the spectrum.
The other candidates all seem to think that "the enemy" is other Americans. For Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the enemy is corporate greed, old white Republican males, evangelical Christians, and the like. Many Republicans seem equally divisive by pointing at Democrats, the media, gays, and godless liberals as "the enemy."
Trump is uniting Americans by pointing out who America’s real adversaries are, and promising to fight on behalf of all Americans.
Trump says that China is America’s greatest future adversary because it breaks the rules and is becoming a global bully. He promises to stand up to China, and people believe him. Trump says that violent Islamism, which is attractive to millions of Muslims worldwide, is a threat to American security and values; he calls it “a war.” People agree and believe that he will take steps to protect American values and interests, in contrast to the policies of the Obama Administration which seem to punish friends (like Israel) and reward foes (like Iran).
Perhaps most importantly, the common theme behind so many of Trump’s blunt pronouncements on political money, illegal immigration, the tax code, and national security is that common sense and the rule of law is eroding and that a strong president is needed to take a stand for what is right in America and on behalf of Americans.
This is not a strategy of division, it is a strategy of unifying the American people. All the other candidates, regardless of party, keep punching at Trump. Trump targets America’s adversaries abroad and trumpets a vision of “America great again!” This patriotic message may take Trump to the White House. Even if it does not, the successful candidate will have to recover this message of national greatness, destiny, and unity from Donald Trump.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including "Politics in a Religious World" and "Ending Wars Well."
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