For years Donald Trump flirted with running for president of the United States. In mid-June, the billionaire real estate tycoon and former reality TV host decided that the time had come. Trump joined the overcrowded field for the 2016 Republican Party nomination.
Far from entering the presidential race cautiously, the former boss on NBC’s The Apprentice show arrived on the scene like a drone strike.
Even with 15 other candidates in the field, Trump has seized most of the attention from the news media and voters after launching a stream of inflammatory attacks on illegal immigrants and other groups that Republican leaders consider vitally important in the 2016 presidential election.
The party’s leaders want a candidate who will attract Latinos, a key voting bloc in the U.S. today, other minorities, as well as more women and young people. The leadership’s goal is a Republican Big Tent similar to Democrat Barack Obama’s winning formula in the past two presidential elections.
In contrast, Trump appears to be waging an insurgent campaign that appeals primarily to American-born, white male, working class voters with traditional Republican values — the segment of the Republican base that is defiant toward the party’s mainstream and angry at Washington and much of contemporary 21st Century America.
Trump is emerging as the Republican Party’s Titan of the Tiny Tent.
For the party’s mainstream, it’s a nightmare combination, especially because Trump has surged to the top of the presidential pack in recent polls of Republican voters.
One of his opponents, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, contends Trump has “hijacked the debate” while “crossing the line with the American people.” Graham has warned Trump not to become “the world’s biggest jackass.”
“I think he’s a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community,” said Graham in a CNN interview.
Trump responded by calling Graham “an idiot” whose low standing in the polls shows he is “a lightweight” and read aloud Graham’s cell phone number during a campaign rally. Graham then destroyed his cell phone with a baseball bat on video that drew heavy media coverage.
Another Republican rival, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, has accused Trump of being “a cancer on conservatism” that should be “clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.”
The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest and most influential newspaper, published an editorial calling for Trump to drop out of the presidential race. The editorial described Trump as “a feckless blowhard who can generate headlines, name recognition and polling numbers not by provoking thought, but by provoking outrage.”
Trump dismissed the Register as “a liberal rag” prone to factual mistakes and his campaign refused to credential its reporters to cover his most recent campaign stop in Iowa, where the earliest Republican primary vote will take place next year.
Party leaders have been much more restrained about criticizing Trump. They apparently are waiting to see if Trump is merely the Republican flavor of the month whose popularity in the polls will drop before long.
But Trump anxiety in Republican circles is at a tipping point over two other volatile issues.
To begin with, the first televised debate among the candidates is slated for Aug. 6, hosted by the conservative Fox News channel, with everyone bracing to see what the ever-blunt, unscripted Trump will say on that big stage. Party officials still cringe over how Trump began his campaign — by saying rapists and other criminals from Mexico have been streaming into the U.S. illegally. His remark caused a firestorm of protest and alienated much of the U.S. Latino population. But Trump hasn’t backed down at all and has continued making the accusation along with a vow that as president, he would build a big enough fence along the Mexican border to keep criminals and others from entering the country illegally.
More recently, Trump infuriated war veterans and fellow Republicans by mocking U.S. Senator John McCain’s status as a Vietnam War prisoner and calling him soft on illegal immigration. Trump contended that the Arizona senator was a war hero merely because he had been captured (by the North Vietnamese). Trump was widely condemned for the remark, even by Obama who noted that McCain had been tortured by his captors and endured his six-year plight as a true patriot. McCain was the Republican nominee in 2008 who lost the presidential election to Obama.
But Trump refused to apologize to McCain and his standing in the polls hasn’t dropped much, if at all.
What Trump says and does in the debate is definitely a concern, but even more troublesome to the Republican leadership could be the consequences of Trump losing the party’s nomination, which is expected. If that happens, the great fear of the party’s mainstream is that Trump will launch an independent run for the presidency that inevitably would draw a large chunk of votes from Republicans and quite possibly cost them the election.
Trump won’t rule out a third-party effort but insists he is in the race to win the Republican nomination. At this point former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose brother and father were previous American presidents, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are expected to emerge as frontrunners for the nomination.
For his part, Trump is trying to shift some of the focus away from illegal immigration. He claims that Mexican people who are in the U.S. lawfully love him because he has provided them jobs at his hotels and other properties. He raised that argument during a recent presidential-style appearance in Laredo, Texas, overlooking the Mexican border.
But Trump has not provided specific details of a jobs program as president that would benefit immigrants. Moreover, there have been no Mexican immigrants stepping forward in praise of Trump’s generosity as an employer.
In the interest of full disclosure, a story I helped produce for the top-rated American newsmagazine program, CBS’ 60 Minutes, benefitted from Donald Trump’s generosity. It happened to be a story about a lawful immigrant’s lawsuit that was reported by Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes’ legendary correspondent. I proposed the story as a freelance news producer in 1997 and assisted Wallace and Marti Galovic Palmer, a longstanding 60 Minutes producer, in the report.
The story centered on the strange bedfellows surrounding an appeal of a million dollar libel verdict won by a Pakistani immigrant photographer. The loser in the case was The Globe supermarket tabloid, which had published an article in 1989 that falsely accused the photographer, Khalid Khawar, of being the actual assassin of New York Senator Robert Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign. A rather obscure First Amendment issue raised by the tabloid in its appeal prodded several of the nation’s mainstream news organizations, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times plus the three leading network news operations, to file legal briefs in support of The Globe’s effort to overturn the libel decision.
Wallace wanted to interview Khawar at the Kennedy assassination site. No longer a professional photographer, Khawar had become a California farmer and was a naturalized U.S. citizen. But there was a hitch in Wallace’s plan. In 1997, Los Angeles’ stately Ambassador Hotel, the site of the Kennedy shooting, was not operating any longer and was closed. The pantry of that hotel is where Kennedy had been fatally wounded moments after proclaiming victory in California’s 1968 Democratic presidential primary election.
Khawar was on the stage with his camera near the senator when Kennedy made his victory speech, but the Pakistani immigrant was not near the pantry at the time of the shooting and had no reason to harm the presidential candidate and brother of former President John F. Kennedy, who also died from an assassin’s bullets.
By the late 1990s, Trump owned the defunct Ambassador Hotel. A call from reporter Wallace to Trump turned out to be all that was needed to open the Ambassador to the 60 Minutes crew.
Not only did the Khawar interview take place as Wallace had envisioned it, but he was able to conduct a separate interview in the pantry with a former Los Angeles Times photographer who snapped the famous photo of Senator Kennedy just after he had been shot.
In the end, The Globe’s appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, Khawar prevailed and the story, featuring Wallace’s interviews in the Ambassador, aired on 60 Minutes early in 1998.
As a presidential candidate, Trump likes to mention his generosity, how he has helped people, whenever he believes it applies. But it remains to be seen how effective he will be in reaching out to immigrants and others beyond the Tiny Tent.