Thursday night is fireworks night in Old Orchard Beach. That meant I missed the first debate of American Republican presidential hopefuls. It was on television, but I was on the beach.
The television coverage the next day and through the weekend was extensive. There are after all 17 people running (at this point) for the nomination, so many that two separate debates were held. Only the top ten contenders were in the prime time event. From what I read and heard afterward, it was all about Donald Trump, who is ahead in the polls but not considered by most knowledgeable observers to be a serious candidate.
Trump after all is not a politician; that is why the media don’t take his candidacy seriously. That may be a mistake. He is a billionaire businessman and television personality with a penchant for publicity and self-promotion. That certainly sounds like a politician to me, even if he has never run for elected office. He may not be the media’s choice, but at this point a lot of the public likes him.
Trump has positioned himself as the anti-politician, and the public seems to be responding to his message. Anti-politicians don’t usually win American presidential nominations, for a number of different reasons. Donald Trump’s name probably won’t be on the ballot in November 2016, unless he decides to run as an independent – something he has not ruled out.
Watching Trump and the media reaction to him reminded me of another politician, Toronto city councilor (and former mayor) Rob Ford. Until his well-publicized substance abuse problems, Ford was Canada’s most popular politician. He became that by touting himself as an anti-politician, someone standing up for the rights of ordinary people, someone who thought and spoke like a regular person and not like someone from the political class.
What makes politicians like Trump and Ford so appealing is their outsider status. Politicians in North America (and perhaps worldwide) have managed to give the profession a bad name. The voting public has reached the point where a buffoon or a clown looks good when compared to a traditional politician.
In an increasingly complex world this is problematic. Our leaders should be those with skills and experience – and most of all a desire to serve for the benefit of society. They should be willing and able to do what is right – even if that is not the popular position. Instead they govern with an eye to the polls. They follow public opinion rather than lead. When the majority is not right, which is frequently the case, leadership needs to be about hard choices and vision; it is not a beauty pageant with politicians vying for the title of Miss Congeniality.
With most politicians having decided that it is better to be popular than to lead, it becomes easier to understand the rise of the anti-politician. Rob Ford and Donald Trump are brash and outspoken and don’t play the “political correctness” game, calculating correctly that bland is boring and the public is tired of being bored by its “leaders.” That brashness can mask policy weaknesses, but that doesn’t seem to matter, perhaps to a large extent because traditional politicians have done such a poor job articulating what they believe and stand for. You may not like Trump, but you know where he stands. Can you say that about the other 16 Republican candidates? Can you say that about those who want to b Prime Minister of Canada? Or the leaders of whatever country you reside in?
The US presidential election is 15 months away. There are two major parties and still another year before they choose their candidates. Donald Trump’s name may not appear on the final ballot, but he makes things interesting in the interim.