Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Register articles profiling the leading presidential candidates in the 2016 election campaign. The Register has also profiled Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz.
NEW YORK — The man who once posed on the cover of Playboy with a woman wearing only his tuxedo jacket, who clotheslined Vince McMahon in Wrestlemania XXIII, who bragged about bedding married women and who engaged Rosie O’Donnell in a public name-calling match could possibly become president of the United States.
Nearly everything about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has turned the conventional political wisdom on its head. The controversial things he has said, like suggesting that Planned Parenthood does good things for women, insulting his rivals, dismissing Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam — and even deliberately provoking an exchange of words with the Pope — would doom any other candidate, especially one seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
But Trump has demonstrated better political instincts than many analysts and party leaders had given him credit for. Tapping into widespread voter anxiety over the economy and frustrations with the political class, the brash and outspoken businessman, by late February, had won three of the first four state contests in the primary season. He easily won the Nevada Republican presidential caucuses on Feb. 23, with almost 46% of the vote, slightly more than the combined vote for his two strongest remaining rivals, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Trump’s campaign had undeniable momentum leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1, a critical turning point in most presidential-election cycles that normally indicates who the likely nominees will be from each party. If Trump continues his electoral successes — and nothing he has said or done to date has alienated his base of loyal supporters — he could well face off against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders this November for the White House.
“We sort of resist saying he is the front-runner for the Republican nomination because he’s Donald Trump, and we don’t think of him as a politician,” said Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor from the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in American politics and wrote The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics. “We may think of him as a carnival barker who’s running this very unconventional campaign, where he says a lot of outrageous things, but the polls suggest he is the front-runner for the nomination and probably a serious bet to win the White House.”
Layman told the Register that Trump has positioned himself as an outlet for voter anger and suspicion of traditional politics. By cultivating an image of himself as a brutally honest candidate who holds no punches and says what he thinks, Trump is seen by a frustrated electorate as a rare authentic voice in American politics.
“Trump, in being completely politically incorrect, becomes sort of the champion of something that conservatives and conservative Christians have believed for a long time: that political correctness has been used as a tool to suppress their views and their ability to express them freely. I think that is the basis for why Trump can say and get away with saying things that would have been unthinkable in any other presidential candidate or politician,” Layman said.
Trump has arguably made his biggest headlines on immigration, a contentious issue for several election cycles now. But where past Republican candidates like Mitt Romney and others talked about enhancing border security and resisting amnesty for those who entered the country illegally, Trump has ratcheted up the rhetoric, declaring in his presidential announcement speech last summer that Mexico sends criminals, rapists and people with “lots of problems” north of the border, though adding that he assumed “some” migrants are good people.
Trump has called for the United States to deport the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally, and he has vowed to build a wall across the southern border and somehow force Mexico to pay for it. His immigration platform also calls for enforcing the country’s immigration laws, tripling the number of federal immigration agents and ending birthright citizenship to deal with the problem of “anchor babies,” though such a step would require a constitutional amendment.
Also, Trump — who has promised to “destroy” the Islamic State if elected president and expressed an openness to monitoring mosques and creating a database for Muslims living in the country — has proposed banning Muslims from immigrating to or visiting the United States on a visa on national security grounds. That proposal drew condemnations from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“It’s scary how extreme the rhetoric is getting and how it has not softened. It has only gotten harsher as the election cycle has continued,” said Sara Benitez, the Latino program director for Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based advocacy nonprofit organization.
Benitez told the Register that the Trump campaign has been part of a “race to the bottom” in the presidential cycle, where Trump and other candidates have struck a “very harsh, dehumanizing” tone on the immigration issue.
“It’s one, frankly, that I haven’t heard in a presidential election I think ever,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that he and the other candidates are using fear to win. That’s wrong. As Catholics and Christians, that is not what we’re supposed to do.”
But Marguerite Telford, who is also a practicing Catholic and a spokeswoman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports a stricter national immigration policy, told the Register that Trump, though he speaks in “broad brushes” to get attention, actually represents the public’s views on immigration more than any other candidate.
“If you look at his immigration plan and some of the speeches he has given, everything is based on numbers,” Telford said. “It’s based on unemployment numbers, it’s based on crime numbers in some areas, and it’s based on the fact that we need to quit increasing immigration at every turn. Our president is supposed to be thinking about what is in the best interests of the United States of America. That’s what our defense policy does. That’s what our economic policy does. And that’s what our immigration policy is supposed to do also.”
Tangling With the Pope
Responding to a reporter while flying back to Rome following his Feb. 12-17 visit to Mexico, Pope Francis was critical of Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the border.
The question was prompted by earlier remarks Trump made immediately before the Pope departed for Mexico, asserting that the Pope was “a very political person” and alleging the Holy Father’s Feb. 17 visit to the border city of Ciudad Juarez had likely been planned at the request of the Mexican government.
The Holy Father said a person who advocates only building walls, and not also bridges, is not Christian. But he also was careful to note that he had not previously heard of Trump’s position and therefore didn’t know if it was being represented accurately. And in response to the reporter’s query about whether North-American Catholics could vote for “a person like this,” Pope Francis replied, “I am not going to get involved in that.”
Never one to back down from a fight, Trump expressed initial outrage at the Pope’s remarks, which he said were “disgraceful,” while adding that no religious leader has the right to question another person’s religion or faith. He also suggested that the Mexican government was using Pope Francis as a “pawn.”
The Vatican subsequently said the Pope’s comment was not a personal attack on Trump, who also took a softer tone on Pope Francis, saying in later campaign stops and interviews that he respected the Pope and that the media had overblown the Pope’s statements. And certainly the exchange between the two men didn’t appear to have hurt Trump in the subsequent Feb. 20 South Carolina primary, where he received more than 30% of the total votes and won all 50 of the GOP delegates at stake.
Joshua Mercer, the co-founder and political director at CatholicVote.org, told the Register that while he was glad that Trump backed down from his initial statements on Pope Francis, he added that he and other Catholic Vote members thought the business mogul had been disrespectful of the Holy Father.
“It’s natural for anyone to push back when someone says you’re not being a Christian,” Mercer said. “What I didn’t like is that Trump insinuated that our Holy Father was a stooge or puppet of the Mexican government. That is just an outrageous assertion.”
Citing Trump’s controversial personal and professional background, Catholic Vote had earlier urged voters to reject Trump. In a Jan. 27 post — simply titled, “Not. Trump.” — the Catholic Vote team described Trump as a “fearmongering business mogul” with empty promises who had resorted to demagoguery on immigration. The essay also took aim at the thrice-married candidate’s personal life, including the stories of his infidelities, as well as his past liberal positions on abortion, homosexual civil unions, universal health care, gun control and government bailouts.
“Donald Trump gives little content other than his assertions that he will make America great again,” Mercer said. “There is no plan and no proposal.”
Trump’s Main Planks
In broad brushes, Trump’s campaign website promises to “make America great again” by addressing the immigration issue, reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, simplifying the tax code to provide relief to the middle class, protecting the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and fighting for American businesses and workers in the United States’ trade policies with China.
In campaign speeches, Trump has accused China and other countries of taking advantage of fair-trade agreements with the United States by poaching jobs. Trump says those countries use protectionist policies to tilt the playing field in their favor, and if elected president, he has vowed to bring leadership and strength to the negotiating table.
“We are going to take our jobs back from China and all of these other countries,” Trump said during a Feb. 23 rally in Las Vegas. He has also expressed support for a 45% tariff on Chinese goods to the United States, telling The New York Times editorial board in January that while he’s a free-trader, “it’s got to be reasonably fair.”
But while the United States “could certainly be doing better” with its economic policies toward China, David Dollar, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy and Global Economy Development programs, told the Register that China and other countries would retaliate with tariffs against goods from the United States.
“And we are a major exporter,” he said. “One of the things that led to the worsening of the Great Depression was countries going down this protectionist road, and it was mutually destructive.”
Dollar, a leading authority on China’s economy and U.S.-Sino economic relations, added that while U.S. free-trade policies with China have produced downward pressure on wages for low and semi-skilled workers, they have also helped raise wages for skilled and knowledge-based workers.
“Most economists would say there has been a net benefit,” said Dollar, who suggested that “more of the same” would likely happen if China were to open up more sectors of its economy to U.S. exports.
Whether Trump can appeal to pro-life Catholics is uncertain. In interviews and campaign stops, Trump declares himself to be pro-life. In an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, Trump wrote that he came around on abortion because of “a personal experience that brought the precious gift of life into perspective for me.” While opposing abortion, he said that he supports exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother being at stake.
His pro-life conversion did not impress a group of pro-life advocates who wrote an open letter in advance of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. The advocates said they did not trust Trump to defend unborn children or the dignity of women. Trump’s statements during the Feb. 13 South Carolina GOP debate, in which he said Planned Parenthood does “wonderful things,” except for its involvement with abortion, also rankled pro-lifers.
“We don’t comment on specific candidates, but what I can say is that anyone who thinks that Planned Parenthood does many wonderful things simply does not understand that organization,” said Jim Sedlak, vice president of American Life League, a national Catholic pro-life organization. Rather than helping women, Sedlak told the Register that Planned Parenthood leads children and young people into destructive lifestyles.
Said Sedlak, “The entire organization is really a sex organization, not a health organization, and it deserves no government support at all.”
In November, when the U.S. bishops updated “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” their quadrennial statement on political responsibility, the bishops reiterated that key issues like abortion and euthanasia are “intrinsic evils” that Catholic voters must always oppose.
Trump and the Catholic Vote
How Trump’s populist and controversial brand of politicking plays out with Catholics overall in key battleground states remains to be seen. His primaries victories notwithstanding, Trump has thus far benefited from a fractured field of Republican candidates that has enabled him to win the early states without simple majorities of voters.
But as the field winnows to the final two or three candidates, analysts say Trump will need to expand his appeal beyond his base of loyal supporters, and Catholics represent an important swing constituency in several states.
“I think you have to do well in the Catholic vote in general to win the presidency,” said Layman, the Notre Dame political science professor. “Because what you’re talking about is a microcosm of the country. He’s going to do extremely poorly among Latino Catholics, and that’s a growing part of the Catholic vote.
“Among white working Catholics, that might sort of be his base. If you think about Reagan Democrats, traditional working-class voters who are Catholic or who may not be as devout but identify as Catholic, I think that’s a group of people to whom Trump has a lot of appeal.”
Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.