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A presidential view from the north

Concordia experts offer insight into this year’s highly unusual presidential race
September 19, 2016
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By Sue Montgomery

A presidential view from the north

In October 2015, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank predicted Donald Trump’s campaign was doomed, and the bombastic billionaire wouldn’t win the Republican Party nomination to run for president of the United States. While Milbank wasn’t alone in writing off the celebrity, to prove the strength of his convictions, the veteran political columnist promised to eat his column if he was wrong.

This spring, as Trump emerged as the last man standing in a once full Republican field, Milbank was offered up recipes from readers brimming with schadenfreude on how best to prepare a tasty newsprint dish. They ranged from German beef and newspaper cabbage rolls to Trumpkin pie with newspaper and yams.

Milbank’s wild underestimation of Trump and the impact his outrageous, inappropriate and even racist comments would have on American voters was not unique and has led to count-less media types trying to make sense of it all. Trump has promised everything from barring Muslims from entering the United States to building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — and making the Mexicans pay for it — to banning goods from China. He’s been compared to former Italian prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who, like Trump, figured a country could be run like a business.

The entire mess is akin to a reality TV show like Survivor — or The Apprentice — where only the most ruthless person is left standing.

Ready to elect their first woman president?

Linda Kay Journalism professor Linda Kay feels that the coarse tone of the campaign has encouraged some media commentators to use a different set of rules for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump.

Political pundits, Concordia professors among them, are now keenly watching what is becoming one of the hardest election outcomes to call. Will Trump be the next president of the United States and, if so, will the U.S. become the laughingstock of the world? Or are Americans ready to elect their first woman president, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton?

Before one jumps to the conclusion that this presidential race, rife with lies, insults, childish slurs and contradictions, is unprecedented, it’s useful to go back in time, says Theresa Ventura, assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of History.

The Republican Party wasn’t always as far right as it is today. Indeed, until the 1960s the Democratic Party was the political home to white supremacists from Southern states, and maintained their power through disenfranchisement. That first began to change under President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal in the 1930s, which brought African-Americans and Catholic immi-grants into the Democratic Party fold. When President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signed the civil rights and voting rights acts in the mid-1960s, Republican Party operatives began courting Southern white conservative voters. Richard Nixon, president from 1968 to 1974, continued that strategy.

“The Republican Party has been since the 1970s and 1980s, up until today, this coalition between aggrieved white working-class voters, evangelical voters — who are not necessarily poor — and corporate interests, and Trump is just blowing that up,” says Ventura, who is originally from New York State. “So as unprecedented as his ignorance is, this strategy of really running on racial resentments, which he’s done masterfully, is old. And that’s not original to him at all.”

Marginalizing voting blocs

Graham Dodds Political science professor Graham Dodds sees Hillary Clinton emerging as the next U.S. president, but should Donald Trump prevail, his negative views on NAFTA could have a devastating impact on Canadians.

After the last presidential election in 2012, the Republicans conducted a post-mortem and decided they had to reach beyond their core base of white Southern men and appeal more to women and visible minorities. Yet obviously Trump appears to be doing the opposite and marginalizing these key demographic groups further. “That would suggest maybe he’s not going to be viable in November,” predicts Graham Dodds, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science, who came to Canada from the U.S. 12 years ago.

Still, Dodds admits there is some-thing unique about Trump. He’s divisive and “he’s nothing if not entertaining, I think it’s fair to say.”

So what is his attraction to voters? Linda Kay, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Journalism, thinks Trump is popular — and not just among racists or people on the right — because he has shown the whole political system to be a sham.

“Trump has exposed the way politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths,” she says. Kay points out that, from the start, many Republicans didn’t like Trump and yet they ended up supporting him. “Young people are seeing just how bad, corrupt and moneyed the system is. Trump is saying I didn’t use those moneyed people, I did it on my own,” she adds.

Arvind Jain, professor in Concordia’s Department of Finance, feels the same. Trump has given people permission to say out loud the things they have always been thinking. “That anti-immigrant sentiment was already there but he’s made it legitimate to express it,” Jain says. “He’s very good at understanding what people want to hear. He has no qualms about exploiting the fears of people.”

While Trump certainly garners a lot of coverage, partly because what he says is so absurd, Kay refuses to place responsibility for his success on the media, as other observers do. Some say members of the media have lost their independence, willing to hold back on tough questions or dissecting some of Trump’s outrageous statements in favour of advertising dollars. “I don’t feel that way,” Kay says. “We cover what we see, what we observe, what we hear, so when Donald Trump tweets something, I think that’s news. I think we should report what he says.”

Watch Graham Dodds speak about the U.S. presidential debate on Breakfast Television. 

Fact-checking required

Greg Nielsen Greg Nielsen, co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies, would like to see the media challenge Donald Trump’s outrageous assertions.

Yes, says Greg Nielsen, co-director of the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Cover Trump’s outrageous comments — like his promise to build a 10-foot-high wall between the U.S. and Mexico — yet follow that up with some fact-checking and demonstrate that it’s physically impossible to build a wall of that kind along that border.

Instead of digging for the truth, Nielsen asserts, the field of journalism has gradually progressed into full-time entertainment, showing presidents like Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and Barack Obama doing stand-up comedy. “It’s shifted so far into entertainment, we’re losing sight of the political and social realities,” Nielsen says.

To Ventura, what is more dangerous is that this election campaign is a windfall for major media organizations, which are desperately trying to make it as entertaining as possible in order to get more viewers, which in turn translates into advertising dollars.

She says candidates and Super PACs (political action committees) are set to spend US$5 billion on advertising in this campaign. “A small station in Columbus, Ohio — and Ohio is a swing state — earned at least $20 million in campaign spending in 2012,” Ventura reports. “How can media police all of these special interests that they are now dependent on for their revenue? It compromises their integrity.”

Kay disagrees that the campaign is filling the pockets of media corporations because Trump is mainly using social media, such as Twitter, to spread his message and build his base — a platform that doesn’t cost a cent.

There does seem to be, however, a double standard when it comes to the media treatment of Trump and Clinton based on their gender. Pundits and certain commentators are more focused on Clinton being “bossy, strident or aggressive instead of presidential or strong,” Kay says. “Some say she’s shrill. Talk about shrill — what about Trump?”

Dodds agrees. “Not a day goes by that Trump doesn’t say something that is utterly crazy, that if it came out of anyone else’s mouth there’d be a scandal of epic proportions,” he says. “If Hillary Clinton were to utter one one-hundredth of the nonsense he’s uttered, it would almost doom her candidacy.”

And while Clinton is both militarily hawkish — she’s to the right of President Obama on many foreign policy issues — and an insider with no lack of experience, those aren’t necessarily helpful traits in this race, according to Ventura. “The problem is she’s running in a campaign season where being an insider is a liability and where there’s limited patience for diplomacy and the intrica-cies of foreign policies,” Ventura says. “So she’s kind of caught. She’s got the right credentials for the first woman to run as president but at a moment when those credentials are liabilities.”

Not forthcoming with policies

Theresa Ventura History professor Theresa Ventura points out that Donald Trump’s allure for white males reflects a change in the Republican Party strategy that began in the 1960s.

What if Trump were to become what many are calling the first overtly, indeed proudly, isolationist president? What would that mean for the United States’ relationship with Canada and the rest of the world?

Dodds says that’s hard to predict, partly because Trump hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with details of his policies, and partly because there are checks and balances in the political system — particularly the House and the Senate — that can stop him from doing whatever he wants. And trade tends to be based on long-standing institutional relationships, rather than individuals.

“The exception to that is when Trump says, ‘I don’t like NAFTA, I want to get rid of it,’ that’s a real worry for Canada,” Dodds says of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “There are 400,000 people and $2.5 billion that cross the border every day. Even if you just tighten that border, that’s going to have a huge impact.”

Trump’s personality also makes it difficult to imagine the kind of love-in that occurred between Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shortly after the Liberal Party’s 2015 election victory. Trump and Trudeau don’t exactly share the same world view — which could hurt Canadian-American ties. “Trump unfortunately embodies a lot of anti-American stereotypes,” says Dodds. “He’s brash, crass, greedy, uninformed, parochial and profoundly impolite.”

While those characteristics may make for fodder for late night talk shows and comedians, Trump could end up running the most powerful country in the world — a scary thought for many.

“America’s disproportionate economic and military power mean that this election will have an effect well beyond the national borders of the U.S.,” says Ventura. A win for Clinton, on the other hand, would likely mean more ground warfare in the Middle East, she adds. “We really don’t know what Donald Trump would look like on foreign policy, but we see from his advisors that there are some real wing nuts there of the ‘just-bomb-them-all’ variety.”

Yet Trump has also been campaigning on pulling America back from the rest of the world and “making it great again.” “I don’t think he would be able to follow through on that,” says Ventura of his promise to back out of many American international commitments. “I don’t think he really knows what that means.”

Jain agrees that whatever the outcome, and especially if Trump were to become president — which he thinks is unlikely — the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world will be filled with friction.

Politics not like running a business

Arvind Jain Finance professor Arvind Jain sees Donald Trump exploiting fear already present in some American voters.

“Trump is a very pragmatic person, so you can’t judge him by what he says but by what he’s done in the past — which is that he’s made a lot of money,” Jain says. “He’s dangerous because he thinks politics is like running a business, and it’s not.”

The American political checks and balances will prevent him from building a wall, and Jain foresees his plan to stop Muslims from entering the country running into similar difficulties. As for blocking Chinese goods, that’s something business interests would never tolerate.

Nielsen predicts that if Trump were to win, which he also thinks is unlikely, there’s no telling what he would try to do with Canada, America’s biggest economic trading partner. “If any of his statements came true, we’d enter a re-cession that would make the 1930s look good,” Nielsen says.

The Concordia experts view Trump’s rise being due, in part, to the growing weakness of the Republican Party. “For decades, the driving force of Republican politics has been the religious right, social conservatives, and Trump is not one of them,” Dodds says, adding that many lifelong Republicans are horrified by what’s happening. “It seems they’re mostly embracing him, but he doesn’t really speak to their issues, and that’s a sea change in U.S. politics. I think it’s an open question whether they’ll vote for him in the fall.”

Ventura agrees, saying that the demo-graphics of the country are changing. Trump is losing ethnic populations and young people through his rhetoric, but he’s also motivating them to get out and vote.

“We actually have a lot of people mobilizing against him and we should pay attention to them too,” says Ventura. “The working class of the country is 40 per cent non-white; Trump’s poll numbers among women show 66 per cent unfavourable; over 80 per cent of African-Americans don’t like him; 70 per cent of Latinos don’t like him,” she says. “And those people matter. As long as they’re not blocked from the polls, I don’t think his kind of ignorance is going to rule the day.” 



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