By Columnist Jinwan Cho
While any presidential election is generally a controversial affair that divides the country into opposing sides, the 2016 election is by far one of the most contentious elections in modern American history. Hillary Clinton, having risen up the ranks in the US government for several decades now, is finally making her run for “the leader of the free world.” Despite Bernie Sanders giving a good run for her money and the various accusations of impropriety that have marred her campaign, Clinton unsurprisingly became the presidential nominee from the Democratic Party – an outcome most of us expected.
Unlike Clinton’s almost inevitable selection as the Democratic Party nominee, Donald Trump’s rise to political stardom was something most people, probably not even his most fervent supporters, expected when he announced his candidacy about a year ago. In a matter of two months, Trump became the most popular candidate among republicans, soaking up the spotlight as his poll numbers skyrocketed and secured him the Republican Party nomination. Exceeding all expectations, Trump continues to be a potent opponent for Hillary; even after the innumerous scandals he has incurred over the past year – the most recent the release of a recording in which Trump essentially admits to sexual assault – latest polls show that Trump still maintains about 42% of the electorate (Granted, a much smaller portion compared to his peak popularity, but nonetheless a respectable amount considering the severity of the recent scandal).
To explain Trump’s meteoric political ascent, experts have proposed theories ranging from his background as a television celebrity to his straight-talking attitude, and ironically even to his lack of background in Washington. Of course, the “Trump phenomenon” most likely results from a combination of these complex factors. However, it is still absolutely baffling that Trump would lead the Republican Party in 2016, of all years. We all know the past year has been characterized by an intense push for social reform, unlike anything we’ve seen in previous years. The battle against institutional racism – particularly with regard to police brutality – is at an all-time high since the civil rights movement, sometimes even amounting to violent riots. Political correctness has taken on a life of its own, on one hand protecting the stigmatized and on the other silencing those who have a right to speak their mind. Social media is blanketed with pictures, articles, and videos that propagate this desire for social change in short, at times incomplete, tidbits. The movement could be extreme at times – as I mentioned in my previous article – but not unjustifiably so. Over the past year, so-called “liberals” have been pushing hard and strong against perceived social injustices that have compounded over the years, and they made sure everyone knows it. So in a year like 2016, how did Trump, a candidate labeled racist, sexist, and xenophobic, take center stage of American politics?
I believe, however, that this exploding movement for change is ironically the culprit behind Trump’s strong political foothold. Like any attempt at breaking the status quo, the past year’s wave of reform was bound to face resistance. But this time, it was not just a couple of angry Facebook posts that liberals and conservatives quibbled over and forgot about. What the conservatives saw was Black Lives Matter encroaching upon things that they believe have nothing to do with racism, a perverted form of PC culture silencing them when they wished to speak their mind, and the media often demonizing their beliefs, as if conservative ideas were somehow a relic of the past, not a viewpoint held by half of the population. Frankly, it is naïve to assume that conservatives, who by their definition aim to preserve the “traditional” status quo, would simply welcome this growing momentum for change. Instead, as this wave of change came rushing toward the conservatives, casting them in the role of the evildoers standing in the way of rightful social reform, they frantically found a new messiah in a man that could fill the conservative gap created by a overblown PC culture, a man that could withstand being called racist, sexist, and xenophobic without batting an eye to stand up against the “social justice warriors”: Donald Trump. In essence, Trump emerged as a leader against what they consider extreme liberal values, not a proponent of reasonable conservative ideals.
I admit, the parsimonious explanation for Trump’s political backing is that the supporters actually agree with his views, that they support him not simply because he is the leader against the change looming over them, but for the things he stands for. However, Trump’s apparent invulnerability to scandals – ranging from insulting the appearance of his fellow presidential candidates to promising retaliation against Jeff Bezos for owning a publication that portrayed him in a negative light (honestly, an impeachable offense should he go through with it) – may actually suggest otherwise. The fact that Trump managed to survive so many public embarrassments that would have ruined any other politician’s career suggests that Trump’s base of support essentially cares little of who Trump is or what he himself stands for. Even given many of Trump’s ludicrous views to begin with, the voters who supported him for who he is and what he stands for would have been alienated by Trump’s escalating series of audacious and frankly ridiculous antics, far before this point in the election. On the other hand, voters who simply regard him as the optimal defense against a perceived opponent are more likely to ignore any personal scandals that have nothing to do with his primary role as a challenger against the growing liberal views.
So, Trump owes at least a portion of his political success to the liberals, who perfectly played the role of the enemy, with Clinton as their supposed leader, as he easily tapped into one of our most primal fears – our fear of change. Of course, I am neither blaming the completely natural desire to oppose oppression and discrimination for Trump’s rise nor assuming that this desire is somehow unjustified. Rather, I am claiming that considering the strength of this past year’s movement for social reform, the opposite reaction of resistance was bound to be equally strong, perhaps outrageously so. Trump just happened to seize this moment of opportunity, taking advantage of the growing fear among conservatives that their ideals are quickly losing ground. Many have considered the rise of Trump a clear sign that many Americans hold the hateful views that we long thought were minority opinions limited only to the “extremists.” However, I would like to remain optimistic, to believe that Trump’s rise is largely a dire reaction from conservatives who feel that their way of life is threatened. I will not even attempt to delve into whether the liberals or the conservatives are more justified than the other; but regardless of what we believe, we must always be wary of those who see civil unrest and societal division not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an opportunity to be exploited.