For the most part, we are not generally motivated to opine on the politics of personality, or the day-to-day horse race of electoral politics and the news-cycle. However, if asked, and if asked enough, one of us will eventually acquiesce. No response from me, however, is the official and measured position of our republic. Regardless, I will take one for the team and offer my personal opinion to placate these masses. However, I remain stubborn, so I will expand beyond just talking of Donald J. Trump, and use this opportunity to discuss American electoral politics.
Head of State and Head of Government
The primary system of the United States is far from enlightened. It is remarkable a great nation would engage in such theatre as the principal method for selecting the one person serving what is, in most nations, two roles: Head of State and Head of Government. This is one of those things it seems most do not think much about. However, if the United States were like most other nations, the Speaker of their House of Representatives would serve as Head of Government, while the president serves as Head of State. This division of power and responsibility makes sense. The Head of Government is a political figure who decides policy, and as such is ripe for loathing. The Head of State, however, is less political, and represents the nation on the world stage, such as welcoming foreign leaders and serving as the Commander-in-Chief of the military. This person is typically revered, or at least not generally loathed by large segments of the population on partisan political grounds.
An example is the United Kingdom (or Canada, Australia, New Zealand, et cetera). The House of Commons, which is equivalent to the House of Representatives in the United States, elects the Prime Minister, just as the House of Representatives elects its Speaker. The Prime Minister then engages in the art of governing - a partisan and divisive art form. The Queen, her majesty, Elizabeth II, is the Head of State. She represents her nation to the world. She welcomes dignitaries, attends ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and speaks on nationally unifying issues, and so on. Everyone knows who the Prime Minister is. In the United States, the Speaker only runs the House of Representatives, and is otherwise unknown to many, if not most, Americans, and whose office, rather than the occupant, is simply known for being the third-in-line for the presidency in the event something were to happen to both the president and vice president. Heck, I am not even confident most Americans know that constitutional tidbit.
The American president exercises both the roles of the Prime Minister and the Queen. The partisan and political nature of being a Head of Government leads to an American saying: respect the office, not the occupant. When the nation needs a leader of the American people, they rally around their president, as they did George W. Bush after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, being also the Head of Government, that president will eventually get into the weeds of divisive policy, often constructing it personally, while staking a position as chief advocate or opponent of all policy matters. This is not something a Head of State does. These two roles can cause confusion. Depending on the context, if one were critical of a president, they can in turn face criticism as being unpatriotic. However, as a political figure, they are and should be open to criticism. When to criticise is subjective, and left mostly to context.
Where I could understand having theatre decide a Head of State, given the role is mostly ceremonial, having it decide the Head of Government leaves me wanting. I find it impressive and remarkable the nation has yet to elect a real buffoon and total incompetent, and find it a testament to the quality of the American electorate they have nominated credible individuals, from John McCain and Mitt Romney to John Kerry and Barack Obama.
I might be showing my paw a bit while belabouring this.
The Theatre is Expensive
The presidential primary process is expensive. This means no matter how qualified or credible a candidate is, if they do not have tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, they will not compete. In fact, the best way to predict if a candidate is going to drop out of the primary is not polls, but money. Are they broke? Yes? They are soon to be out-the-door. This is a major problem when it comes to finding an effective Head of Government. Recently, two candidates dropped out of the Republican primary from lack of money: former Texas Governor Rick Perry and current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The Texas governorship is a "weak" governor, meaning the state constitution provides the legislature much of the governing power. However, Wisconsin is a strong governor, where that office exercises a great deal of power. Wisconsin is a diverse state, and their governor, though very conservative was able to win election there three times, while enacting policy reflecting a conservative governing philosophy. This is to say, one candidate dropped out from lack of money, in spite of being a tested and successful Head of Government. Lack of money is an unattractive way to determine whom American voters have as options to choose.
There is another reason Perry and Walker dropped out. They did not command the news-cycle. This is a problem other candidates are experiencing, but, where Perry and Walker did not, these candidates have enough money - so far - to coast along looking for their opportunity. Some have raised money from creative sources. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, has a huge following allowing him to raise millions of dollars for his campaign and his political action committee. From that money, his political action committee then cut a check to Carly Fiorina for $500,000 to help float her campaign. Fiorina finally found an opportunity to command the news-cycle, and with it, improve her ability to increase her name recognition and thus fundraise. Senator Cruz gave her the lifeline that Governors Perry and Walker lacked. The lifeline allowed her to hang on and catch lightening. There is an obvious question - why did Senator Cruz do this? This remains an open question, but likely, he did so expecting her to eventually drop out and return the favour with her endorsement of him.
This need of money means candidates must try to raise as much from supporters as they can. However, if unknown, this is difficult. Campaign finance laws cap how much a human can give to a candidate, and even with that cap, most Americans are not major donors. Collecting the tens of millions needed, from $10 and $20 one-time donations demands a huge following. A way around this are organised political action committees that are, officially at least, unaffiliated with the candidate. These groups have no limits on what they may raise from a single individual, and therefore can raise a hundred million dollars from one donor. Most of the candidates have, or seek, at least one billionaire benefactor so they can have a well-funded "independent" political action committee. A problem, however, is that a campaign is more than ads. There are paid personnel, travel expenses, swag, and so forth. This is direct campaign spending, which means the candidates must have enough money themselves. An "independent" political action committee, no matter how many hundreds of millions they might have, cannot save a Perry or a Walker, because they cannot cover the daily operational costs of a campaign.
If they are running to fleece their flock for personal enrichment, they will not want to put their own money into the gamble
The candidate needs money. This means a wealthy individual, as a candidate, can cut as many checks to their campaign as they need. However, it all depends on what is motivating the wealthy candidate, and how wealthy they actually are. If a candidate is a millionaire, but they also know they could never actually win a general election, they may simply run for president to raise their name recognition, achieving some measure of celebrity. This then can help them sell a book, or engage as a highly paid and sought after professional on the public speaking circuit. Perhaps it could lead to landing a television or radio show, or seats on various corporate boards. If they are running to fleece their flock for personal enrichment, they will not want to put their own money into the gamble. Therefore, they prefer raising the money to keep their vanity campaign going as long as they can, and then cash in in the private sector after they eventually drop out.
However, if the candidate is supremely wealthy, where they can drop tens of millions into a campaign without such an investment having a significant influence on their net worth - where losing it would mean nothing in the context of their wealth - they do not really need to raise funds elsewhere. For the donors to political action committees, this is common. A multi-billionaire dropping $100 million into a political action committee supporting a preferred candidate is nothing to them. One the other paw, a candidate with a net worth of $100 million cannot risk even a quarter of that. A net worth is real estate, stocks, et cetera - it is not cash in the bank. They would feel the loss of even $10 million. These millionaire wealthy candidates, if they feel they cannot actually win, will avoid at all costs dumping millions of their own money into their doomed political efforts.
Lack of money can also, curiously, help keep a candidate around. Because of campaign finance law, one cannot raise money if they are no longer a candidate. Many cash-strapped campaigns accrue debt. If a campaign concludes operations with debt, that debt will stay with the former candidate for life. If they expect to seek a future office, they will start that campaign with the outstanding debts incurred from the last one. Therefore, if a candidate drops out with debt, they usually do not literally drop out. Rather, they "suspend" their campaign. This means the campaign still legally exists, and therefore can continue to raise money. In this case, a candidate will have a hard time raising money from rank-and-file voters if they are de facto no longer a candidate. Therefore, they use this time to raise money from their strong base, political allies, or other benefactors. They may even raise money beyond debt coverage for seed funding some expected future campaign. If a candidate has a a great deal of debt, and lacks the political allies, strong base, or benefactors, they may just stay in a race without suspending their campaign - this allows for some plausible argument that they could still win if only you gave X donation. An example of this may be Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has debt while at no point being competitive in the 2016 Republican primary. He does not have a natural base, nor much left of a campaign operation, while lacking any obvious path to election. Sometimes, the media reports he is or has dropped out, but each time he makes a fiery case that he is still in it to win it. Why? Best guess is he needs to pay off that campaign debt. Assuming he fails to catch lightening in a bottle, he will likely drop out the day after his accounting books are back into the black.
To have a successful campaign, a candidate needs a field operation. One easy way to have one is to have money and hire people to be that operation. There is no guarantee hired staff will vote for their employer/candidate, any more than a McDonald's employee is to recommend McDonald's as a dining option to their date. However, McDonald's does well in part because they have near-constant advertising plus locations in every neighbourhood, each with paid staff and spokespersons parroting the company line. A campaign is little different - many field offices and parroting staff make for the illusion of concert support. Reality is whatever you make it, and money permits inventing a reality. The ideal candidate is one made up mostly, if not exclusively, of volunteers (this is part of what Project X is striving for). A campaign of volunteers is a campaign that has real support, not the illusion of support that money can buy. Whether paid or not, a campaign needs boots on the ground, knocking on doors and talking to voters. It needs people who will do everything they can to get to the caucuses or to get people to the polls on Caucus or Election Day. Part of the attraction of winning a primary is winning this operational infrastructure of the party for a General Election campaign. Before winning the primary, however, the candidate has to build their own version of this operation to win early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Winning some of those states, if not all, will show voters in other states that the candidate has real, quantified support, rather than a poll result or fantasy.
A well-funded candidate has a number of privileges. They can buy name recognition, typically via advertising, which helps with polls, as humans tend to pick those they have heard of. They can open offices and hire staff. They can afford to travel, and ensure staff are at each random event that happens in various states - essentially, they can be in multiple places at one time. It also, critically, allows them to set up field operations in all the states, and not just one or two of the first four (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada). Each of those four occur alone, so all efforts and resources can be concentrated on the one state. Two of these states hold caucuses; the other two are statewide votes. Those with name-recognition (money) tend to do well in statewide voting, whereas those with motivated, grassroots support tend to do well in caucuses. After those four elections comes "Super Tuesday", which is twelve states all on the same day. Of those twelve, only three are caucuses. This means those with the greatest name-recognition (money) have more opportunity to win in those nine elections, even if they lack any passionate supporters or volunteers. Their money will help ensure a Get-Out-the-Vote operation, even if paid staff are running it, on Election Day. They can aggressively advertise in all of those markets, whereas those with less money will have to be very selective about where to commit limited resources. Those with benefactor-backed political action committees can compete with the well-financed campaign on name recognition, but they will not compete as effectively in field operations (unless they have a gazillion volunteers, spread throughout rather than clustered in a few places).
All of this is partly why most suspect former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is likely to win the 2016 Republican primary. He has an enormous amount of campaign money, in addition to well-funded political action committees. He already has mass name-recognition; given his brother was the previous Republican president, and his father served as President and Vice-President. He has the money to float his campaign operations while others lead the polls and dominate the news-cycle. Several more candidates will eventually "suspend" their campaigns between now and February 1st, 2016, when Iowa holds its caucus. After each of those four early states hold their caucus or vote, still others will "suspend" their campaigns. So he may lose some of the early states, particularly the two with caucuses, to those candidates with the most galvanised and passionate supporters, but his money, and with it, his field operations, give him the obvious advantage to survive the news-cycle and clear the field further on "Super Tuesday" and beyond. None of this is to say he will pull all of this off, but he is certainly in the strongest position.
The Wild Card
Then there is Donald J. Trump. He has actively sought media attention for most of his adult life, being in the public spotlight on-and-off since the nineteen-seventies. He came into the 2016 Republican primary as a widely known public figure, more so than Jeb Bush, who has an equally known surname, but still must distinguish his own identity from that popular surname. Trump is also a billionaire, so unlike other candidates, he does not need a billionaire benefactor to back a political action committee operating on his behalf. He could, if he is smart, hire the staff and open the field offices needed to have a ground operation, allowing him to compete toe-to-toe with Jeb Bush in statewide elections. He is in a great position.
Trump thus brings us to the problem of how Americans elect their Head of Government. This expensive theatre is something Trump, a longtime self-promoter and celebrity, is well suited. He knows how to promote, even if that promotion is fantasy. He can create a reality - though maintaining his various fantasy realities have long been a challenge for him. His case for why he should be both Head of State and Head of Government (and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces) is that he is a billionaire, and therefore a successful businessperson. Because of his wealth, he has none to whom he owes favour. Aside from that one debatable qualification, the remainder of his case are subjective assertions - he is the smartest person, he is the most competent person, and so on.
Most of his competition are current or former public servants, with political and governing experience. As a Head of State, this would not really matter, other than it being generally helpful to be tactful and polite. As the Head of Government, selecting a celebrity is certainly high risk. Americans like Abraham Lincoln have shown one need not have a tremendous amount of experience to be effective political and governing leaders (though Lincoln did serve briefly in the House of Representatives). Regardless, there is risk here, and it matters more as Trump displays his style to the world.
Trump does not lack bravado or ego. After all, he is the richest, smartest, most competent, et cetera. It is up to the American voter if they prefer a president who lacks even a hint of humility. However, the brashness of a schoolyard bully is likely not going to be very attractive, or persuasive, or welcoming on the world stage, much less the congress of the United States. It does not appear much of his support considers this, possibly because of it being so early in the primary process. One illustrative thing is that half of the Republican primary electorate supports either Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, or Carly Fiorina - two candidates who have never sought public office, and three candidates who have never held public office. Clearly, this electorate is more interested, at this time, in those who have no governing record to assess. Jeb Bush, the one who presently has the resources to compete on the ground in the greatest number of places, continues to slide in the polls, while one or more of the three novices gain more polling support. Of those three, however, only Dr. Carson appears to have real grassroots, passionate supporters that may prove most decisive in a caucus.
Trump is using his wealth to build an organisational infrastructure to compete on the ground. Fiorina has not raised enough to begin this effort, and Carson appears to be relying on his passionate base rather than building an organised ground game in multiple states. Thus until things change - and they will - Trump is the only one of the three that is attempting to build a paid operation to achieve some parity with the Bush operation. What Trump seems to lack is a passionate base like that of Carson.
The winners, in order: idiot, jerk, stupid, dumb, arrogant, crazy/nuts, buffoon, clown/comical/joke
Trump has the financial resources and is building the operation needed to compete in statewide elections, and float past any he loses, as well as survive a poor caucus performance. Essentially, if he wanted, he can afford to stick around, no matter how well or poorly he does, all the way to the convention. This is the risk to the Republican Party if they choose to keep him around. There is no question is says things that many in his party love, but also many loath. Many more outside his party loath his views, which, if sticking around, could taint the whole party. This is perhaps best crystallized by a recent Suffolk University poll, which asked voters to describe Trump using one word. The winners, in order: idiot, jerk, stupid, dumb, arrogant, crazy/nuts, buffoon, clown/comical/joke. It does not take a political scientist to see if these are the most popular words to describe a leading candidate, then that candidate might ultimately prove a liability to the party.
The Richest and most Successful
There is another problem with Trump, which is his lone quantifiable qualification for being president: being a rich and successful businessperson. I like to say that if you give almost any human, at random, twenty or more million dollars, they too will likely live a financially successful life. I concede that, because most Americans are only one missed paycheck away from homelessness, it is easy to blow such a windfall because the new-found wealth will go to pay off all kinds of things, while being spread around to family and friends, and so on. Nevertheless, if you give twenty million dollars to a human who already owns a home and has no debt, you can bet the farm they will have a great life. Because a privileged person is a human, albeit not a randomly selected one, if they inherit wealth, they tend to be very successful. This wealth is not proof they are smarter than everyone else is.
The primary point Trump enjoys making is that he is smart, and his proof is his success in business. His proof of business success is his wealth. That certainly seems reasonable to most humans. However, Donald J. Trump inherited a great fortune. In 1978, the estimate of his wealth was $100 million. This was mostly what he inherited. I repeat my view that if you randomly select...
Anyhoo, today, the estimate of his fortune is $4.5 billion (he squabbles with the Forbes estimate, in part by including a multi-billion dollar price tag for himself as a brand and a product). Regardless, if, in 1978, Trump had placed 90 percent of his inheritance into the S&P 500 and had kept it there, he would have over $5 billion today (you too can play with the S&P returns calculator). This is to say, if Trump did absolutely nothing but put his money on the market and continued to reinvest returns from the day he inherited great wealth from his father to today, he would be wealthier now than he actually is. Trump clearly failed in his "successful" business career to outperform the market. Worse, he claims he had $200 million in 1978, rather than just the inheritance. This is another way of saying he horribly under-performed the market - so badly that if he were a brokerage firm rather than a human, none would dare invest with it. This serves as further evidence of my belief you can give just about anyone millions, and they too, essentially by accident, can achieve the "successful" businessperson label.
What I Think
To offer my own answer to the oft-asked question of this ministry - what we think of Donald J. Trump - I really cannot say it any better than the human respondents to the Suffolk University pollsters. He is a privileged human who inherited great wealth yet has convinced himself he is a self-made man. He has made nothing as a private businessperson - he has only lost money and nothing more. He is an idiot, a jerk, a stupid, dumb, and arrogant buffoon running a vanity campaign. I will add he is an opportunist playing to the lowest common denominator, happily tapping into xenophobic bigotry and racism for an electoral foothold. He has neither a reason nor a qualification, beyond being a citizen over the age of thirty-five, to be the Head of State and the Head of Government of one of the great nations of the human world. Yet he is in a fabulous position to take full advantage of the expensive theatre that is the American primary election process, possibly to win, but certainly to thrive, all while taking the Republican Party down with him.
I have absolutely no concern that Donald J. Trump will ever be popularly elected to any office of public trust. I am, however, quite concerned of the potential for long-lasting social damage as he popularises and mainstreams the gutter of politics. I also fear the Republican Party, if dragged down with him, may not be able to get back up.