Property developer, TV personality and egotistical blowhard Donald Trump has announced that he, too, is a candidate for the American presidency. A man who lost money in the casino business claims that his business success will ensure that he is a successful president. This is most certainly untrue, and as a bloviating buffoon, the Republican powers that be will work to ensure anyone but Mr. Trump becomes the party’s nominee. Nevertheless, his impact on the race will be significant. His campaign offers the party a way to determine who is a serious contender and who is not.
Many years ago in the UK, there was a musician named David Edward Sutch. While he never made the Top 40 on the BBC, he did stand for parliamentary seats in by-elections as Screaming Lord Sutch, standard-bearer of the Raving Monster Looney Party. After the count, he would play a gig to fund the campaign. There are worse ways for a musician to make a living.
Lord Sutch, though, was responsible for one of the most important acts in the realigned of British politics in the post-Thatcher years. The Social Democrats split off from Labour in 1981, finding Labour under Michael Foote far too leftwing. Throughout the 1980s, they collaborated and eventually merged with the Liberals to form today’s Liberal Democrats. The merger occurred in 1988, but some of the SDP leaders and grassroots members wanted to continue as a separate party. The continuing SDP lasted until 1990; then, during the Bootle by-election, it finished behind Lord Sutch and the Raving Monster Looneys. The continuing SDP quietly vanished after that.
Mr. Trump, while lacking in the artistic talent and good humor of Lord Sutch, will play the role of the Raving Monster Looney faction in the Republican Party. Quite simply, any candidate that does not perform as well as Mr. Trump in the polls, caucuses and primaries will find himself out of the race in short order. Because Mr. Trump has a great deal of money, he can stay in the race to the end by finding the campaign himself. That means surviving Iowa and New Hampshire might not be enough for other candidates. Losing to Mr. Trump in the later contests will be just as lethal.
As things stand right now, access to the debate stage Fox News is arranging for August 6 requires a candidate to be in the top 10 in opinion polls. This is because of the large number of GOP candidates who are running this year. In the average of five different polls (ranging from Fox on the right to PPP on the left), Mr. Trump stands in ninth place. Missing the cut as a result of the Top 10 rule and Mr. Trump’s candidacy is John Kasich of Ohio. Also missing out are Rick Santorum (who finished second in delegates in 2012), Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and Carly Fiorina. If they don’t make the debate stage, they will not increase their name recognition, and that may well doom their efforts.
Fox News may change its criteria for deciding who gets to participate, and there are signs that other forces in the conservative political world will give these other candidates a platform that compensates for being left off the Fox stage. The New Hampshire Republican Party has already challenged Fox’s legitimacy in making decisions about who gets to debate and who doesn’t.
Even for those above Mr. Trump in the polls, his presence complicates their actions in a way Lord Sutch never did his rivals. Mr. Trump is a master of the nasty quip because he doesn’t really care about policy. Bumper-stickers are his preference rather than manifestos. That will require the other candidates to prepare their messages, both on the debate stage and off, in ways that prevent or counter what passes in Mr. Trump for wit.
For the Democrats, Mr. Trump is a gift from the Gods of Democracy. The Democratic National Committee’s spokeswoman Holly Shulman said, not entirely tongue-on-cheek, “Today, Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for president in two days. He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward to hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”
It actually makes an excellent counterweight to the Tea Party, the Raving Monster Looney faction of the GOP.