Donald Trump has turned himself in a political unicorn. In a format where hopefuls for office must walk a public relations tight rope, Trump has thrived using political tactics that are often detrimental to a campaign. In an April 2015 tweet (which was then deleted), Trump said, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” These are the moments that have shown how the Trump-icorn seems impervious to bad press.
Political campaigns in America are often a popularity contest. Missteps in this process can easily alienate voters, and permanently damage any run for office. Yet, since Donald Trump entered the race to be the GOP representative for president, he has verbally bucked many common sense trends of previously successful campaigns.
“[Trump] has built his brand around saying things no one else will say, and when he does, he just reaffirms what it is he said he would do,” says Mike Morey, Managing Director of SKDKnickerbocker. SKDKnickerbocker is a public affairs agency that gives consultation to Fortune 500 companies, non-profit organizations, and candidates for public office.
In the spring of 2015, Donald Trump made it official that he was running for president. And because of this, all of his actions would be scrutinized like never before. One of his earliest comments at the beginning of his run, was the aforementioned tweet about Hillary Clinton’s ability to satisfy her husband. It is the kind of derogatory comment that should hurt a campaign in its early stages. Yet by June, he was actually up three percentage points. Giving him 12 percent of the support amongst republican voters.
As 2015 entered its summer months, Trump too started to heat up. A topic of focus at the time was Trump’s thoughts on American relations with Mexico. In June, he made it publicly know his desire (if elected president) to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. He explained why in a July tweet when he said, “billions of dollars gets brought into Mexico through the border. We get the killers, drugs and crime, they get the money!” And of course, since they were getting the money, he felt the Mexican government should be the one paying the bill to build his wall.
Trump has also been quoted as saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.” He continued, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” These comments were viewed as offensive by many Mexican and Mexican-Americans. Yet by August of 2015, just like in June, Trump’s poll numbers again rose. In a Quinnipiac University poll, his support among Republicans was at 28 percent.
Once winter came around, the Trump campaigns focus moved on to Muslims and Muslim-Americans. The topic of Islamic refugees was leading the news cycle because of the humanitarian crisis brought on by war in Syria. However, Trump used the subject as an avenue to proclaim his thoughts on Muslims in a much broader scope.
In November, he told Yahoo News he would be open to the idea of requiring Muslims within the country to register with a government database. Or possibly have them carry specialized identification cards. Yet he did not stop there. He also indicated a willingness towards constant surveillance on these people, and warrantless searches of mosques.
Despite his divisive views on Mexicans and Muslims, the immovable object that is the Donald Trump campaign stood firm. At the start of 2016, Trump moved to the front of the pack as the favorite to be the GOP representative for president. In a CNN poll in January, Trump had 41 percent support from the party’s voters. The next closest was Texas senator Ted Cruz at 19 percent.
During his run for the Republican nomination, his April 2015 tweet about Clinton weren’t his only unsettling statements regarding women. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt last year, he said he supported the notion of shutting down the government just to defund Planned Parenthood. Planned Parent has been a lightning rod subject for Americans with different religious ideologies about pregnancy.
He also took aim at Fox News host Megyn Kelly, after her moderation of the first Republican presidential debate in 2015. He was questioned about his history of disparaging remarks towards women. This upset Trump and put Kelly in his crosshairs. During an interview with CNN, Trump spoke about his frustrations with Kelly’s moderation style when he said, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her—wherever.” Which would seem to allude to a woman’s monthly menstruation as the force behind her line of questioning during the debate.
In the face of disapproval from Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and many female voters, Trump now stands toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton in a race for the presidency of the United States. And despite his questionable comments, there is clearly a contingent of Americans who agree with Trump’s views and will support him in November.
“In large part, [Trump supporters] see him as a megaphone for articulating the anxieties they have and have been afraid to articulate for fear of being called racist, xenophobic, sexist or bigoted,” Mike Morey notes, when trying to explain Trump’s rising numbers. “Unfortunately, there are large sectors of the American public who hold fringe values and have been rightfully marginalized. They are feeling a bit more empowered as Trump has brought some of their perspective into the mainstream.”
In May of this year, a CNN poll had Trump 13 points behind Clinton for support among likely voters. In August he was just three points behind in a Morning Consult Survey. By September he was either two points behind Clinton (ABC News/Washington Post), four points ahead (LA Times/USC), or tied (CBS News) in certain national polls.
Trump’s ability to circumvent debatable campaign maneuvers is incomparable. In 1972, Edwin Muskie was a front-runner for winning the democratic nomination for president. During his campaign, a New Hampshire newspaper published two editorials that made scandalous claims about the Maine senator. To combat the accusations, he gave an impromptu press conference in front of the newspaper’s offices. The media there, to report the press conference, said Muskie got emotional and shed tears. His aides said it was falling snowflakes melting on his face. Muskie never got the nomination for the democratic party.
Bob Dole fell off of a stage at a rally in California during his presidential race against Bill Clinton, in 1996. The image of an elderly man—he was 73 at the time—falling down while just trying to shake hands, underscored the age gap between the two candidates. And possibly pushed some voters towards Clinton.
Though all of these pale in comparison to some of the notable moments in the Trump campaign. Those mens’ run for office floundered soon after those political miscues. Trump has only gained steam from what should have been poison pills for his campaign. Yet it would seem the American standard for what we expect from political candidates has greatly changed.
“The fact is a presidential candidate asked Americans to go view a sex tape of a former beauty pageant winner [Alicia Machado] and mocked a disabled reporter [New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski] on national television, and yet he is still considered a viable candidate for the presidency,” says Morey. “That should tell us all we need to know about what society is willing to accept in a political leader.”
Morey furthers his point about the change in standards when he harkens back to the 2008 presidential election when he says, “Since the vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, we have entered an era of entertainment politics, where formally crass and amateur qualities that would have sunk someone, are now almost assets in a two-year reality show for the presidency of the United States.”
Now, in his latest moment of controversy, a recording from 2005 has been released of Trump making inappropriate comments. During a planned interview with the television show Access Hollywood, in a down period when microphones were thought to be off, Trump cavalierly spoke about fondling and kissing women in a non-consensual manner. He claimed his celebrity status allowed for the behavior. It is now just another test for American standards of what is acceptable behavior from elected officials.
Donald Trump’s campaign of hard line stances and alienating proclamations has been groundbreaking. Not because this is a new tact for aspiring politicians, but because it has actually worked. What it says for our society is that we have altered what we see as acceptable behavior from politicians—for the worse. And an individual who would never have even made it past his own party’s primary in previous elections, is possibly weeks away from holding the highest position on the planet.