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Analysis

Trump a star in our dysfunctional political reality show

Heroic or pathetic: Which is Donald Trump to you? If the former, you need no encouragement to applaud his flamboyant proclamations, even when they cast aspersions on no less a national icon than John McCain. But if you’re one to dismiss Trump’s oratory as merely the ravings of an egotist with too much money on his hands, think again.

What Trump is saying, and how he’s saying it, reflect the deeply dysfunctional, even dangerous, state of our political system.

Trump is not running for office by suggesting changes to the system. He’s not really running for office. He exudes contempt for the system and for those, right or left, who operate within it. He rattles off grandiose promises that are hard to take seriously. Few of even his most ardent supporters think he has a chance of winning the election. So why is he ranking so highly in the polls?

One reason is surely because his “candidacy” represents the triumph of politics as entertainment. He has brought Reality TV to the political stage. His show is, simply, great TV, and nothing tops great TV. But Trump’s approach also works so well because contempt sells. Because too many Americans are angry and afraid that they’re losing control of their country and their lives – and they’re correct to think so. A recent New York Times article quoted a caller to a conservative radio talk show: ‘The simple fact of the matter is that (Trump) fights,’” said Dave from Indiana. “’That’s why he’s worth supporting.’”

But what, one might ask, is Trump fighting for? It doesn’t seem to matter to millions of Americans fed up with years of stagnant incomes, shrinking jobs and vicious political warfare. More specifically, decades of anti-government rhetoric have done their work. We now witness the bizarre spectacle of Trump, a member of the financial elite that nearly destroyed the economy and that continues to gobble up the nation’s wealth, claiming to be our protector against the true villain, government.

It would be laughable, if it weren’t ominous.

Ominous, because there’s a demographic and cultural aspect aspect of Trump’s rise that shouldn’t be overlooked. As demographer William Frey recently noted in the Washington Post, “Trump’s message is a call to 1950s American greatness and a simmering, mad-as-hell populism” that “appeals to a vein of the U.S. electorate that will remain a significant voting bloc for several election cycles to come: older whites.”

And, Frey adds, Arizona is the ideal setting for Trump’s message – heartily endorsed by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — to thrive. Our 65-plus population is 82 percent White, while our child population is only 41 percent White. This is, as others have named it, the nation’s growing gap between the Brown and the Gray. The gap reflects two sharply differing conceptions of good governance – one emphasizing low taxes funding few services beyond basic security and infrastructure, the other favoring a larger public sector providing a range of services, especially for the poor. Worse, Frey says, Arizona “has, in many ways, become ground zero for the politics of fear, famous for tamping down ethnic studies in public schools and passing strict immigration measures.” And this is not merely a passing problem: “As minorities grow as a share of the U.S. population — they are expected to represent more than half of Americans by 2044 — so will the potential for the politics of fear.”

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What about the increasing numbers of minority voters? Won’t their growing political clout moderate Trump’s appeal and the power of the Tea Party types whom McCain recently called “the crazies?” Maybe … eventually. As noted in a 2012 Morrison Institute analysis, Latinos are more likely to support Democratic and Independent candidates; but they are less likely to register and vote than older White citizens, at least in part because Latinos tend to be younger and poorer, and include a higher proportion of people who are not citizens. It’s become a tradition as each election approaches: Activists fan out through the states, scrambling to register Latino voters and propel them to the polls, certain that this is the year that the massive potential Latino vote will finally make itself heard.

It hasn’t happened yet, and Frey suggests that we’ll run through several more election cycles before it does. If it does. He doesn’t say so, but it’s hard not to believe that, as the demographic balance continues to shift, the more excitable members of the shrinking, aging White population will grow ever more angry and frightened. Ever more susceptible, that is, to the purveyors of the politics of fear.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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Trump at a July 16 rally in New Hampshire.