NEW YORK -- The story of Frank Underwood, a Machiavellian politician using deception and perjury to cheat his way to the White House, proved outrageously addictive to audiences around the world. The success of House of Cards was to play on the suspicion that behind the façade, those in authority are simply narcissistic bullies bent on power.
Self-love, intimidation and a desire for rule are traits easily associated with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Yet the parallels end there. Trump is not a career politician, chiseled by the machinery of Washington. Nor is he The Prince, adopting bombast and pomposity rather than duplicity or cunning.
And unlike the fictional Underwood, Trump can actually harm the United States, driving a wedge between a citizenry already riven by economic uncertainty, demographic angst and anxiety over the next inevitable terror attack.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in Grand Rapids, Michigan
“I’m worried that if Trump gets in, it will show it’s OK to treat Latinos and Muslims as second class citizens,” Ihada (surname withheld over fear of reprisals), an 18-year-old Nevadan protesting outside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas told HuffPost ahead of the Republican primary debate on December 15th.
Streaming out of the theatre later that night, Jared (surname withheld over distrust of the media), a 46-year-old Arizonan, offered an opposing view: “If he [Trump] doesn’t get in, then the terrorists have won.”
Much has been written about the meaning of the visceral campaign, launched by the 69-year-old businessman in New York in June. The longevity of his crusade, initially dismissed as burlesque for the media and self-promotion for a reality TV star, has forced politicians, journalists and commentators into an uncomfortable examination of the alienation and paranoia driving Trump’s White House push.
Drawing on the lessons of previous elections, Trump’s run was expected to rise and fall, bursting into colourful life before fizzling out similar to the firework campaigns of Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in 2012. That did not happen, with Trump set to gorge on Christmas pudding sat atop national polls, warmed by a double point advantage over his nearest competitor. Or as he calls it, “A yuuuuge lead.”
With Trump immune to self-immolation and impervious to rival attacks, the likelihood of a dramatic collapse in the coming weeks looks unlikely. So is Trump going to win the Republican nomination? Perhaps...
Despite months of national and international coverage, the race for the White House is only now heating up, with states voting for their party nomination on February 1st. The process moves through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina before rolling out across all the states, finishing in June.
A candidate’s performance in state primaries (statewide voting) or caucuses (local gatherings where voters decide which candidate to support) translates into delegates at the Republican National Convention to be held in Cleveland, Ohio in mid-July. Amass enough delegates, and you (theoretically) win the party nomination.
Despite there being 50 states across the United States, a disproportionate emphasis is placed on winning one of the first three states. Losing in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina isn’t necessarily a death sentence for a campaign, but the lopsided media attention afforded to early voting makes it very difficult for a candidate to regain momentum, while poorly performing hopefuls often drop out.
On March 1st, 14 states hold Republican primaries and caucuses. This so-called "Super Tuesday" is when the most delegates are awarded on a single day. Nearly all of these states are in the South, benefiting conservative candidates who peddle a tough military line. As Cruz recently admitted, “Super Tuesday will be a critical turning point in the primary.” This day will likely go a long way to determine the nominee, while ensuring a further thinning of the field as residual stragglers exit the race.
So where does this leave Trump? Despite his campaign drawing "incredible crowds" and showing persistently healthy national polling, the tycoon could face difficulties at the ballot box. The frontrunner has built a campaign on corralling a very dedicated yet marginal section of the Republican electorate. His appeal to nativism, bigotry and outright racism casts a narrow net, alienating as many Republicans as it animates.
In Iowa, Trump is currently polling second to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a candidate more appealing to the 60 percent of Iowa Republicans who self-identified in 2012 as evangelical. In recent cycles, The Hawkeye State has consistently voted for the most God-fearing candidate: televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988, former President George W. Bush in 2000, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in 2012.
Huckabee and Santorum, both contesting the 2016 race, are the type of evangelicals who would ban abortion, reverse equal marriage legislation and impose creationism on the curriculum. This extreme flavour of Christianity appeals to many Iowans. And for all Trump’s bombast about the Bible being his "favourite book" (narrowly ahead of The Art Of The Deal), it’s unlikely the businessman is devout enough to secure their vote.
Working in Trump’s favour is a protracted field of candidates. Alongside Huckabee and Santorum, Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have all courted the evangelical vote. If Iowans split between these five candidates, it’s good news for Trump; if they coalesce behind one candidate, most likely Cruz, Trump will lose.
And that loss could pose a serious threat to the property magnate’s momentum. Having led for almost seven months in national polls only to lose the first caucus would suggest Trump's campaign is dressed in the emperor’s new clothes, while undercutting the central premise of the businessman’s façade – “I’m a winner.”
Trump currently holds sizable leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, though like Iowa, both states have their idiosyncrasies when it comes to primary voting. Although both traditionally opt for a candidate with broad appeal (not populists), recent polling suggests the overriding concern of voters in New Hampshire is terrorism -- an area of strength for the reality TV star.
If the field thins sufficiently before New Hampshire and South Carolina, voters could unite behind a more traditional candidate, such as Rubio or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. If the field remains fractured, Trump will probably win.
This all sounds good for the Trump campaign. However, there’s a further hurdle to his nomination -- the Republican Party hierarchy. Those who run the party machinery fear Trump’s brand of factional politics would likely gift the election to the Democrats, leaving the Republicans out of the White House for another four years.
The general election is traditionally won by corralling the political middle ground; in more recent cycles the Hispanic and black vote, too. Trump appeals to none of these groups.
Furthermore, a groundswell of national anti-Trump voting could also lessen or even lose current Republican majorities in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. In short, by winning the nomination Trump could lead a party already hobbled by successive election defeats straight off a cliff.
This has happened before. In 1964, a libertarian called Barry Goldwater secured the Republican nomination on a wave of populist sentiment, only to be handed a drubbing on Election Day, giving the Democrats large majorities in both the House and the Senate.
An even bigger concern for some Republicans is Trump actually winning the presidency. Though polls show the likely Democratic Party nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, trouncing Trump, the general election remains a head-to-head race. Should Clinton dramatically implode, Trump could find himself relocating from New York’s 5th Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia much to everyone's bafflement.
As a Republican strategist recently told the Washington Post, “We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job. It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”
Should Trump make it through to the convention, the Party may have one last chance to scupper his campaign. Voting by way of primaries and caucuses will assign 2,742 delegates. A candidate needs a majority of delegates (1,237) to win the nomination. However, with so many candidates in the race, none might reach a majority.
This would result in a “brokered convention” -- a series of ballots, with campaigners striking backroom deals to sway delegates. After a succession of votes, one candidate eventually emerges with a majority. With the Republican hierarchy set against Trump, it is unlikely the tycoon would emerge from this horse-trading as the nominee. However, “brokered conventions” are extremely rare, the last witnessed at the Democratic Party convention in 1952.
So Trump could win the nomination, however the presidency remains unlikely. But as long as he's in the race, there's a chance. Who is to say how the country would react if it was hit by a devastating terrorist strike; a strongman authoritarian might seem a viable option in the wake of an attack by a member of the Islamic State group.
Trump energises the crowd during a campaign rally at Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015
Looking beyond the election, the real testament to Trump's campaign is a permanent reshaping of America's political landscape. Whatever happens next, whether the Tycoon storms out of the race, wins the nomination, or simply fizzles out during the spring, he will have changed the game for an entire generation.
His campaign has exposed a deep well of hatred and bigotry among Republican voters, while giving credibility to their xenophobia by carrying intolerance as a banner during a presidential run.
Donald has made it acceptable to denounce an entire faith, condemn an entire nationality and eschew dialectic in favour of barren catchphrases, unlettered name-calling and bald-faced lies. Regardless of who wins the Oval Office in November, Trump’s legacy is to make this type of politics the new normal -- and there’s no going back. Perhaps Underwood was right: "Democracy is so overrated."