Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh (AP/John Locher/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

How Donald Trump always gets away with it: He's more like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter than a politician

Gaffes that destroy other politicians don't hurt Trump at all -- because his voters don't see him as a politician


Sophia A. McClennen
May 2, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

Within moments of Donald Trump trotting out his “woman card” rant, comparisons were being made to Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” moment.  Romney’s gaffe took place during the third presidential debate of the 2012 election when he was asked how he would handle workplace inequality and equal pay.  Romney told the town hall member who had posed the question that he had “binders full of women” to choose from when it came to filling cabinet positions.

Within minutes there was a Facebook page, “Binders Full of Women,” that had accrued thousands of followers before the debate even ended.  It had almost 300,000 followers by the time of the election.

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Romney’s binder gaffe and his 47 percent blunder, where he claimed that 47 percent of the population would vote for Obama because they wanted handouts, pretty much did him in.  But when we compare these two epic mistakes in the Romney campaign to Trump’s almost weekly blunders it’s almost impossible to understand how the bloviating billionaire is still in the race.

While there is now a lively Twitter hashtag #womancard that is comparing Trump’s misogyny to Romney’s, the reality is that, unlike Romney, Trump can pretty much say anything about anyone and not hurt his support.

So what gives?  How is it that Trump is not being affected in the same ways previous politicians have been?

Some have suggested that in today’s politics the political gaffe simply doesn’t stick in the ways that it used to—especially not to Trump.   As Steve Frantzich, author of a study on political gaffes, noted in an interview with CNBC, “being Trump is not having to say you're sorry. He seems to be able to get away with these things."

But the analysis thus far has missed the point because it has read Trump‘s gaffes within the history of political campaigns.

Trump has nothing in common with Romney, Rick Perry, and the rest of the recent politicians who have tanked a race with a gaffe.  Instead his cohort is pundits and conservative celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter.

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When we understand the Trump gaffe in that context we can see how it not only does not negatively impact him; it actually strengthens his support.

Consider the responses to his foreign policy speech. Again and again coverage of the speech suggested that Trump was out of his depth, didn’t sound like he understood what he was saying, lacked specifics, or simply made things up. According to the Economist, for instance, Trump’s “description of statecraft as a series of deals, brokered in eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations with foreign powers, bears no resemblance to real diplomacy.”

Of course it bears no real resemblance to diplomacy – because Trump’s foreign policy blathering is more like that of Limbaugh and Hannity than an actual politician.

Remember that, if Trump is elected, he will be the first President in the history of our nation with absolutely no political or military experience of any kind.

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Trump may be a billionaire businessman but his shtick comes from the land of extreme right-wing pundits who started on conservative talk radio, like Limbaugh, or who launched from right wing news media like Fox News. In that world facts don’t matter, but stirring up hype and hysteria does. Even more important, if you say something incorrect or bigoted or completely insane, your followers will simply support you more ferociously.  Of course you alienate folks that are reasonable, but you develop even fiercer loyalty from your following.

In that world, reality, as Stephen Colbert famously quipped in character on “The Colbert Report,” “has a well-known liberal bias.”   So if Trump suggests that Mexicans who immigrate to this nation are rapists, his supporters don’t flinch.  Instead they circle the wagons to defend their leader from the liberal media and the fact-inistas.

Whether the outrageous comment comes from Trump or Hannity or Coulter—there is a consistent pattern of response among their followers. The more a right-wing pundit goes off the rails; the more they are praised by their base for being honest and genuine.

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Consider this, Limbaugh’s website describes him as "America's Truth Detector and the Doctor of Democracy” among other things, and yet Politifact reports that 94 percent of what he says is only half true or false.  Only 6 percent is mostly true.

While his numbers have been dropping, his listeners are aging, and he has been losing markets and advertisers, it would be a mistake to claim that Limbaugh is on his way out.  His radio show is still the top ranked with 13.25 million weekly listeners.

This is why the real comparison to make is between Limbaugh and Trump, rather than Romney and Trump.  They consistently alienate huge segments of the population, but they aren’t hurt by it because the folks that support them don’t care.

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Probably the moment that most hurt Limbaugh was when he attacked Sandra Fluke during the 2012 election for advocating that women should have contraception coverage in their insurance.  Here’s what he said:

"[Fluke] essentially says that she must be paid to have sex—what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."

It parallels with Trump’s attack on Fox News host Megyn Kelly who had made Trump uncomfortable in the first debate when she asked him to explain his litany of misogynist remarks about women, from “fat pigs” to “dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”  After getting visibly upset at the debate Trump went on to tell CNN that “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."

That exchange didn’t end up hurting Trump any more than the “woman card” rant likely will.   And the reason for that is, like Limbaugh, Trump supporters tend to be middle-aged, white men.  But even more important, as a study by the RAND corporation points out, what really unites Trump supporters is a shared sense that they “don’t have a political voice.”

That same feeling drives Limbaugh listeners too—despite the fact that it has virtually no basis in reality.  But, as I have said, this is not about the real world; it is about hyped-up, irrational affect.   In that world you get to insult a whole segment of the population, cry victim when asked to explain yourself, and emerge even more popular among your supporters than before.

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Sure we have seen this sort of maneuvering in politics, but it is in the land of the right-wing pundit where the game is to insult as much and as often as possible.

Trump rallies have been rife with violent attacks on anyone that disagrees with Trump. In addition, Trump’s presidential campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with battery for roughly pulling a Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, as she tried to ask Trump a question.

As The New York Times reported, the incident “offered a reminder that Mr. Trump, a candidate whose own communications, whether on Twitter or on television, can often be menacing in tone, has entrusted his White House bid to a political operative whose belligerence extends to physicality.”

Trump’s Lewandowski is a disturbing sign of how the land of the insult is also tied to real, material threats to those that dare to ask questions or disagree.

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And that’s where the silver lining comes through. Because, despite the fact that there is likely nothing that Trump can say to disaffect his supporters, it remains the case that he only appeals to a specific sliver of the total voting population—a segment that simply does not represent the majority voters.

Even before the “woman card” fiasco, 73 percent of women voters had an unfavorable view of Trump.  In comparison, 81 percent of Limbaugh’s listeners are male.  In fact the overall demographics between the supporters of the two men is quite similar.

Their supporters have much in common, but so too do their critics.  And that’s why #NeverTrump has much more in common with #StopRush than it does with #BindersFullofWomen.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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