The rise of Donald Trump continues to perplex and perturb seasoned observers of American politics. I'm no exception. When the flamboyant real-estate mogul and reality-television star launched his presidential bid last June, I resolutely refused to take him seriously. After all, four years earlier he had sold the so-called "birther" theory that Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the US and therefore was unqualified to be in power. So when Trump made rude and crude remarks about Mexicans and Muslims I said he was damaged goods.
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And yet here we are, just weeks out from the primaries, and Trump continues to dominate the Republican race for the White House – and we so-called experts are wiping the egg off our faces. It's still too early to say he will win his party's nomination in July. But it's not too early to account for his extraordinary political rise.
Trump's appeal is usually attributed to his leadership, charisma, can-do business ethos and so on. Yet none of these qualities would resonate without the voter anger that is evident across Middle America.
Simply put, the American people President Obama addresses in Wednesday's State of the Union address are in a foul mood. Or more to the point: significant segments of mainly white blue-collar Americans believe their nation is in big trouble. It's not just that Washington has become an entrenched class of politicians increasingly divorced from the public. The angst has more to do with a widespread sense that the US is in serious decline.
Indeed, decline is the subtext of this primary season. Many Americans, especially less affluent white voters, feel it, and fear it. They have grown up knowing the US is the most powerful, most prosperous and the most influential nation in history. They are slowly and painfully coming to grips with their nation's limits in a pluralistic world that does not conform to American expectations. These people are what the prominent Washington-based writer John B. Judis calls Middle American Radicals (or MARS, a category proposed by sociologist Donald Warren four decades ago).
Middle American Radicals are alienated lower-middle class folks who defy partisan labels: they hold right-wing views on race, crime and poverty as well as left-wing views on big business, income inequality and government pensions. Many are still registered Democrats, and they bitterly resent the white-collar wing of the Republican Party that is fragmenting among the establishment candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Which is why a Trump nomination, according to shrewd conservative analysts Peggy Noonan and Michael Gerson could splinter the GOP.
Above all else, Middle American Radicals are nationalists who are disoriented by the radical socio-economic changes of recent decades. They rail against an establishment that has weakened border protection, preached political correctness, negotiated trade deals that haemorrhage US jobs and plunged the nation into Mesopotamia misadventures while permitting barbarians like Islamic State to threaten Californians.
You might think Middle American Radicals are so angry and anxious they appear at times unhinged, but they are not alone. About 70 per cent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track. They lack faith in their leaders. A recent Pew research survey found trust in government has hit an all-time low. And they are convinced both major parties won't do anything to reverse their nation's decline.
In short, Middle American Radicals say they are losing their country and are desperate to take it back. Taking it back from whom is never clear. But the point here is they want someone through whom they can vent their fury at the Beltway ruling class of politicians and at what's called the mainstream media. Policy details are not so important. They just want to send someone to Washington who will knock heads and get things done.
Enter Trump: he presents himself as the living antidote to decline. "Let's make America great again" is the constant refrain of the Trump crowd – and the rationalisation for its receptivity to The Donald's leap-in-the-dark campaign. Indeed, his whole persona is can-do: Trust me, I'll get things done. Or with apologies to Nike: JUST DO IT.
Meanwhile, Trump's main challenger Ted Cruz – Texas senator, architect of government shutdowns and darling of the Tea Party and Religious Right – is also running as an outsider and against American decline. And he is, sure enough, even more confrontational and less compromising than Trump.
This is imprudent. The great conviction politicians of the modern era – Reagan, Thatcher, Howard – recognised politics as the art of the possible, and that radicalism must have its limits. Politics is not a science of the ideal, but rather the task of getting things done. If you try to do the impossible in a democracy, and upset the political mainstream, you tend to get unelected or kicked out of office rather quickly.
What's striking about the Trump phenomenon is that America, notwithstanding its many troubles, is in much better shape than the MARS crowd insists. The US still has the world's strongest military. Its economy remains diverse and technologically advanced. Its higher education system is the envy of the world. Immigrants are integrating as fast as previous ones. The shale gas revolution means the US is on the cusp of being energy independent (and more energy efficient). And demographic trends are working to the US advantage whereas populations in Europe and China are declining and ageing.
The US, contrary to Trump, is not "an economic wasteland" that is "committing cultural suicide". But history has left American exceptionalism behind: the US won't enjoy the kind of global pre-dominance that defined the "American Century" in the decades following World War II. If Americans don't recognise that reality, anger and anxiety will characterise their politics long after Trump's demise.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre and host of Between the Lines on ABC's Radio National.