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Disenfranchised voters gravitate to Trump, experts say

| Thursday, July 23, 2015, 11:09 p.m.
Donald Trump gestures at a news conference near the U.S.- Mexico border outside of Laredo, Texas, on July 23, 2015.
REUTERS
Donald Trump gestures at a news conference near the U.S.- Mexico border outside of Laredo, Texas, on July 23, 2015.
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves after arriving at the airport for a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, Thursday, July 23, 2015.
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves after arriving at the airport for a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, Thursday, July 23, 2015.

Brad Lena sees Donald Trump through the prism of Star Wars: “a disturbance in The Force.”

The billionaire businessman and reality TV star arrived Thursday at the U.S.-Mexico border to emphasize his hardline stance against immigration, in a week of attention-getting moments that thrust Trump into the lead among 16 GOP hopefuls for the White House.

It's his disruption of the political class “that continues unimpeded their malevolent contributions to the rule of law, freedom of conscience, representative governance, competitive capitalism, freedom of speech, fiduciary stewardship and so on,” Lena, 62, of Bell Acres, a small borough northwest of Pittsburgh, said of Trump's attraction to many voters.

“The people are getting restless; hence, the rise of Trump,” he said.

Trump's surge in the polls alarms the Republican establishment that he renounces.

But his words strike a chord with some Americans who are disillusioned by government and politicians.Whether they'll vote for him is another question.

Anthony Ragan of Los Angeles, a freelance screenwriter and self-described conservative, told the Tribune-Review in an email that he empathizes to some degree with voters who are so frustrated that they're charmed by Trump's bombastic rhetoric and unorthodox pique at his GOP rivals and critics.

“What's happening,” Ragan, 57, said, “is as American as baseball on a summer's afternoon — venting anger and flipping a large bird at our so-called betters.” He predicts that as the campaigns continue, however, “they'll see Trump for what he is: a medicine show barker selling ‘Dr. Feelgood's Miracle Tonic for the Republic,' and they'll realize he doesn't belong anywhere near the Oval Office.”

Trump's critics point to his demagoguery and mean-spirited remarks, such as calling immigrants who cross the border illegally “criminals” and “rapists,” and accusing Mexico's government of sending felons to the United States.

That issue pushed his candidacy to the front of the line, over former and sitting governors, senators and a businesswoman, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found. The nationwide telephone survey July 16-19 showed Trump with 24 percent of 1,002 Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters — almost twice the support of his closest rival, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, with 13 percent.

“Trump has revealed old instincts that go as far back as the ‘Know Nothing' movement that reacted to an influx of German and Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1850s,” said Eldon Eisenach, a political science professor emeritus from the University of Tulsa. “The movement was loud and gained large support but eventually died because it had no policies behind its volume. In short, it could not govern.”

People who “are not used to politics but they are used to complaining” might be mobilized now, “but their energy has no sustainability,” said Eisenach.

Trump — who has exchanged hostile words with other Republicans — could test the party's push to attract Hispanic voters.

Political analysts expect Hispanics to play a critical role in the 2016 presidential election, particularly in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Nationwide, nearly 80 percent of Latino voters consider Trump's comments offensive, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing a survey commissioned by Univision, the Spanish-language entertainment and news network.

As a political outsider, Trump can shake up the system and speak hard truths, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

“Many disaffected conservatives are attracted to that,” he said.

In the same Washington Post-ABC poll, 38 percent of voters said immigrants weaken American society, suggesting significant support from people with nativist and populist sentiments, Skelley said. Other polls show older people are most worried about changing U.S. demographics, he said.

“Given that finding, it isn't surprising that a recent Economist survey showed that by age group, measuring all voters, the only cohort to give Trump a net favorable rating were voters 65 and older,” said Skelley.

National media exposure and his name recognition have buoyed Trump's numbers.

But after this “discovery phase,” when voters learn about a candidate's positions, comes the “scrutiny phase,” Skelley said. If the GOP establishment is worried about Trump further hurting the Republican brand, especially with Latinos, they should let him get on the debate stage and keep talking, said Skelley.

“Trump has not shown an ability to temper his commentary in such a way that might expand his appeal,” he said.

Though Trump has threatened he might make an independent bid for president, his candidacy likely will last only as long as it serves his ego, said Eisenach.

“Once he is no longer benefiting from it, he'll be gone from the GOP process,” he said.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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