Donald Trump: Rules don’t apply

Melissa Nann Burke and Chad Livengood The Detroit News

The usual campaign rules haven’t applied to Donald Trump – the anti-politician politician who speaks his mind, casually insults opponents and doesn’t care what other Republicans think about him.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fires up the crowd at Macomb Community College Sports & Expo Center in Warren, MI, on March 4, 2016. Trump gets the crowd chanting, "USA, USA, USA!!!!"

He has mocked a prominent Vietnam prisoner of war, disparaged Mexican immigrants and most recently wavered during one interview on disavowing an endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.

Trump is leading in delegates with 382, followed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 300 and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 128, putting him more than a quarter of the way to the 1,237 delegates to win the GOP nomination.

Trump campaigned Friday in Warren and Cadillac without any plans to return before Tuesday's primary. Supporters say they like his independence from the donor community and interest groups, and admire his business acumen.

“He’s a statesman. He’s telling you like it is. He’s being frank with the American people,” said Roland Fraschetti, a former Macomb County commissioner.

Roland Fraschetti

Fraschetti, 60, of St. Clair Shores is part of a network of Trump supporters using their homes or businesses to distribute yard signs and literature for the Trump campaign in Michigan.

“These other people, they flip-flop,” Fraschetti said. “The American people are tired of that.”

But some Republican leaders say all Trump has done is flip-flop. They remain skeptical of his brash persona and inconsistent positions and are increasingly concerned about how his dominance in the narrowing GOP field could harm the perception of the Republican Party at large.

Katie Packer, a Detroit native and executive director of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, said Trump becoming the GOP standard bearer would be catastrophic for the party.

She calls Trump a “conservative of convenience” because of how often he’s revised his previous, liberal positions to those more palatable within the GOP – from healthcare to gun rights to abortion.

“There’s very clearly no North Star in terms of this guy’s ideology,” Packer said. “If he’s the nominee, whole party is changed as we know it. He is someone who is completely unpredictable, except in that he won’t tend toward conservatism because he doesn’t know what conservatism means.”

Matt Grossman, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, noted an element of Trump’s platform when he pursued the Reform Party nomination for president in 2000 was a 14.25 percent wealth tax – a “pretty liberal position.” Trump also criticized then-opponent Pat Buchanan’s nativist sentiments.

“It’s really hard to identify any position that Trump has held consistently for a 20-year period. On nearly everything, you find some time when he was on the other side of it,” Grossman said. “He’s an opportunist, and this was the opportunity of the moment.”

Michigan contest

A Detroit News/WDIV-TV statewide poll conducted in mid-February showed Trump capturing 25 percent of support and leading a six-man Republican primary race before former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out after South Carolina’s primary.

Paul Welday

Trump had a 10-percentage-point lead over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Detroit News/WDIV survey of 600 likely Michigan Republican presidential primary voters. The poll conducted Feb. 14-16 showed 21 percent of likely voters were then undecided in the GOP contest.

Paul Welday, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Oakland County GOP, says Michigan could determine Republicans’ alternative to the frontrunner.

“Michigan is going to be a real pivotal state in this process, as it turns out, because it’s going to define who the viable alternative to Donald Trump is, if it exists,” said Welday, who donated to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to gain access to an event but is “agnostic” on the GOP presidential field.

Rubio “wants to make this a two-man race, but at the same time, he’s got to win somewhere. If he doesn’t win Florida, then what does that say for Rubio? He may be toast. And if (Ohio Gov. John) Kasich does well in Michigan and wins Ohio, a strong case could be made he’s the alternative.”

Trump campaigned in Michigan twice last year, drawing crowds of 2,375 in Birch Run on Aug. 11 and 8,100 in Grand Rapids on Dec. 21.

Scott Hagerstrom, who is directing Trump’s Michigan campaign, said he has met lots of supporters who have never before volunteered for a political campaign but are eager to help.

“They feel like he’s running to work for them,” Hagerstrom said. “He has a history of doing things, getting things done. He’s not a professional talker. He’s coming in with a clean slate.”

In late January, Trump predicted in a CNN interview that he would win Michigan's primary “because I protect the car industry,” through cracking down on what he calls unfair trade policies with Mexico and China.

But Trump irked Ford executives last year after criticizing the automaker for plans to invest $2.5 billion in Mexico, and saying if he were elected he would impose a 35 percent punitive tax on Ford parts and vehicles manufactured in Mexico. The candidate has often misstated facts about Ford’s plans and mistakenly announced that the company was canceling its Mexican expansion plans.

“At Ford, we’re proud of the facts, and unfortunately we suspect the facts are getting lost in the politics,” Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said on an earnings call in October. “Facts don’t cease to exist because they’re ignored.”

Building a wall along the Southern U.S. border and forcing Mexico to fund it might be Trump’s most often repeated campaign promise, along with his plans to deport 11 million people. He has criticized the Affordable Care Act, considers climate change a hoax, favors a ban on late-term abortions and opposes Common Core educational goals. Same-sex marriage should be an issue left to the states, he says.

Grossman of MSU said Trump’s 2016 candidacy is not unprecedented worldwide, noting a trend of third-party candidates appealing to an anti-elitist, nativist constituency that often combines anti-immigration and anti-trade positions.

“It’s part of a pattern that we haven’t seen a lot in the U.S.,” Grossman said.

And it’s among the reasons why Trump’s success concerns so many Republicans, who acknowledged after the 2012 election the need to tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric in order to compete in a diversifying country.

“If in 2016 if the main candidate is someone who is closely identified with the nativist appeal, then that also has the potential – even if he doesn’t win the general election – of impacting how the party is perceived,” Grossman said.

When he ran for president for a period in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate, Trump favored a the 14.25 percent tax on wealth to reduce the national debt, as well as legalizing certain controlled substances while taxing them to fund drug education.

Teflon candidate

Stu Sandler, a Republican consultant from Ann Arbor, said “99 percent of the people miscalculated” Trump’s staying power and ability to weather one media firestorm after another.

He pointed to Trump’s comments in July dismissing the military service of Arizona Sen. John McCain – the 2008 GOP presidential nominee – for being captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at a forum in Iowa – the only state he’s lost in the first four contests. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump did not serve in the military and got multiple student deferments that helped him avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam war, according to news reports.

Past presidential candidates would have never been able to get away with such disparaging remarks about a national leader’s military service, Sandler said.

“That was the first time, that at least I recognized, we’re dealing with something that’s totally unconventional,” Sandler said.

After Trump’s year-end appearance in Grand Rapids, he memorably defended his use of the word “schlonged” to describe Hillary Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Rather than a vulger Yiddish term for a man’s genitalia, Trump said he was using a term common in New York politics meaning Clinton “got beaten badly.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Dordt College, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Social media and smears

Trump’s campaign model eschews retail politicking at dozens of town halls in favor of outsized rallies designed to maximize media exposure, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.

Trump also makes himself available by phone to cable television programs on Sunday mornings and throughout the week, so even when he’s on the road, he’s still broadcast to millions.

He also communicates directly with followers on Twitter and Facebook, sometimes breaking news by quoting Mussolini or trashing Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly.

Often, his attacks during debates or at campaign events target his rivals’ character or looks, rather than substantive policy critiques.

“Trump has a unique ability to find the one weak spot of the other candidates, and really exploit that, hammering it home repeatedly to his advantage,” Kall said, noting how Bush couldn’t shake Trump’s labeling him “low energy.”

Trump calls Cruz a liar, made fun of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s hair and mocks how much Rubio sweats.

“The reason that Trump focuses on personal attacks is policy nuance is not the strength of him as a candidate,” Kall said. “He’s just not very deep on much of the issues.”

Howard Bragman, a Hollywood public relations executive and Flint native, says Trump has “exploded” his reality TV star brand to deliver a type of politicking some voters want, despite its lack of content.

“He’s created this outrageous character, so we’re just not surprised when he says something,” Bragman said. “But outrage is his brand and his followers don’t care that he doesn’t have a plan. To me, it’s junior-high politics.”

Bragman said Trump supporters are responding to what they believe is his authenticity but is actually arrogance and lack of humility.

“That is part of the appeal where he’s not perceived as a politician. But of course he’s a politician: He’s running for president,” Bragman said.

For months, the other candidates shied away from attacking the front-running Trump, believing that it would likely help one of their other rivals more than their own campaign, experts say. That was a strategic mistake, Packer said. Her PAC is targeting Trump with new ads on CNN and Fox News.

“Frontrunners don’t fall – people trip them,” she said. “Somebody had to trip him and show that he had weaknesses and sort of expose him for the fraud that he is, so that people would start looking for other candidates, and traditional Republicans wouldn’t start looking to him as the nominee.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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