Lu: Celebrate the Trump Effect

by Jessica Lu | 9/22/15 6:30pm

Maybe you are reading this column in the hopes that someone is finally defending your favorite presidential candidate. Maybe you’re lingering on this page because you are outraged that someone would try to defend Donald Trump’s political positions. This is not that column.

I firmly believe that not only is Trump’s message egotistical and racist but that he has no business running a country. His views are misogynistic and his political platform overtly approves of the continued, if not intensified, oppression of minority groups.

Yet, I am arguing that Trump’s decision to run for the Republican presidential nomination has benefited American politics. His bizarre orange tuft of hair has dominated the news cycle because much of the country seems to have a strange love affair with him. Some genuinely support him, but many enjoy being horrified or appalled by his statements. Comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert cannot stop talking about him, and neither can many Americans.

A record number of viewers tuned in to last week’s Republican presidential primary debate hosted by CNN. Yes, an average of more than 23 million people watched the stage full of presidential hopefuls. For a moment, Yik Yak was no longer littered with recycled jokes or invitations to “Netflix and chill,” but instead with posts about the candidates.

This year, more than ever, has made politics look fun, rather than a string of dry and empty promises uttered by the usual lineup of old white men. While Trump does not inspire the same sense of positivity and hopefulness that President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign might have, what he does elicit from the American people is bafflement and morbid fascination.

One of the biggest issues in our democratic system is low voter turnout and lack of engagement or interest in what the candidates are saying. How can we call ourselves a democracy when only 57.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the last presidential election? Almost half of eligible Americans do not vote for their president, let alone for their less glamorous local representatives — who arguably have a greater impact — where voter turnout numbers can hover around 20 percent. The men and women we elect are not truly reflective of whom we all want and what we value as a nation — they only reflect what half of us want.

As someone who does a lot of canvassing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, one common answer to the question of whom an individual is voting for in the upcoming Democratic primary is, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it,” followed by, “I wasn’t planning on voting in the primary.” Many do not see the point in voting, perhaps because they just do not find politics that interesting.

There has, however, has been a noticeable shift in attitudes this year. Americans are following the race — even with more than a year to go until the general election. The race to the White House has become more than just a political event. Most people I know who watched the Republican debate last week wanted to see what new outrageous thing Trump might say about women or Latinos. Meanwhile, former Florida governor Jeb Bush — considered by many the darling of the Republican party — has not generated much of a popular following, sidelined by the fixation on the dark horse candidate.

There is no doubt that Trump has taken valuable airtime away from more deserving candidates. Yet his overall effect — increased attention to the 2016 election — outweighs those negatives. Even when — and hopefully not if — Trump eventually leaves the race, it seems the momentum he has injected into electoral politics will remain. Is Trump trivializing politics and what politicians do? Maybe. But the interest he is generating is likely to carry over to the general election race.

The men and women who could be our president, arguably the most powerful person in the world, deserve our attention and scrutiny. We should be vetting these people — not just making a game-time decision at the polls, assuming we vote at all.

The fact that it took a red-faced, orange-haired class clown shouting about losers, haters and a “huuuge” wall shows that we might not have our priorities straight, and we might be focusing on the wrong people — but at least we finally care.