Republicans: Earnestly, Why Are You Giving Donald Trump an Award?

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The Sarasota County, Florida GOP is naming him "statesman of the year." The party's reasoning sheds light on the role he's playing in Election 2012.

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Reuters

On seeing that Donald Trump would be honored by Sarasota County, Florida Republicans as their "Statesman of the Year," I thought to myself, "Now why would they go and do a thing like that?" Luckily, the Republicans of Sarasota County were willing to explain themselves in an interview. I spoke to their chairman, fourth-generation Sarasotan Joe Gruters, by phone, and his answers shed light not only on the actions of his local party, but on why Romney is associating himself with Trump this election cycle.

There's been a big reaction to the announcement that Donald Trump will receive the Sarasota Republican Party's "Statesman Award." A lot of what I've seen has been negative, along with a few positive reactions. Let's start with the background. How did this award come to be? Is it something that's given out every year?

I've been chairman since 2008 in Sarasota and we've given out three statesman of the year awards. Last year we gave it to Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi while he was sitting chairman of the Republican Governors Association. What we do is try to find individuals who are national in nature that also fit the mold of what we feel is a statesman and someone who is worthy to carry the title and receive the award.

What kind of attributes are you looking for?

We go back to that definition of what is the statesman. It's a wise, proven, and respected leader. I certainly think that Mr. Trump meets all those attributes. He is willing to make difficult decisions and take difficult positions regardless of the political consequences. When he was running for president, when he was mentioned as a possible candidate for president last year, he immediately shot to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. And he is one of the few people in America that can command the respect of people from of all walks of life.

Although there are some negative comments on the blogs about the award, at the end of day Mr. Trump is a statesman. He certainly is skilled and has wisdom. I'll just say that. He meets that criteria. He's a skilled, you know, respected leader.

I don't think you'll get any disagreement when you say that he is willing to take controversial stands. That seems beyond dispute. His fans would probably say that he has wisdom; his detractors would say the opposite. What is it about him that demonstrates wisdom?

Well, here is one thing. While everyone else is struggling around the country, he continues to excel. He's had his own ups and downs over the course of his life, but the guy is a job creator. Election 2012 is all about jobs and the economy. Another thing we wanted to do is since he's been active with the Romney campaign trying to help the governor get elected in November, his stock continued to rise. Because with his background as a job creator and the focus of the upcoming election being jobs and the economy, it made perfect sense and he was the perfect fit for us at this time.

What's the purpose of having the award? Is it sending a signal to the public? Is it having a speaker that you want to hear to an event? Is it drawing a crowd? Is it making a national statement?

Well, I hate to say this but it's probably all of the above. Prior to me becoming chairman they had some local dignitaries that received the award. We stepped up and made it a more national-type award, and obviously with Gov. Barbour receiving it last year and Donald receiving it this year it's now truly a national award. At the end of the day Sarasota is a battleground county. You know, Obama lost Sarasota County by 211 votes in 2008 and it is expected to be as close in 2012. So the one thing about Sarasota is we have a lot of incredible grassroots activists. We've got some good donors, and because were right in the center of all the action we can attract some of the bigger names because of our significance as a county. And likewise, because we can draw big names, we want to draw the best names that we possibly can, and Donald Trump was at the top of that list.

What happens now that he's been selected? Well he definitely attend an event for you guys?

He's going to attend on August 26. We are going to have a dinner with around 650 people and he'll except the award. We're less than an hour drive from Tampa where the convention is and this is the eve of the convention, the night before the convention starts. My guess is that he'll except our award in Sarasota, take a short drive, and be at the convention the next day.

Do you think that he'll get the base excited in Sarasota, and have a positive impact on a battleground county?

No question. An individual like Trump has the ability to mobilize and energize both your base and your opponent's base. But at the same time, what I personally like about Mr. Trump is that he has the ability to mobilize and energize both sides, and although he has his detractors, the guy is a proven success, he's a proven conservative, and he's a champion of free enterprise. When we're thinking about jobs and economy, and how important that is, and how important is that we get Gov. Romney elected, to have a surrogate like Donald Trump attend our event for the benefit of the party -- he's coming to receive the award but at the end of the day, he's coming here to ensure Romney's victory because every dollar that we raise at this event will go to our get out the vote efforts. It will go directly to helping ensure victory for Gov. Romney in November.

"There's no bigger name in America than Donald Trump, political or nonpolitical."

How much do you expect to raise from it?

I would say maybe as much as $100,000.

Will Trump to be a bigger draw than past recipients?

You never know who is going to be a big draw, but there's no bigger name in America than Donald Trump. Political or nonpolitical. I just think the way he's been able to brand himself is really something that everybody could look at. He's a champion of free enterprise and is able to prove that he is a consistent winner.

So it's fair to say that his success building a national media platform, a television show, a presence in the media is part of why he's attractive to you guys?

Well not only to us, but to Americans. Think about this. Never before have we had so many people tweet about our award winners. We had John Bolton here in Sarasota earlier this year, we had six presidential campaigns, we had Karl Rove, we had Ed Rollins. We have a lot of big-name speakers here in Sarasota for different events. Donald will be just another one of those big-name speakers. But from a name perspective, we have an ability to attract people that maybe have never attended a political event before. You have people who are paying attention on both sides that want to come hear him because of his presence on the national stage and his ability to attract crowds. I'll tell you what, I've never been more excited about a speaker coming into Sarasota than I have for Donald Trump coming here for this particular event.

Without saying anything positive or negative about Mr. Trump in particular, do you worry about the larger trend toward a nexus of celebrity and politics? If you think about something like statesmanship and the people who embody the qualities you would want in a statesman, you can think of some qualities, like publicly taking controversial stands on big issues, that perhaps go along with celebrity. But you can think of other qualities a statesman might have that wouldn't necessarily put you in the public eye or attract a big media presence around you. Do you think that there is a tension here as you select statesman in the future? How much do you want someone who's a celebrity and how much do you want someone who embodies other qualities but maybe isn't as big of a draw?

That's a good point.

You know, celebrity status does not make you a statesman nor would it get you an invite in the future. I'll say that Donald Trump was the only nonpolitical figure that we reached out to, the only one. And it is unusual, and you can tell from the blog comments that people are (laughs) -- people get excited, but I think that's, Mr. Trump excites a lot of people because he's such a black-and-white type guy. Being black-and-white does not always play well with voters in elections but really at the end of today that's what most Americans want to hear. They're tired of the political rhetoric on both sides. They want someone telling it how it is. That is why Governor Chris Christie has such a large following in New Jersey and the rest of the country, because people want to hear how it really is.

What I hear about most from Trump detractors is the position he's taken on Obama's birth certificate. Did that factor into this?

No, not at all. To me it is a non-issue, it's irrelevant, it was never considered as part of the discussion.

So it neither helped him nor hurt him?

Exactly. We never even discussed that issue.

What should undecided voters in Sarasota take away from Trump's presence?

At the end of the day, this election is going to be about jobs and the economy. Gov. Romney is running on his record as a turnaround specialist and a job creator. What Donald Trump brings to Sarasota and helps Romney with is his business acumen, the fact that he's a job creator, and the ability to bring the focus on how we're going to get Americans back to work and create jobs so that our best years are yet to come.

So you think Trump helps focus the election on economics?

I think he fits the mold perfectly.

You mentioned before that any big-name figure is going to excite your base but perhaps also motivate your opponent's base. How did you think about whether overall Trump would help or hurt on that metric?

Donald Trump has so much success, that sometimes success itself, people have negative reactions, but I think people like Donald Trump who are successful, certainly he is a model that the rest of us, his record of success as a job creator and a businessman it something that we can all look to and hope that Gov. Romney can replicate on the national level.

But as you thought about getting your base excited and maybe exciting the base of your opponents, how did you decide whether Trump would be a net plus or net minus?

That's the beautiful thing about Donald Trump. Because he transcends politics, because he is a celebrity, that's what I mean when I say that he can command respect from people of all walks of life. I think there a lot of people who are undecided voters who not interested in politics that may go listen to a guy like Donald Trump, hear his message, and be motivated to vote for our candidate because of that celebrity-type status.

So maybe he has a different reputation among the average American than the average political junkie?

He may. But I will say that our target is the average American, and I would include myself as part of that. Maybe the uninformed, undecided type voters are the ones we're targeting with that jobs and economy message.

Is there anything I didn't ask about that you want to add?

Nope. Just the fact that he's a champion of free enterprise and it'll be an honor to come to Sarasota. This is a big event, and at the end of the day every dollar we raise is going to help our nominee, Mitt Romney, try to win the election in November.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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