Opinion: Trump speaks to the people -- but it's not clear what he's saying

First on CNN: Trump describes New Hampshire victory
First on CNN: Trump describes New Hampshire victory

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First on CNN: Trump describes New Hampshire victory 05:24

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump has tapped into anti-establishment fervor in the U.S.
  • His statements on matters of public policy are vague, giving little real clue as to his plans
  • Trump would be first president in U.S. history with no public service record

Xenia Wickett and Jacob Parakilas are the project director and assistant project director, respectively, for the U.S. Project at Chatham House in London. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)Donald Trump's loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa gave rise to a narrative that his support was rhetorical only, and that he would fail to translate his enormous media profile into votes. But his 19 point victory in New Hampshire belied this, and reinforced Trump's claim to be the favourite for the Republican nomination.

Trump's success is real, but it is far too early to call -- he has accumulated fewer than 20 of the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination.
But his victories do say something important about the mood of the U.S. electorate. The two candidates who entered the field as establishment favorites -- Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton -- have both struggled, though Bush, facing many more opponents, has had the worst of it.
    The fact that neither Bush nor Clinton has drifted easily towards the nomination signals that democracy is alive and well in the U.S. -- but if the election has demonstrated anything thus far, it is the limits of establishment power.
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    Trump is clearly tapping into a very strong sentiment of dissatisfaction with the status quo within the United States. To some degree, Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders is tapping into the same vein, though politically and stylistically, the two are miles apart.
    What draws them together is a sense of disenfranchisement -- a sense that the "system" is rigged against ordinary Americans and is only becoming more so.
    But Trump's adeptness at channeling voter dissatisfaction does not exempt him from the need to demonstrate how he would address their concerns. And thus far, he simply hasn't given voters sufficient information to make an informed judgment about what kind of president he would be.
    Trump would be the first president in American history with no public service record, civilian or military, so there is no record of how he deals with public policy challenges (in contrast, Sanders has a decades-long record in the U.S. Senate for voters to scrutinize).
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    At a time when most other candidates have put forward detailed descriptions of their policies regarding major foreign and domestic challenges (from dealing with Russia to reforming education), Trump has not.
    Trump's statements on matters of public policy are, by design, vague. He hasn't specified what "winning" in the context of trade relations with China would entail; nor how his plan to "bomb ISIS and take their oil" would be operationalized.
    Where he has advocated specific policies -- building a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the United States, for example -- they are implausible on practical, political, and in some cases, legal or Constitutional grounds.
    America has a strong democracy and what we are seeing is evidence of this. Like Sanders, Trump is connecting with parts of society that feel left out or left behind. Unfortunately however, none of us know what Trump actually stands for or what, credibly, he would do in power.
    As Trump marches towards the nomination, we can only hope that this question is answered sooner rather than later.