Social media are jam packed with analysis of the rise of Donald Trump these days. Most of us in what we would view as the intellectual and educated community are asking not just why Trump is a success, but as Trevor Noah asked, “Why is this even a contest?” Clinton may not be, as the Democrats claim, the most qualified person ever to run, but she’s certainly decently qualified, and Trump is almost the only candidate with no public service experience ever to run. Even his supporters readily agree he’s a bit of a buffoon, that he says tons of crazy things, and probably doesn’t believe most of the things he says. (The fact that he doesn’t actually mean many of the crazy things has become the primary justification of those who support him.)
But it is a contest, and while it looks like Clinton will probably win it is also disturbing to me to note that in polls broken down by race and sex, Trump is actually ahead of Clinton by a decent margin among my two groups — whites and males. (Polls have been varying a lot in the weeks of the conventions.) Whites and males have their biases and privileges, of course, but they are very large and diverse groups, and again, to the coastal intellectual view, this shouldn’t even be a contest. (It’s also my view as a foreigner of libertarian leanings and no association with either party.)
The things stacked in favour of the Republican nominee
There have been lots of essays examining the reason for Trump’s success. Credible essays have described a swing to nationalism and/or authoritarianism which Trump has exploited. Trump’s skill at marketing and memes is real. His appeal to paternalism and strength works well (Lakeoff’s “strong father” narrative.) The RNC also identified Hillary Clinton as a likely nominee 2 decades ago, and since then has put major effort into discrediting her, much more time than it’s ever had to work on other opponents. And Clinton herself certainly has her flaws and low approval ratings, even within her own party.
It is also important to note that the chosen successor of a Democratic incumbent has never in history defeated the Republican. (In 1856 Buchanan defeated the 1st ever Republican nominee, Fremont, but was Franklin Pierce’s opponent at the convention.) This stacks the deck in favour of this year’s Republican. Of course, Wilson, Cleveland, Roosevelt the 2nd, Carter and Clinton the 1st all defeated incumbent Republicans, so Democrats are far from impotent.
The specific analysis of this election is interesting, but my concern is about the broader trend I see, a much bigger geopolitical trend arising from technology, globalization, income inequality and redistribution among nations as well as the decline of religion and the classic lifetime middle class career. This big topic will get more analysis in time here. I was particularly interested in this recent article linking globalization and the comparative reduced share for the U.S. middle class. The ascendancy of the secular, western, technological, intellectual capitalist liberal elite is facing an increasing backlash.
Where Trump’s support comes from
Trump of course begins, as Clinton does, with a large “base.” There is an element of the Republican base that will never tolerate voting for Clinton almost no matter how bad Trump is. There is a similar Democratic contingent. This base has been boosted by that 2 decade anti-Clinton campaign.
Trump has gotten where he is by combining that base with a new movement of voters he stumbled upon, almost by accident. It is this cadre of disaffected conservatives who crave a candidate who says “screw you” to the establishment, both Democratic and Republican. The establishment has left them behind and they want no part of it. These voters also know Trump is an unqualified buffoon, but that doesn’t matter — he gives them a chance to say “screw you” and they need it. The global trends are leaving them behind, and we intellectuals don’t see that very well. Alone, neither group is large enough for victory, but together they might be. The outsider group was enough to get Trump the nomination, and now they have combined their voting power with a large fraction of the base. This has overcome the unease and defection of some establishment Republicans upset over Trump’s buffoonery.
Even so, Trump is too much of a buffoon and will probably, though not certainly, lose. (His poor choice of slogan, which the Democrats turned into him repudiating American exceptionalism isn’t helping.) He appears to be on a self-destructive path at present, though we still have 100 days to go. The Democrats crafted their convention superbly and stole classic Republican memes for themselves, combined with their own classic memes and a progressive platform to bring in the Sanders supporters — another “screw the establishment” group.
What if Trump weren’t an idiot?
The disturbing question I am asking is, “What if Trump were better at this?” I believe Trump stumbled into this movement mostly by accident. He has limited self-control, and he felt he could say whatever he wanted on the campaign trail. He said many things which in the past would have been viewed as sure campaign suicide. That Mexicans were rapists and a wall is needed. That Muslims should be banned. The list is very long. He discovered that many of these things ended up getting him more support rather than less, thanks to the movement he discovered. He remarked on how surprising this was, observing how he felt that he could “shoot somebody on 5th avenue” and get away with it. But he is not a genius, he was discovering these things to some degree by luck, and over time he’s said things that cost him support, particularly recently. He may be feeling that any far-out thing he says will find some segment that likes it, and has been waiting to hear it, and that they will join him. He’s wrong.
But what if he were smarter? What if a more calculating candidate, now that this new body of voters has been discovered, knew better what to say and what not to say? What if there were a candidate who applied advanced political techniques, testing and polling new positions, rather than just throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks and depending on an imagined invulnerability to get away with it?
If Clinton continues her lead and wins, then this candidate is coming in 2024 or even 2020. If the trend described above that works against the incumbent party continues, that candidate will have a head start against Clinton or her Democratic successor and a strong chance at victory.