Donald Trump has offended just about everyone on his march to the Republican Nomination. Why do Americans love him? Trump would not be leading the Republican field if he were the typical candidate, with interviews and stump speeches tightly crafted by pollsters to appeal to the maximum amount of voters while letting nothing volatile or unscripted slip. The magic ingredient that fuels the Trump supernova is his malevolence for traditional American politics.
Most Americans do not, in fact, love Trump. The brash real estate and casino tycoon has fought his way into front runner status of the Republican party by belittling his opponents and offending just about everyone to whom a serious presidential candidate would normally toady up.
His takeover (for now) of the Republican party has come at a cost. According to aggregate polling data, Trump, a man who obsesses over poll numbers, is drowning under a 63% unfavorability rating.
In spite of a daily barrage of strange, nasty and alienating comments that would torpedo any other candidate for the white house, Trump manages to consistently win between 30 and 40% of the votes in primary after primary. These voters, these “Trump Republicans”, seem ready to stick with the candidate who has somehow earned an article before his name (The Donald) no matter what he says, tweets or does. Why do these Americans love Trump?
Americans have always elected centrists to the highest office in the land, the pendulum never swinging too far to the right or left.
While bigotry is nothing new in American politics, xenophobes have generally been fringe characters, obscure walk ons who never truly achieve nationwide relevance. Occassionaly a Pat Buchanan or a David Duke rattles mainstream sensibilities, but the damage is always minimized.
Donald Trump is something entirely different. Never has the front runner of a major party gotten so far while offending so many people. Trump’s popularity in American politics is often attributed to his support among racists and anti-immigration extremists. The Donald Trump phenomenon, however, is far more nuanced.
An opportune xenophobe
Donald Trump has been masterful in being the man for a certain time and place. He earned his credentials in bigotry in 2011 by taking charge of the birther “movement”, which questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s eligibility to be president of the United States based on whether he was born in the United States. Birtherism died quietly when President Obama released not only his birth certificate, but also his birth video.
Donald Trump was relatively quiet until the 2012 election.
On the eve of the election, conservatives were convinced Obama was about to become a one term president. They ignored aggregate, state by state polling data which forecasted that an Obama victory was about to unfold. They chose instead to concentrate on one or two national polls indicating a Romney lead, failing to acknowledge that the White House is awarded to the candidate who wins the most states, not the candidate who wins the popular vote. Pundits and cable news commentators, however, claimed polling organizations had a left-wing agenda and were not to be trusted.
The outliers favoring Romney turned out to be just that: outliers.
The single moment that illustrated the right’s miscalculations in the 2012 election was former Bush campaign advisor Karl Rove’s 20 minute, meandering battle with his Fox co-hosts after the network called Ohio, and subsequently, the election, for Obama. Rove’s hijacking of FOX news typified the shock on the far right. Obama, the President they had vilified for 4 years, had been re-elected. Something had to change.
And change it did, in stunning fashion. As Obama was sworn into office, the elites in the Republican party ordered a shift: the time had come to soften the party’s anti-immigration platform. The party would open the tent to hispanics.
The cause of this rupture in Republican policy was a document called “the autopsy”, a massive, soul-searching inspection of the 2012 Romney loss. The autopsy concluded that the shifting demographics of the United States of America would imperil the ability of any republican to ever win the White House again, unless they learned to appeal to immigrants.
Fearing for their survival, party elites stepped in line. Speaking on immigration, John Boehner, then speaker of the house declared, “I’m confident that the president, myself and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”
Conservative Fox News pundit Sean Hannity agreed, stating, “You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say, ‘you’ve got to go home.’ And that is a position that I’ve evolved on.”
An eruption brewing
Conservative elites might have “evolved” on immigration, but the rank and file had not. There was a sense of betrayal, especially among older, white voters with strong feelings on immigration.
Rep John Fleming of Louisiana tipped off the simmering eruption, saying, “there’s been zero discussion of this issue within the conference, and I’m urging the speaker to talk with House Republicans before making pledges on the national news.”
The anti-immigration wing of the Republican party had been abandoned by their leaders. Donald Trump smelled an opportunity and seized the moment.
Donald Trump, a candidate without policy, has one, clear campaign promise: there will be a wall along the border, it will be beautiful, and Mexico will pay for it. And every time Mexico gets mouthy, the wall increases by 10 feet.
It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
“I think you’re really going to like the Hillary Clinton my team and I have created for tonight’s debate.” -Saturday Night Live
American politics is a game of “me good, you bad”. A successful campaign defines their own candidate while highlighting the flaws of their opponent. Campaigns pore over every comment and action of their opponent, past and present, to find something that will paint a negative picture in the voter’s mind.
The goal of the “you bad” campaign is to turn a simple gaffe into a bulging monstrosity. To truly sink a candidate, the gaffe must leave the spin room and take on a life of its own. The gaffe becomes larger than the candidate and disrupts the candidate’s ability to deliver their message. It defines the candidate. John Kerry became the “flip flopper”. Mitt Romney became the callous rich guy.
The “you bad” component has had an astronomical effect on political campaigns. Campaigns spend tremendous time and resources crafting a message that appeals to the most voters while aggravating as few voters as possible. It is a tight rope to walk.
This dynamic creates candidates that seem robotic. Perhaps Saturday Night Live, the US comedy sketch show, said it best when faux Hillary Clinton strolled onto the debate stage and stated, “I think you’re really going to like the Hillary Clinton my team and I have created for tonight’s debate.”
Many voters, especially older voters, have grown to distrust this scripted politician who says whatever they must to win votes, as long as it does not lose them votes. (which is why any rational candidate would instinctively denounce an organization such as the Ku Klux Klan at even the faintest hint of association).
To these voters every campaign looks like a repeat of the last one, with only minor tweaks based on the waxing and waning of issues. Even the campaign staff are the same, hopping from one candidate to the next every four years.
Trump would not be leading the Republican field if he were the typical candidate, with interviews and stump speeches tightly crafted by pollsters to appeal to the maximum amount of voters while letting nothing volatile or unscripted slip. The magic ingredient that fuels the Trump supernova is his malevolence for traditional American politics.
As the American middle class dwindles, many feel that the dream has failed them. Trump’s strongest support comes from white voters who live in trailer homes and did not graduate high school. These voters feel the American dream has failed them, and don’t trust typical politicians to fix it.
Through the eyes of this Trump supporter, “The Donald” is the antithesis of the empty suit politician. Trump delivers gaffes like a broken vending machine spits out skittles. He himself stated that he could probably shoot someone on 5th avenue and people would still vote for him. Each time, pundits expect his supporters to abandon him. They never do.
But the gaffes are not bugs, they are features. His caustic tweets and declarations are not tweaks to politically correct mores, but a firehose of brash repudiation to an America whose sense of inclusiveness has, in their view, imperiled the nation. To his supporters, Donald Trump’s brashness is a man telling it like it is. As Politico’s Scott Mahaskey reports from the campaign trail, Trump’s supporters are “tired of the muzzling effect of political correctness.”
At a Trump rally, Martha Galan, a registered nurse, colored in her support of Trump because he’s “not just a spewer of what the polls make one way or another.”
We know that Donald Trump’s cocksure persona endears him to his supporters because his popularity among a slice of the electorate is as steady as a sundial. Whether condemning an entire religion (Muslims), advocating the murder of enemy’s families or assuring Americans that “there’s no problem” with the size of his reproductive organ, his support never waivers.
Trump supporters explain his daily spigot of insults and meandering declarations by justifying that this is how normal people speak when they’re not owned by big money and special interests.
To be sure, Trump would not be the GOP front runner without his personal fortune, which has allowed him to run for president without passing through the digestive system of the conservative elite. There is truth to the notion that he is not subservient to the conservative elite. He hasn’t completely ingratiated himself to wealthy donors, either, as have his opponents.
The funding has come from Trump himself. “The campaign is self-funded,” is a prideful boast made often by the candidate, and parroted by his supporters.
This claim, however, misses one critical detail: 99% of the personal wealth Trump has used to fund his campaign are loans, not donations. The FEC allows these loans to be paid back to the candidate in full, as long as they are donated before election day.
Eventually, if Trump’s loans work like normal loans, they will be paid, and whomever pays them will not do so charitably. They will expect the same political favors that have become so commonplace in world politics.
When those loans are paid back, Trump will be something very unoriginal; just another candidate saying whatever he needs to say to become president of the United States.