What is the explanation for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump’s fortunes in the Republican race? It’s certainly not his hardcore conservative beliefs, for he clearly doesn’t have too many of those. It’s not his “everyman” story, because he’s far from having experienced anything like an actual “everyman” life. What could possibly account for his current popularity? (I mean, aside from being pretty much antithetical to the “establishment GOP” … that’d be crazy talk.) In The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead takes a swing at defining what it is that Trump appears to be offering to the disaffected plurality (majority?) of would-be Republican voters:
Is The Donald a populist candidate? Our friend Glenn Reynolds argued in Sunday’s USA Today that the rise of Donald Trump is best understood as a populist event — “an indictment of the GOP establishment and, for that matter, of the American political establishment in general” and “a sign that large numbers of voters don’t feel represented by more mainstream politicians.”
Over at the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner, another friend, disputes Reynolds’ interpretation of Trump, arguing that though “there’s definitely something to this”, “on closer inspection this isn’t really a straightforward populist story, for two reasons.” The first is that “the policy preferences that Trump is pushing aren’t all that popular.” The second is that Trump, rather than emphasizing his solidarity with ordinary people, makes a point of flaunting his tremendous wealth and privilege at every possible opportunity in outrageous ways.
But Reynolds is right and Trump is very much a classic populist — in the following sense. Populism isn’t always about taking majority positions or cultivating economic solidarity with non-elites. In some populist movements, specific policy positions that don’t always or even often have majority support gain energy by hooking up with generalized dissatisfaction with elites and the status quo. Late 19th- and early 20th-century populism, from a policy standpoint, put a lot of stress on agrarian issues and crackpot economic ideas that, though there weren’t any opinion polls at the time, don’t seem to have had majority support. So while, as Drezner points out, hard-line immigration enforcement may not be particularly high on the agendas of a majority of voters, Trump can use the issue to signal his contempt for the establishment — and voters pay more attention to the tune than to the lyrics.
Last week, Megan McArdle tried to explain “The Donald” as being the “Ron Paul” of this election cycle:
For me, the high point [of the Republican debate] came when Donald Trump announced that he had made a donation to Hillary Clinton in order to … get her to come to his wedding. Where to begin with such a statement? I have known brides and bridegrooms who cherished a vulgar belief that weddings have a three-figure admission fee, in cash or kind. But outside of romantic comedies, I have never heard of an American wedding in which the payments ran the other way. Trump touts himself as a dealmaker, but if this is an example of his negotiating prowess, do you really want him in charge of your international treaties? “I’m afraid I won’t even consider withdrawing our troops from your border unless you also allow me to give you a billion dollars, a weekend for two at the Maui Hilton, and a personal guided tour of the White House!”
When I pointed this out on Twitter, a Trump fan of indeterminate sincerity tweeted back “Wake … up, sheeple!”
How did this man get onto the stage? And how can we get him off, given the apparent passion of his base, who flood online polls with support for The Donald? He and Bernie Sanders are giving me flashbacks to those heady days of 2007, when a rash mention of Ron Paul’s name in a column, much less criticizing his somewhat tenuous grasp on monetary economics, was good for hundreds of comments and emails, assuring you that Dr. Paul was going to be the next president of the United States because he was FINALLY offering Americans a REAL ALTERNATIVE. (Ron Paul supporters favored ALL CAPS so that you would UNDERSTAND that they were SERIOUS ABOUT CHANGE, or perhaps because the RON PAUL COMMEMORATIVE KEYBOARDS they had bought had some sort of TERRIBLE MALFUNCTION.)
Donald Trump is not going to be president. Bernie Sanders is also not going to be president. Their appeal to their supporters is precisely the reason they are not going to be president. Every few years, a large number of Americans need to learn the same lesson: The reason you don’t hear the solutions that you want coming from the boring, scripted, mainstream politicians who get elected is that the solutions that you want do not appeal to the majority of your fellow countrymen.
Update: Fixed the link to Walter Russell Mead’s article.
Update the second: Mark Steyn takes some heat for his perceived support of Trump:
I’ve had a ton of mail objecting to my “support” of Donald Trump which we’ll try to run some of it in the days ahead. But, for the record, I’m not “supporting” him. As I said to John, the Republican nominating process has failed in the last two cycles, and thus, five months before any actual votes are cast, watching someone disrupt a racket that can use all the disruption it can get is hugely enjoyable. I mean, he’s touched the third, fourth, fifth and every other live rail in American politics, insulting Hispanics, veterans, menstruating women – and the more juice that shoots through him the stronger he gets. He’s discarded every convention of American politics, which, given that it’s the conventions of American politics that have made us the brokest nation in history, is something to be cheered. He’s the richest guy in the race, but he’s not spending a dime – because while the single-digit candidates kiss up to the big donors and blow through a fortune on the usual tedious “I was born the son of a mailman” ads – Trump is sucking up all the airtime between commercial breaks for free. He’s making a mockery of the consultant class, and what’s not to enjoy about that? For as long as it lasts.