When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.
Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.
One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.
Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.
Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.
Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.
Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).
Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.
Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.
While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him. In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.
A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.
When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.
Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.