The rise of Donald Trump has been one of the more unexpected events in recent U.S. electoral history. If you throw your mind back to 2015, Donald Trump becoming the official nominee of the Republican Party, for President of the United States of America, was something that no one was thinking was actually going to happen. He ran for President in 2000 (well, he ran for the nomination of the Reform Party) and withdrew the February prior to the election. In the summer, 538 pointed out that never in recent U.S. history has someone who was a front-runner a year and a half out in an election cycle ever won the presidency.
Listen to us talk about Donald Trump and the reasons behind his success
The thing about using the past to predict the future is that it works until it doesn’t. Now we know that Donald Trump has won a bunch of primaries and his candidacy is something far more serious.
Why the hell is this happening? I mean for the people who support him I guess it’s happening because of whatever reason it is that they support him: they’re upset, and they’re not 100% sure what to do about it.
But for those of us who are mystified – I mean utterly mystified – as to why anyone would support him, it’s a different story, a story that requires investigation. I mean there are so many things apparently wrong with Trump as a potential leader of the most powerful country in the world. Not only does he not appear to be a traditionally strong political candidate – with well thought-out policies – but he also appears to be objectionable as a candidate in any number of ways (see below).
I like to say this to people about politicians: you shouldn’t just vote for the candidate who you could sit down and have a coffee with but, on the other hand, you might want to think twice about supporting someone you couldn’t even have a have a drink with. Frankly, Trump strikes a lot of people – a lot of people – as the latter kind of person: the kind of person you couldn’t even have a meal with. There are a lot of people who would claim they could have a beer with him but they would be surprised when they actually sat down with him to find out that he’s a blowhard in real life, too. And, well, if you’ve ever met a blowhard, well they’re kind of insufferable. The popularity of such a blowhard raises all sorts of questions in the minds of anyone who doesn’t think he should be president:
- About how, for example, he will deal with leaders from other countries. If you never shut up, or let others talk, and never listen to anyone, how can you possibly negotiate anything?
- How can he possibly take advice from his advisers if he says and does whatever pops into his head?
- This is a man who’s had the financial freedom to fail catastrophically in business whenever he wants to try something new – what happens when it’s your tax dollars or your family or friends’ lives that he’s gambling with?
These are fundamentally reasonable questions born, not of partisanship, but rather incredulous curiosity (and fear of what someone who has only ever played with house money will do in office) as to how others could support someone – anyone – who behaves the way in which Trump has behaved during this election campaign.
Tied into all of this is The Donald’s image of success as opposed to actual success. At least one study has claimed he would be financially better off had he just passively invested his parents’ fortune. The man has numerous failed business ventures – more than a few lifetime’s worth for a less rich person – many of them spectacular failures. Anyone born poor or middle class would not be rich at this stage, after so many failed businesses, they would be bankrupt and forgotten. Though he’s rich, can we really say that he’s actually been successful in business?
What he is successful at, of course, is branding. His branding is the image, the perception of success, not actual financial success. I don’t watch The Apprentice and so I don’t know The Donald as well as viewers of that show do. Is he just playing out a real life version of his show? Is that why he’s so deliberately unpresidential in the way he speaks and slings mud?
The one thing that gives me consolation in all of this is that I feel like I really don’t know where he stands, and I suspect that he is significantly more moderate than he is making himself out to be. After all, it’s not the first time a Republican candidate for the nomination threw himself to the right (though Trump isn’t exactly that far right) in order to win that nomination. And Trump, though he is known for speaking whatever comes to mind, is also known for not exactly being a hard line conservative, prior to this campaign. As many have pointed out, if those on the left and center are concerned with Trump’s policies, Ted Cruz at times makes Trump look like a moderate.
That is the power of populism, in a way. We don’t really know what the populist could do. Sure, we’re afraid of the worst-case scenario – I, for one, am afraid of what such a thin-skinned man (see the tiny hands saga) will do when he has control over nuclear weapons – but we could also be quite wrong about how far out he truly is. (That’s no reason to support the guy, however.)
But, regardless of whether or not he truly is more centrist than he currently comes across, we still have this problem: why are people supporting a blowhard who changes his mind all the time and literally says whatever comes to mind? Aren’t we all smarter than that? Can’t people see he is perhaps the most inconsistent serious (and popular) candidate we’ve seen in recent memory, at least at a national level?
Why is this happening? Here are some theories:
It’s a cycle!
There are people who view U.S. Presidential elections as a cycle: there are the periodic upsets in U.S. political process, and this is just one of those periodic upsets.
This is little bit of an odd view, I think, given the U.S. political process itself isn’t all that old. It feels old to us because we’re beings that live seventy-ish years but the existence of the United States is not really old in the scheme of things. The idea that the presidential election process moves in cycles because it moves in cycles is – sorry to be rude – kind of idiotic. Maybe it appeared to move in cycles in the past but there’s literally no reason why that should be true forever. One of the things we struggle with as human beings is we have a really hard time contextualizing things properly because we don’t have enough of a view towards the distant past. So we see patterns where there aren’t any. Here are just two of the myriad questions that pop up when someone says the system is cyclical:
- What about the U.S. presidential election is really cyclical?
- Why are demographic changes that inspire cyclical presidential elections cyclical?
In the world of music criticism, there is this idea of music moving in cycles and it seems really appealing. We get rock and roll, the British Invasion, Folk Rock, Psychedelic, Prog Rock/Art Rock and Country Rock/Pop but then Punk Rock (which is a revival of rock and roll and/or the British Invasion), Post Punk (which is a revival of Art Rock) and New Wave, Jangle Pop (a revival of Folk Rock) and Neo-Psychedelia (which is, obviously, a revival of Psychedelia) and then Grunge (which is a revival of Punk Rock), Brit-Pop (which is a revival of the British Invasion) and Alt Country (a revival of Country Rock) and then, a decade later, we get Post Post Punk and New New Wave, etc.
But the above is actually just cherry-picking. There have been lots of other genres throughout that time that may have not been revivals. And, if we look closely, the pattern that appears to be there may not be there. Sure, children appear to grow up and discover music made just before they were born and then make that music, reviving the old genre, but that happens only some of the time. It only seems like a pattern because we humans want to see one.
Ready for a Change
A former professor of mine had a theory about Bush Jr. that I think is applicable here, and I’ve heard people mention similar ideas: People are tired of being lied to by the well-educated political establishment. They want to be lied to by someone who seems more relatable.
- Obama went to Harvard and speaks thoughtfully (notoriously thoughtfully, to some).
- Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar and is legendarily charismatic.
- Bush’s father was a career politician, including a two-term Vice President and head of the CIA.
- Reagan was a Hollywood Actor turned professional politician.
- Nixon was a career politician, like Bush Sr., a two-term Vice President.
- Johnson was a career politician.
- Kennedy was perhaps closer to the Eastern Establishment than any other President since the Roosevelts.
For the last 50 years, the U.S. President has, more often than not, been a polished, educated politician. Ford never won an election. Carter was deemed unfit to handle the crises of his time. Bush was deemed fit to handle the crises of his time, though obviously history looks differently on Carter and Bush than people did at the time. The point is, through the last 56 years, everyman-type Presidents have been in power for 14 years.
Certainly many of Trump’s supporters seem to think he’s much more of a regular guy than the other Republicans. I don’t know why they think that, but they do. It could be because Trump speaks in such easy to understand sentence fragments – he has been assessed as speaking at a 4th grade level – or it could be because he doesn’t talk like a politician. Even though Trump is university educated, he doesn’t sound like he is university educated, which is the key thing here. Bush Jr. certainly doesn’t sound like he went to Yale…and Harvard.
But this doesn’t really explain it either, in part because The Donald is a very rich man and hardly a regular guy. (Though Bush was not a regular guy either, but sure sold people on that image. But Bush could at least go to his ranch and do man’s man things like cleaning up brush, things that Trump never does.) I mean, there has to be something more to it than the delusion that Trump is a regular guy, right?
Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is now seen by some as an antecedent of Donald Trump, had a similar though perhaps cruder appeal: born into money, he convinced a plurality of the citizens of Toronto that he was a regular guy, and not a member of the “downtown” elites. But in Toronto there was a lot of history underlying Ford’s success that allowed people to convince themselves that a man born into money was really just an average guy. (Ford’s personality and lack of formal education helped, no doubt.) There was so much resentment of the outer burrows towards downtown that this resentment was just looking to jump on to someone. Besides, Ford had his own antecedent, Mel Lastman, a furniture salesman.
Is Trump Just a Troll?
An early “theory” (using the term loosely) was that Trump was just trolling – that he was just showing off because he had no intention of actually running for president, and his success could be attributed to the kind of success trolls have: they’re controversial so people can’t resist reacting to them (whether negatively or positively). Shockingly, this theory got major support when the former Communications Director for his PAC claimed this is exactly what he was doing, before he was successful.
This is another simplistic one that, perhaps because of its simplicity, has a certain appeal. At least initially, Trump appeared to be saying things just to get attention. He’s still saying those things – regularly contradicting himself – and, in some cases, he’s actually turning them into (totally unrealistic) policy suggestions. If he was just doing this to get attention, it worked. But that doesn’t explain why he’s popular in addition to being controversial. Sure, there’s always going to be a tiny percentage of the population who likes someone just because they’re controversial but either a) that percentage of the population is way bigger than we thought (and way more active in the Republican primaries than we thought) or b) something more fundamental is happening with the electorate.
Trump is a Media
A related theory to Trump’s trolling is that he’s merely a creation of the media. When I say “the media,” I mean the mainstream television media specifically. The idea is that Trump’s campaign is ideally suited to our 24-hour infotainment industry that always needs controversy, outrage and discussion, rather than actual news. So Trump is where he is today because of them, not us.
This theory has something behind it as, back in the Autumn, the television media were giving him more coverage than any other candidate – including more time than all the Democrats combined – even though, at the time, he wasn’t anywhere near as popular as he is currently. But, of course, he has to have had some kind of appeal to people to begin with. The MSM can’t just convince everyone who to vote for based on coverage. It doesn’t quite work like that. (We could do a study of TV news coverage of the candidates a year ahead of the presidential election versus who actually gets elected as president, and I strongly believe it would show no causation. In fact, somebody‘s probably done it already.)
Rather, we’re just stuck with that same old chicken or egg question: is society responsible for the awfulness that is the 24-hour infotainment industrial complex, or are the TV news media responsible for making us idiots? That question will never be resolved to our complete satisfaction, nor will the TV media’s causal role in Trump’s rise to prominence. Isn’t there more we can learn about why Trump is popular than just getting stuck with this question?
This is a Unique Cultural Moment that Will Pass
There’s this idea that Trump is just capitalizing on a peculiar cultural moment: white, poor-ish Americans are angry and unhappy and they’ve been watching Trump on The Apprentice and at wrestling events and he’s just the vessel for their rage. This kind of inarticulate rage was already expressed when Huckabee and then Santorum attempted to run for President. The theory is that these people who supported these extreme candidates in the past are a fringe group who are just wielding more influence this time because Trump is way more famous than Huckabee and Santorum. As demographics shift, this too will pass.
I feel like this was a more appealing hypothesis in the summer and autumn when he wasn’t as popular. I mean, we can claim that the city of Toronto electing Rob Ford was a peculiar cultural moment but this ignores the success his brother nearly had in the next election and the counterfactual of a cancer-free Rob Ford getting elected to a second term. That’s not a cultural moment. If we believe that, we think it’s not going to happen again, which seems naive. Also, the U.S. elected George Bush twice. I feel like there is a lot more going on here than a moment of increased collective insanity.
Trump – and Republican incoherence in general – is a violent reaction to 8 years of Obama
Some, like the comedians who participated in a recent episode of the Hound Tall Discussion Series, see Trump’s rise as a reaction to 8 years of a black President. The theory goes that a black president is so egregiously offensive to certain people in the U.S. that they cannot even attempt to evaluate the President’s policies at face value – everything he does is seen as an affront or an assault on traditional American values. Evidence for the theory includes the extreme reactions to some of Obama’s actual policies, many of which are based in compromise with Republican ideas and, in some cases, were even based on policy ideas from Republicans. The Republicans’ utter unwillingness to even meet with an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court appears to bear this out.
But, though I think this is part of the issue, I have a few problems with accepting it as the dominant explanation. For one thing, racist as some people are, I’m not sure the entire Republican party is so subconsciously racist as to be doing this. (I admit that some of them are consciously doing it because of racism, albeit not admitting it, and some people are openly truthful about their racism and their reasons for thinking Obama is not only an awful president but also not American and/or not Christian.) I mean, it’s the 21st century and racism in America has changed and mutated in many ways. But is it really so utterly rampant as to cause the GOP to commit political suicide?
The second issue I have is that the rampant partisanship that is destroying the U.S. system of government is a lot older than Obama. Sure, Obama may be the match that lights the powder keg (or, rather, the reaction to Obama’s victory may be the match that lights the powder keg) but this partisanship is decades old. I think we can trace it back to the late ’60s and the idea that Trump’s success is a result of Obama’s success ignores the inability of the two* sides (*there are more than two) to agree on much for decades.
The Fascist Personality in America
One theory gaining traction lately is the theory of a latent preference for fascist ideas in a portion of the electorate. After WWII, a number of European thinkers attempted to understand how huge numbers of people could have supported the policies of the fascist dictators and, even worse, those of Nazis. One theory was Adorno’s “authoritarian personality” theory, the idea that some people are inclined to support fascism because of their personality.
Without getting into a discussion of the actual theory – that has been criticized for being not particularly scientific – one evident criticism is “if some people have fascist personalities, why didn’t fascism exist before 1922?” Anyway, there has been a great deal of research since, and some American researchers now feel that there are certain conditions under which certain people will support fascist policies, which is much more nuanced: in certain conditions certain people may be more likely to support fascist-style candidates.
This makes sense to me and, moreover, there is a rich history in the U.S. of public, politicized social intolerance, most famously with the two Red Scares of the 20th century. But there have been political crises in the US before and it’s not clear to me what it is about the conditions of our current time are more conducive to fascism than, say, the conditions of 1968, which produced George Wallace who, whatever you may think of him, was not a fascist in the proper sense of the term.
There have been fascist groups in the U.S. in the past, but none of them have been very successful. And no blatantly incoherent candidate of the kind that fascism requires has ever been this successful. As one historian noted, Trump really is Mussolini; the similarities between candidates are rather uncanny. But I’m not sure the similarities between post-WWI Italy and the 21st century U.S. are.
Demographic Shifts are to Blame
(Don’t worry, it’s not for long!)
The underlying change perhaps inspiring the attraction to fascism, and something that is underlying a lot of the other above explanations is long-term demographic change in the U.S. This is perhaps the most comprehensive explanation as well as perhaps the most easy to understand: white Americans (particularly white American males) who are not filthy rich are not in the position of (financial, social and political) power that their parents (specifically fathers) and grandparents (grandfathers) were. The combination of growing populations of minorities, as well as the increased assertion of their rights by these groups (and, at the same time, the rights of women) is posing a further threat to their dwindling place in The United States. The relative stagnation of their wages makes this change appear to be felt, first and foremost, in the wallet. It’s easy to understand why someone might link their decreased purchasing power with an increase in women’s pay and rights, an increased Latino population, and an increased (perceived) militancy on the parts of African American, LGBT and other advocacy groups, rather than the real causes (which are complex enough that some could write a long book about it and more than one book has already has been written).
The plus side of this for anyone who is bothered by Trump’s supporters (or the Christian Right in the U.S., a different group) is that this demographic change should soon politically overwhelm those currently electing candidates you find reprehensible. Then everything will be sunshine and rainbows.
Though we may think this is only natural for these Americans to be afraid of these demographic changes, we might also wonder why it’s “natural” and why they can’t they see what those of us who identify the economic causes of the problem see? What is it about these demographic changes that is scary to lower income white Americans, and lower income white American males in particular? Is it really just fear of The Other and a desire for a return to the organic society that has, in the words of Lawrence Levine, “just barely gone”?
For me, none of these theories quite get to the true reason for the rise of Trump, and for the rise of other people like Trump throughout the history of representative democracy. I do believe that most if not all of the above theories add to our understanding and complement each other in that understanding. But none of the above theories explain why people, at bottom, can be appealed to by someone who makes broad, blatantly overly simplistic statements – most of which are also clearly untrue, easily debunkable or fanciful pipe-dreams – and who includes a huge degree of hate and resentment as part of his politics. I mean, the United States is a country that has enjoyed more financial prosperity than any other country – certainly of its size – in history, which has been the model for successful democratic government, which has led the world in technological progress and which had, in the past, a civil society the envy of the world.
But there is a theory that explains why people like Trump’s rhetoric, and it doesn’t rely on an understanding of the American situation in 2016 – demographically, economically, or what have you, i.e. it doesn’t rely on context. Nor does this theory rely on deciding people have somehow become more fascistic over time, or have been “primed” for a fascist candidate. That theory is the Just World Fallacy – the fallacious belief held by individuals that the world is actually fair.
The Just World Fallacy holds that most if not all of us subconsciously believe that life is fair – specifically that life is fair towards us. When we are confronted with the reality of our inherently unfair world, we try to explain the unfairness and, most often, we do this by blaming other people for upsetting the true fairness of the world, often the victims of misfortune and, more often than not, people we don’t know, whom we can view as “other” or somehow inhuman. It was their failure to follow the rules of our fair world that has resulted in this unfair situation that is either affecting us directly or is injustice we cannot ignore.
Trump promises to “make America great again.” He promises to restore the white, male American to his previous glory. He promises to return the country to a glorious past (that never existed), he promises an America that is predominantly white, and very much a man’s world.
- blame illegal immigrants – people who have traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles, often on foot, just for shitty manual labour jobs and agricultural work – for stealing their jobs, even when Mexican illegals have been leaving the country recently for jobs in Mexico;
- blame Islam, a religion that has not been this culturally ascendant since the middle ages – for the disasters of American foreign policy and the U.S.’s active meddling in the Muslim world for, oh, at least 60 years;
- blame women for wrecking their families and causing poverty, social confusion and the like;
- blame immigrants and minorities for taking their jobs and also introducing barbaric cultural practices that are eroding the moral fabric of society.
The Trump supporter has less money than his parents and grandparents did – his purchasing power is greatly diminished, his house (if he can afford one) is smaller and probably mortgaged, his car is more modern but doesn’t last as long, nor do his appliances. and people don’t look like him anymore; the people he has seen on TV, causing the world’s problems, are now in his town, or even in his neighbourhood, and now one of them is President.
Life wasn’t supposed to be like this. Life was supposed to be sunshine and rainbows. The United States is the Greatest Country on Earth – it’s not just a fact, it’s destined as this role has been bestowed on America by God – the world as it should be is a world where the U.S.A. is the most important, freest and most righteous country on earth. This is how the world is supposed to be. But something is making it feel like that’s not true any more.
How is this possible? I mean it can’t be the Trump supporter’s fault. He hasn’t caused this unbalancing of the world. He is American – the world and history (and God) favoured his grandparents and parents – why does the world appear to be failing him?
Every single one of us holds irrational beliefs that help us comprehend the complex world we live in, in simpler, more digestible ways. Every single one of us irrationally defends our most closely held irrational beliefs to some degree; nobody is free from this. When the world changes and contradicts these closely held, irrational beliefs, we react. Some of us – usually the university-educated – try to find out what’s causing the problem by thinking things through, asking questions, etc. Most if not all of us still try to make our answers to the problem fit our own irrational narratives and prejudices. But for people who aren’t skeptical, or who never got the chance to be taught how to think critically, this isn’t an option. (And, we should note, even people who are taught to think critically erect elaborate, inconceivable explanations to explain away things they don’t want to accept as true. In fact, research into Just World Fallacy shows that university education doesn’t help remove the belief that the world is fair. The theory is based on initial studies of university students.) These folks are inclined to see the world in a certain light that some of us view as simplistic (perhaps naive). When that world changes, the explanations are simplistic and the solutions are too.
We humans believe, to some degree or other, that the world is fair towards us. The United States’ role in the world and its financial prosperity have both appeared to many Americans as proof that the world is fair. Now, as Americans confront numerous social, economic and political problems, they need someone to blame. And the Just World Fallacy Theory states that they will blame the less fortunate: the political (and potentially economic) decline of the United States is the fault of welfare moms, Mexican immigrants, Muslims both home and abroad (and in the White House. The White House!!!), unionized workers, black people who antagonize the police who are just trying to do their jobs, and anyone else who has not complied with the (unwritten, unspoken) American contract of how to be a True American Patriot and so who deserves all that’s coming to them. It is certainly not the fault of rich gamblers like Donald Trump. (Of course, there is a lot of research suggesting one of the major reasons for the decline of the middle class in the United States is due in major part to the irresponsible behaviours of corporate America.)