The rise of Donald Trump in 2016 will be the source of endless investigation and speculation by students of political history for years to come. The ability of the hugely polarising, former-Democrat businessman to seize the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan has made some conservatives sick to their stomachs, but it is now indelibly written into the annals of GOP history.
To simply state that Trump represents the anti-political correct movement, galvanising the selfish and prejudiced components of American identity, is too simple an answer: why has such a candidate previously failed to harness mass appeal? And how extensive is this anger, in real terms, not those of media coverage?
The most common comparison of a Trump-like, nativist presidential campaign would be Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful race against Lyndon B Johnson in 1964, when Johnson’s Democratic Party won 44 of 50 states. Trump is likely to fare much better than Goldwater, but the question remains how the Republican Party was overwhelmed by a Trump candidacy that stands in opposition to almost all of the GOP’s post-2012 election recommendations.
What are the factors that have helped Donald Trump seize the Republican nomination despite few political allies, zero experience of government, and a strong anti-Trump feeling that has been championed by non other than former Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Here are a few theories to explain both where his popularity comes from and how he has overcome his campaign specific challenges.
The Media Theory
This line of explanation argues that the rise of Trump was fundamentally fuelled by the media coverage he received during his campaign, and that without this unprecedented coverage Donald Trump would have never defeated his various Republican opponents.
Of course much of the coverage of Trump was negative. National media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN all covered Donald Trump’s candidacy closely, and regularly editorialised on Trump’s policy ignorance, mistreatment of others, and self contradiction. However, for Trump’s audience the tone of the coverage matters little: he can write off such criticism as the ‘lame, liberal media’ targeting him unfairly, convincing grass roots voters that he is the bullish opposition to the bogeyman ‘Establishment’.
In the early weeks of the campaign Trump had knack for staying in the headlines. He called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, he suggested a female interviewer was on her period after she asked a question he didn’t like, he called for the banning of Muslims entering America, he mocked Republican veteran and war hero John McCain, he imitated a reporter with a disability, he encouraged his supporters to assault protesters at his rallies. While these incidents undoubtedly pushed a portion of the electorate further away from him in disgust, each successive controversy ensured that the spotlight remained firmly on Trump and that he was the story.
The harsher critics of the media suppose that not only were news providers influential in ensuring the Trump name stayed on television screens, homepages, and headlines, but were in fact complicit in his media omnipresence due to pecuniary incentives: ‘Trump sells’, ensuring readership, clicks online and viewers locked to their television screens. People want to hear about Trump, whether they approve of his message or detest it, so covering his outrages was good for business.
Then there is the fact that for many Trump has been entertaining: far from the normally dry, dull policy drawls of politicians, the Donald is a fascinating show. To his supporters he is amusing, and the levity with which he often speaks kept attention on him instead of ‘low energy Jeb’, or the Democratic race.
Consider CBS’ Chairman, Les Moonves, reflection on the fractious GOP race: “It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” Moonves argued, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
The Republican Failure Theory
This theory contends that the rise of Donald Trump is directly related to the messaging of the Republican Party over the past few election cycles, and failure to deliver on campaign promises. Increasingly the Republican Party has been coloured by a fundamentally anti-government platform, whipping up populist anger directed at Democrats and Washington itself. Building on Ronald Reagan’s famous “Government is the problem” mantra, Tea Party Republican candidates adopted a no-compromise stance to many issues in D.C.
The problem is that once the Republican Party took hold of Congress the best this platform could achieve was often naked obstructionism, expressed in government shutdowns and stalled budget deals. Fighting government itself might feel like a holy crusade, but the plunder they received was not significant, particularly when states themselves approved measures like gay marriage before the Supreme Court in broad numbers.
Failing to return trophies from the anti-government crusade has instead reinforced the notion that Washington D.C. is innately broken. It is therefore conceivable that the long-term dissatisfaction with D.C. may have led some Republican voters more likely to support Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to resort to the ‘nuclear option’:, send in a wildcard outsider like Trump to blow the whole thing up, in the hope that the ensuing cataclysm would somehow yield a more functional political system.
The Momentum Theory
This interpretation is less conceptually driven and is far more simplistic, but may well tell the real story of 2016.
When Donald Trump entered the primary contest he was paradoxically playing with house money: although he was dipping into his fortune to fund his campaign, if he failed there would be little fallout to his career, and he could easily return to his gilded towers should he fail. He swaggered to the debates with a polarising message, unafraid to offend or cause offence. Normal politicians have no such freedom, being beholden to pre-existing electorates, party bosses, and donors.
The fact that this message resonated so well with a certain part of the Republican base spurred him on, encouraging him to double down on his ‘no-filter’ tactics. Once that message put him to the top of a crowded field, the media began to cover him, he continued to steal headlines, and this media attention he continued to fuel his rise. He recognised that the more outrageous the ‘truths’ he spoke, the more coverage he received, all the while touting his poll numbers like a high school popularity contest.
The sheer ability of Trump to dominate polls and media outlets made his candidacy viable: had he run with lower numbers, perhaps scoring second or third in polls, his ideas and pronouncements may have been more easily the subject of ridicule. He could have been characterised as a joke. However, his initial viability snowballed in such a way that the cameras and attention remained on him, and his audience and celebrity kept his poll numbers high.
The Obama Theory
Historians of this election cycle may well seek to compare the rise of Trump through the lens of the ‘anti-incumbency’. Former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod drew attention to this paradigm in January, and there are historical examples to validate this notion.
On multiple occasions throughout American political history presidential candidates have been characterised by their difference to the incumbent President. Consider the innocence of Jimmy Carter after shadiness of the Nixon and Ford years, or the youthful candidacy of John F Kennedy in the wake of the elder general, Dwight Eisenhower.
Even recently, the polished, eloquent campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, replete with soaring rhetoric, was a marked juxtaposition to the casual, affable demeanour with which George W Bush took to the debate stage.
In this line of reasoning, Trump is the quintessential anti-Obama. Blunt, clear statements, instead of the electoral poetry of Obama’s 2008 campaign; as Axelrod put it, Trump’s message is ‘yes I can’. Obama has seen a recent surge in popularity, which should be welcome news for Hillary Clinton, but the President remains a hated figure among some Republican ranks. For these voters, Trump is the perfect antithesis of Barack Obama in style and character, implicitly suggesting that he could solve all of the problems they associate with the current administration.
The Globalisation Backlash Theory
So why do some Americans like Trump? Some have read Trump’s triumph in the Republican primaries as a symptom of the broad dissatisfaction among certain parts of America concerning changes that have occurred as a result of the globalisation of the past few decades.
From a broad historical perspective, globalisation has steadily increased over the past hundred years at least. Opening borders to trade and migration has meant that many goods have become cheaper, and access to other cultures and exports much easier. However, across the west there is a strong backlash against the forces of globalisation.
This is felt across three factors: economic, cultural, and political. Economically Trump stands for American blue collar workers in declining manufacturing and heavy industries that are losing out to Chinese competition. Culturally, his idea of walling off the southern border and banning Muslim immigrants presents a staunch nativist shield against the uncertainty of a cosmopolitan, globalised future where white America sees a diminished role. Lastly, his ‘America First’ view of international politics, refuting the importance of international organisations like NATO and the UN is a sharp rebuke of globalised power structures and overseas spending.
Neither the Republican or Democratic Party have adequately adapted to the political challenges of globalisation. In an ideal situation, the benefits of globalised trade and cultural exchange would improve the lives of every American; but in reality there are pockets of economic loss, and a xenophobic compulsion against change.
Trump addresses all of these concerns, and combined with this anti-political correctness stance and a veneer of ‘winning’ he has catalysed a particular element of disillusionment that had until now largely been capped across America.
The Botched Competition Theory
There also the argument that Trump would not have managed to rise to the GOP nomination had it not been for a Republican field that was chaotic and divided. In any other year this would have been a highly competitive field of candidates: the big-name Bush, the rising star Rubio, the firebrand Cruz, as well as popular governors like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich.
Yet almost from the onset Donald Trump led polls, and the early forays of attacking Trump left Jeb Bush and Rand Paul reeling. The cadre of more moderate Republicans (John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie) refused to enter the ring with Trump, believing it was pointless to enter a feud with the billionaire if he was to fade away naturally: it would take away valuable debate time for putting forward their messages and was more likely to tar them with the ugliness of Trump’s demagoguery. The result was that Trump managed to earn victories in early primaries and caucuses without any serious criticism from his rivals. By the time Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio decided to focus their attacks on Trump it was probably too little too late.
It is certainly a hypothetical argument, but perhaps if more experienced and responsible candidates had managed to characterise Trump’s candidacy as a joke earlier in the process then he may not have racked up such insurmountable popularity.
The Democratic Renewal Theory
According to some advocates of Donald Trump’s populist concoction of politics, the billionaire’s rise has been a refutation of established elites and the triumph of democracy. Despite the fact that party elders and elites clearly favoured other candidates in the Republican field with more political experience, the fact that Donald Trump was unmoored from the donor class has enabled him to give voice to otherwise stifled views.
The culture wars that characterised the traditional Republican/Democrat rivalry are slowly filtering into history, as progressive attitudes towards racial equality, women’s rights, and liberalism towards sexuality settle into mainstream political culture. Without this glue of conservatism holding the Republican Party together, as it did in years gone by, the schism between grassroots conservative America and big business financial right-wingers is widening.
This line of argument supposes that the bullish Trump is a personification of the base of the party rejecting an elite-enforced Republican orthodoxy. To an extent this is an accurate summation of the Trump phenomenon, yet the question remains of what the implications are of stirring up populist anger and directing it towards democratic expressions; this surely is what the Founders feared when they established America, and why they layered republican checks and balances on government.
The Death of Democracy Theory
This argument is made most persuasively in Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article, in which he takes Plato’s critique of democracy and overlays Trumpism.
In essence, Sullivan argues that Trump represents a fatal stage of American democracy. Plato’s contention was that the broadening of electoral franchise and individual freedoms would corrode respect of established authorities and elites, with the end result that democracies degrade and become susceptible to tyrants.
While no one today would lament the loss of political and financial elites, a democratic shift away from these figures of authority enables populism to become the driving factor for a polity. This, in Plato’s view, gives space for tyrants like Trump to manipulate discontent among the masses, and direct anger at seen and unforeseen enemies, damaging the core principles of a liberal democracy in the process.
Melodramatic? Perhaps, however one only has to recall Donald Trump’s inciting of violence at his rallies. Or how he has called for the murder of families of terrorists. Or how he applies schoolyard taunts or likens rivals to child molesters when faced with policy questions. Or how he says he’ll round up and deport millions of illegal immigrants, tearing apart families. Or how he joked about John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a conflict he compares to his struggle to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Or how he stalled in condemning members of the Ku Klux Klan. Or every misogynistic, dismissive comment he makes about women.
What’s even worse is that Trump’s supporters fail to hold him accountable: for releasing his tax returns, for issuing contradicting statements on his vision for America, for saying all of his campaign promises were just ‘suggestions’. Rationality and reason in the Trump universe have been replaced by anger and slavish devotion to The Almighty Orange One.
Over the course of American history democracy has gradually been expanded, with jolts to the status quo: Jacksonianism in the early nineteenth century, for example, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Sullivan argues that one of the key differences today is in how Americans consume news media. In particular, the ways in which Americans curate their news sources online to match their preferred views creates an ‘echo chamber’ effect, leading otherwise rational individuals to abandon compromise and vilify those who disagree with them. In addition, the caustic nature of certain television outlets has long demonised those who disagree: a brief session watching Sean Hannity is enough to demonstrate the pugnacious quality of political journalism in some corners of the media.
So political views are being misshaped and exaggerated, while political disagreement now has too often been replaced with partisan hatred in both parties. Combining these trends with the plight of the white, working class man who feels his chances to get ahead are relatively diminished created a cocktail of disaffection ripe for a Trump-like figure.
The truth is that there has been a cancer of anger within American democracy for years now, and Trump is the manifestation of this cancer on the Republican side, while some of Bernie Sanders’ more radical supporters mirror this anger on the Democratic side. Sarah Palin was a warning sign: patently ignorant of the significance and realities of national government, but dressed-up like a pseudo political-celebrity. Prior to Palin there was George W. Bush: while Bush demonstrated a greater respect for his executive office and was certainly politically astute, his folksy manner emphasised the ‘who would I rather have a beer with’ tactics of likeability politics.
Were this a job interview, one would not give a position to someone based on these vague metrics, yet relevant experience and demonstration of capability have given way to celebrity and circus tactics. The same cannot be said of John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Paul Ryan, and it is of no small surprise that these Republicans have, at least previously, been more vocal opponents of Trump. Yet the Donald is an outgrowth of this pattern, bolstered by a fascinated news media beholden to him for ratings, and with an army of disaffected white supporters.
Viewed from a broader historical perspective, the rise of Trump can be viewed as a fundamental crisis for, and test of, American democracy and rationality.