hy Trump? Why him? Why now? As is ever the case with a phenomenon that defies conventional wisdom, analysts have sought to explain his rise by asserting he has risen to prove exactly the point they have been making for years but nobody was listening.
So: Immigration restrictionists say it’s because he took up their cudgels. Trump himself suggests as much when he declares no one was paying attention to immigration until he brought it up. That is, of course, just one of the 10,000 transparently ridiculous things he has said, since immigration has been a dominating feature of the political conversation over the past decade.
Moreover, that Trump owes his lead to his ever-wilder positions on immigration—from the 80-foot-2,000-mile wall the Mexicans will pay for to instant deportation of 11 million people to the ban on Muslim entry into the United States—is belied by the persistent finding in exit polls that twice as many Republicans say they support a path to legalization over deportation. This finding surprises me. And yet, there it is. Nonetheless, the restrictionists are certain: He took up their issue, and so their issue is the issue.
So: Economic declinists argue that Trump is the great tribune of the uniquely beset lower-class white population, particularly its males, and they are responsible for his success. They have been warning that this group of people should not be ignored, because the kinds of jobs that might have propelled those who never graduated from high school have disappeared and left them ill equipped for 21st-century America. Many of these analysts dovetail with immigration restrictionists, because they argue that the inflow of Mexicans in particular has depressed the wages of low-skilled jobs to the point where there’s little reason for an American to take one.
Now, it is true that Trump resonates loudly with this base of people, or at least that is what the exit polls tell us. Trump himself wants Republicans to believe he has unique appeal to this cohort, that he will bring its members to the polls in record numbers—and that he already has.
In truth, they are not numerous enough to explain the Trump phenomenon. Nor does the argument hold sociologically. Fewer than 10 percent of white non-Hispanic Americans live at or below the poverty line. Ninety-six percent of all white non-Hispanics under 45 have a high-school diploma. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of all whites have attended college. Trump could not garner 35 percent of the GOP vote in aggregate primarily from the white poor, or even the white lower-middle class.
His appeal is broader than that. Take my friend Steve as an example. He runs a 15-person firm in New York City. It’s a business he started, and I assume he makes a lot of money. He’s very conservative politically. Last fall he told me he was supporting Trump. When I asked why, he explained he was tired of political correctness and sick of Wall Street bankers getting away with murder. And then he told me about the stresses of his business—specifically, that he works with people who sign contracts featuring non-compete clauses with major corporations. When their time is up and they’re ready to move on, their employers threaten them with legal action due to the non-compete clauses. These claims are without merit, Steve says, but litigating them would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So his people stay where they are. It’s unfair, he says.
What on earth, I asked, does he think Trump would do to help him and his clients with a non-compete problem? What does this have to do with anything? It’s the big guys, Steve said. The big guys are lording it over the little guys.
Now, in no way is Steve a little guy—except by comparison with major corporations. But he feels like the little guy.
This illuminated my understanding of the Trump phenomenon. His candidacy is an emotional outlet for his supporters. They have taken his message about “winning” and the “losers” who are running things and doing it badly—and they have applied it to their own circumstances. They could be the children of autoworkers for whom the lifetime employment their fathers (or grandfathers) enjoyed is a nostalgic memory. Or they could be Steve the small businessman, feeling under constant pressure and never able to relax into his own success. They feel beset, and they feel ill-used by the forces that have beset them. Trump is telling them he will fix it, even though his answer to how he will fix it is preposterous. Trade wars and deportations will not work and will have complex consequences we cannot begin to foresee. What’s more, chances are, many of his supporters know this.
The economic declinists want the Trump surge to validate them, and have some grounds to do so—but as with the immigration restrictionists, they are seizing on it opportunistically to win their argument.
So: Cultural declinists, who tend to hate Trump, see in his rise the demonstrable evidence of their worst fears about American cultural life. Eliot Cohen and Peter Wehner both attribute the Trump phenomenon to “moral rot,” from the crudity of popular culture to the collapse of the family to the parlousness of the education system that has left individual Americans adrift and uniquely susceptible to the open ugliness and viciousness of Trump himself. I am sympathetic to this argument, largely because it’s difficult to understand the fact that Trump’s support seems impervious to the sorts of standards voters expect of other candidates for office. He can lie twice in the same sentence, he can display a level of ignorance 10 times the level that turned Sarah Palin’s name into a punch line, and he can comport himself like a violence-promoting goon—and while any one of those things would take another person down, there he remains. What else could it be than that his supporters are themselves so ignorant they don’t know he’s ignorant, and that they are themselves ill-mannered because they do not mind his ill-manneredness?
And yet one cannot say American “moral rot” was any less present in 2008 or 2012, or earlier, for that matter. The convictions of social conservatives that the continuing high rate of abortions, the mainstreaming of gay marriage, the growing hostility to religious liberty, and the force-feeding of transgenderism help account for the rise of a grotesque culture in which a Trump presidency is thinkable are subject to the classic “correlation is not causation” criticism. It is a fact that Trumpism would have been unthinkable in a more morally constrained society—but that society has been gone for many decades.
These “Trump proves my theory” explanations are all examples of a phenomenon diagnosed by Yuval Levin in his staggeringly brilliant forthcoming book, The Fractured Republic. Rather than seeing Trump through the lens of our present circumstances or the political and social conditions specific and new to America today, these theorists are all awash in baby-boomer nostalgia. The immigration restrictionists hearken back to a time when the country was whiter and therefore more cohesive. The economic declinists hearken back to a time when the United States was responsible for 60 percent of global industrial production due to the destruction of rival economies in World War II. The cultural declinists see a more moral America in the rearview mirror.
Levin’s central point is that our political culture cannot shake itself of the impulse to locate the present in the past—and in many cases, a past that was actually quite distant. The rise of global competition, especially in Asia, that beset American industrial production began in the 1960s. The 1960s were half a century ago. The “amnesty” bill that still riles restrictionists was passed 30 years ago. Roe v. Wade was decided 43 years ago. And yet here we are, in 2016, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
So: I want to propose an alternate theory of Trump’s popularity. It also takes us into the past, but at least it’s our own immediate past. In September 2008, after months of uncertainty following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the financial system went into its terrifying tailspin. A disastrous recession shrank the overall economy by 9 percent, and the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent a year later.
Now imagine that the meltdown had taken place not in September 2008 but rather in September 2006. Imagine that housing prices and stock prices had fallen in the same way—such that the wealth invested in the 63 percent of home-owned American households and in the stocks owned by 62 percent of all Americans had declined by 40 percent.
Further, imagine that serious proposals arose that the 8 percent of homeowners who had defaulted on their home loans be forgiven their debts—the very proposal in 2009 that led investor Rick Santelli to call for a new “tea party” uprising on the part of the 92 percent who paid their bills on time. Only this time Santelli’s comments had been spoken in 2007. Imagine all these things. And then imagine the presidential race that would have followed. Does the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders suddenly make all the sense in the world? Of course.
But of course the meltdown didn’t happen in 2006. It took place a mere seven weeks before an election. A presidential race that was a dead heat the week before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt turned into an 8-point rout. Barack Obama may have been a “change” candidate, but he had no idea the change would involve repairing the international finance system until that was thrust upon him by circumstance.
The Obama election had a distorting effect on the American response to the meltdown of 2008. The next seven years in American political life came to revolve around him. His actions in the wake of the crisis—a $1 trillion stimulus, the partial nationalization of the auto industry, and Obamacare—became the policy focus of American politics. Republicans opposed them and stopped him dead with the midterm shellacking of 2010. Democrats fought back and secured his reelection in 2012.
As the elections seesawed, Washington froze. There were two government shutdowns owing to the partisan and ideological standoff. The president decided he was frustrated by the checks and balances of the American republican system and warned he had the right to do things by executive fiat no president before him had contemplated, because “we just can’t wait.” Republicans used these threats in part to crush Democrats in the 2014 midterms.
The Republican Party believed it was back on the road to power. Not only did it control both houses of Congress by healthy margins, Republicans during the Obama era had taken the majorities in 67 of the nation’s 99 state legislatures by winning 928 seats in aggregate. The number of GOP governors rose from 21 to 32. Notwithstanding polls that showed it was deeply unpopular, the Republican Party had never before been so dominant. Its best and brightest lined up to run for president against an ethically damaged and very old-school Hillary Clinton.
And then came Trump.
So: What I’m suggesting is that the weird timing of the meltdown and the rise of Obama hindered and delayed a reckoning for 2008 that everybody would have expected as a matter of course had the crisis hit earlier. Now, there were certainly suggestions of extra-political populist rage along the way. The Tea Party was one, though it focused on size-of-government issues, and Occupy Wall Street was another, though its anti-banker message was swamped by every far-left bugaboo on earth. But the signs were easy to misread—obviously, since almost everyone misread them.
And this is why, I think, the meaning of Trump is being misused and misunderstood. He says he wants to “make America great again,” but I don’t think that’s what his acolytes hear. I think they hear that he is going to turn his vicious temper and unbalanced rage on the large-scale forces they feel are hindering them. They want someone punished. Could be China. Could be Muslims. Could be Mexicans. Could be bankers. Could be the GOP “establishment.” Whatever. He’s their Punisher.
Only he won’t be. The qualities that have given him appeal to part of the GOP primary electorate would be destructive with a national electorate seven times the size. If he is the GOP nominee, the gender gap—12 percent for Romney in 2012—will open into a Gender Grand Canyon.
According to Gallup, Hillary Clinton has a net favorability with Hispanics of 33 percent. Trump has a net unfavorability among Hispanics of 65 percent. In other words, against Clinton, Trump is 98 percent in the hole. Hispanics make up 11 percent of the electorate. That’s the ball game right there.
Thus, an election that appeared to be the Republican Party’s to lose now threatens to fracture the GOP beyond recognition, with the least popular front-runner in history staggering toward her dynastic installment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Punisher has arrived, eight years later—and the only punishment he will truly deliver will be to his own voters and to the party whose nomination he seeks.