What do you see when you look at Donald Trump — besides the hair, the suits, and the skin of unusual tone?
Even if you’re a member of the party that seems to be about to nominate him for the presidency, there’s only a 50-50 chance that you actually like Trump. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders enjoy 81 and 82 percent approval ratings among their party’s voters in Iowa, Trump is barely breaking even at 50 percent approval there, with 47 percent disapproval, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll.
There’s another statistic that suggests why Trump is doing so well in the Republican primary, even while the rest of the world watches with emotions somewhere betwixt bemusement and horror. A Washington Post poll finds that the idea of a Trump presidency makes 69 percent of Americans “anxious.”
Former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod offered a theory of Trump that may help explain this anxiety.
“Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent,” he wrote. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”
Obama is cool, tolerant and measured. Trump is Trump.
And for the people who despise Obama — let’s call them Mitt Romney’s real 47 percent, the 47.2 percent who backed the GOP nominee in 2012 — what’s needed in 2016 is the antidote to Obama.
But even for large segments of the GOP, Trump is just too much.
Too much bluster. Too many inconsistencies. And way too wild of a wild card. For many on the right Trump’s ascension feels like a karmic shitstorm, with those long-expected flocks of chickens coming home to roost after decades of race-baiting and wealth-worshipping.
His candidacy is more real-life satire than movement, exposing conservative hypocrisies and weaknesses at a blistering pace. The realization that people are voting for him should make decent people nervous. And so it does.
Underlying Trump’s appeal is the reason why so many people have fallen for him. while literally twice as many Americans get very nervous when they imagine him in the White House.
- He represents a radical strain of America brutalized by conservative economics and threatened by change.
Trump’s biggest fans are losers, according to the Washington Post‘s Matt O’Brien. This isn’t name-calling. It’s a fact. Globalization has created definite winners and losers, and many of those who’ve been most hurt by exportation of much of its manufacturing sector just happen believe a billionaire who inherited millions and makes his neckties in China truly speaks for them. There’s a long history of Americans who manifest anger toward both the rich and the poor. Political scientist Donald Warren called them “Middle American Radicals,” as John B. Judis explained in a cultural history of this group, which he estimates at about 20 percent of the American electorate and 30 to 35 percent of Republicans. Centrists like to play the false-equivalence game by comparing supporters of Trump and Sanders, though the Senator’s backers tend to be younger, better educated, and less likely to confuse Sikhs with Muslims. While anger unites them, the remedies are the exact opposite. Trump may not be calling for busting unions or slashing Social Security, but his massive tax cuts for the rich would exacerbate the misery that that has made so many in America’s middle so hopeless. In this way, he resembles Ronald Reagan, the last Republican who actively reached out to the disaffected working class, only to doom it to permanent disaffection. Aging white people are literally dying from the insecurity that conservatism fosters. Trump offers a revenge fantasy instead of actual solutions.
- Maybe not a white supremacist, but beloved by white supremacists.
If you’re popular enough, you’re going to attract millions of supporters whom you’d never support. But Trump’s leap into the presidential campaign has inspired a group that rarely ventures openly into mainstream politics — white nationalists. The so-called “Alt Right” has found much to be admired in Trump’s smearing of immigrants, Muslims and willingness to use sexist language. The fears of white supremacists are very real, and they know they are losing. “Each and every day, 7,261 people of color are added to the U.S. population, in contrast to the White growth of 1,053 people,” according to the Center of American Progress’ Steve Philips. Trump may represent their last stand. And nothing has discouraged them from backing him, even as Trump has become increasingly acceptable to the GOP establishment. This could be the result of Trump’s subtle online signaling, which encourages their support. You can’t choose your fans but you can choose who you retweet on Twitter. According to New York Magazine’s Jay Hathaway, “62 percent of the accounts Trump has retweeted recently have white-supremacist connections.”
- He’s revealing the true nature of conservatism.
When Trump suggests that he’d propose “some kind of government program” to make college more affordable, it doesn’t just betray a ridiculous lack of knowledge about government and, for that matter, reality It shows he doesn’t know what real conservatives are supposed to say. When is then told the politically-correct right-wing answer, he apes “true conservatism” just fine. Give him a Bible and he’ll pretend to be an evangelical, if only to get some votes. But he isn’t against government, as the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent explains, He’s against dummies in government, which abandons the party’s central tenet for the last century. So why is Trump still perceived as a conservative by those who live and breathe right wing thinking? Because conservatism isn’t really about ideology, it’s about preserving unjust power and denying it to “them,” as Corey Robin explains in The Reactionary Mind. That makes him the truest example of the conservative movement ever to seek his party’s nomination.
- His will and skill in attacking just about everyone is designed to make you feel vulnerable.
If you want to understand Trump’s campaign strategy, visit a dog park. The biggest or toughest dog maintains order with the implicit threat that he will dominate you at his will. Show deference to him and you’ll be allowed to romp, as long as you don’t get too secure or threatening. Then it’s time to bring up your birth certificate. This is why Trump lashes out at any opposition whether it’s a Republican Senator he’d have to work with as president or an evangelical leader he’ll need to eventually win Iowa in a general election. The point isn’t to chasten the victim of the attack, though that usually happens. The point is to send a message to anyone else who dares to defy him. This logic works very well with four-legged animals and about 30 percent of the GOP. But the complete lack of loyalty, predictability, and maturity necessary to enforce such a strategy freaks out everybody else.
- He could win.
This is the source of the deepest anxiety. Imagine a Trump victory. Deportation squads in the streets; a leader with no comprehension of how government works; a president who becomes furious at any and all opposition, exploding in response to any perceived humiliation. Yes, it could happen. You can game out how Trump could win; most scenarios require a huge anomaly, like Michael Bloomberg entering the race. But in ten words, Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum lays out a very simple scenario in which this nightmare comes true: “The economy dips into recession and workers’ incomes start falling. The end.”