At the risk of wading into a swamp, here are a few thoughts on the phenomenon. We’ve seen lots of smart analyses trying to figure out how we got here, but if I were to distill my own analysis and intuition, I’d say the most important factors in the rise of Trump to around 35-40% of the GOP primary vote are:
1. Celebrity – I think it’s hard to overstate how important fame is. Most politicians try to spread their names with commercials, town hall meetings, and parades, even as they are taking tough votes that diminish their popularity with half the electorate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, spent 30 years in the public eye and the last 10 years on one of TV’s most-watched shows. Tens of millions of people, many with no connection to politics, got to know him on his terms – and they liked him. He then leveraged his celebrity into a reported $2 billion worth of free media over the last year, which was nearly twice the total of all other GOP candidates combined. How’s Bobby Jindal (who?) supposed to compete with that?
2. Anti-Washington fervor – Trump voters, so far as we know, do not much care about the usual anti-government policy ideas on regulation and taxes, for example. But what’s animating them, I believe, is a profound astonishment at Washington’s bipartisan incompetence. Think about the last 15 years: under Republicans, we got the Iraq War and WMD intelligence fiasco, and then the Financial Panic, Wall Street bailout, and Great Recession. Under Democrats, we got the ineffectual economic response that has led to a stagnant decade of sub-3% economic growth; the legislative centerpiece, Obamacare, which began with the failure of the government to build a functioning website, and resulted in a tumultuous upheaval in the health care market, with exploding premiums and less access to care; and a foreign policy that led to even more chaos in the Middle East, from Syria to Libya. Under both parties, they see a total failure to enforce existing immigration laws or to formulate better ones. Throw in the Katrina response, which was a bipartisan federal-local disaster. In Washington, they see very smart people producing utterly pathetic results. Trump calls them “our stupid leaders.”
When Trump critics argue, correctly, that he is an ignorant and dishonest buffoon, Trump backers scoff, “Buffoon? Dishonest? Look at Washington. It can’t get any worse.”
3. Political correctness – A related phenomenon is the electorate’s rejection of elite political correctness in Washington, on campuses, in schools, and at work. David Gelernter offered perhaps the best analysis, among many, of this common sense rejection of the overweening and increasingly preposterous assaults on obvious truth. Now, I don’t think Trump offers an actual, let alone effective, response to PC. Yes, he is rude and vulgar, but without any substance. He is speaking no verboten truths that people need to hear. Nevertheless, people take his unorthodox language and manner as a sign that he has not been cowed and coopted by the polite but incompetent political class.
(By the way, I think the PC police are usually the ones using rude and hysterical language and epithets to shout down reasonable critiques of their agenda. Vulgarity in the service of PC, in other words. In this way, Trump actually resembles the PC police.)
4. Economic anxiety – Trump’s backers in low- and middle-income communities have been especially hard hit by the Great Recession and tepid growth since. The decline in labor force participation and stagnant incomes, especially among blue collar and grey collar workers, provide fertile ground for Trump’s criticism of immigration and “bad deals” with Mexico and China. Obviously, the solution is not less trade with Mexico and China but better economic policies that allow the economy to grow fast enough to compensate for the inevitable dislocations that come from technology, trade, and even immigration. At 2% growth, workers with lots of human capital can survive and even thrive; it takes a faster growing economy for the rest of the workforce to get ahead. And on this, Washington has failed to deliver.
I’ve no doubt left out important factors. Political scientists will study this election for a long time and find new angles.
I think 2016 has reinforced an idea that some of us had back in 2012 – namely, that the right approach for the GOP is something like libertarian populism. Adopt simple policies that will unleash the economy and free states and individuals to work out our fraught social debates at a more granular level. Explicitly reject the Washington marriage of big government and big business that concentrates power, money, and information. I think anti-PC stances also fit within the populist envelope. The two GOP candidates left standing more or less demonstrate this synthesis, which was championed early and often by Tim Carney and Ben Domenech. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz between them have been winning between 60% and 80% of the vote. Trump clearly has proved populism is a vote getter in this era. (He also demonstrates the downside of populism – unchained from basic knowledge and virtue, it is mere demagogy.) Throw in Bernie Sanders, and three of the final four candidates have campaigned as populists.
Only Ted Cruz more or less embraces both libertarianism and populism. He’s run against the “Washington cartel” and explicitly embraces a flat tax, far-reaching deregulation, and says economic growth is the centerpiece of his agenda. He ran against ethanol subsidies in Iowa – and won. He also explicitly rejects Trump’s protectionism, saying tariffs are a tax on American consumers. His immigration rhetoric is far too hot for most libertarians, but it is probably the minimum ante this year, and maybe even fits with Milton Friedman’s view that you can’t have both open immigration and large welfare state. Perhaps most interesting, instead of repeating the historical social conservative rhetoric on abortion and marriage, Cruz emphasizes “religious liberty,” the Second Amendment, and the Bill of Rights, which is perfectly consistent with a libertarian message. (Yes, I know Cruz is a social conservative, but I think his emphasis is nonetheless striking.)
That’s my amateur take on this bizarre year.