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.” (more…)