The Meaning of Trump

Donald Trump’s fortunes got a major boost last night with his towering victory in New Hampshire (and, just as important, the ongoing failure of a clear “establishment” alternative to emerge from the fray). And that means that pundits are once again debating, with a renewed sense of urgency, the real source of support for the unapologetically crude populist billionaire.

There are a variety of theories, all of which tend to conform perfectly with the pre-existing political views of the people offering them. For liberal elites, Trump is generally understood as a result of the supposed racism and anti-immigrant demagoguery of at least some GOP voters. For some anti-establishment Republicans, meanwhile, Trump is a vindication of everything they have ever said is wrong with the elite Republican policy agenda—in particular, its libertarian-bent on taxes, trade, and immigration.

But the exit polls out of New Hampshire complicate any effort to ascribe Trump’s soaring popularity entirely or even mostly to the substance of his policies (to the extent that he has articulated any real policies). As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in Bloomberg View:

Many people, including me, have looked at his support as a sign of dissatisfaction among Republican voters with Republican politicians. That dissatisfaction is indeed widespread, including about half the New Hampshire Republican electorate. But Trump did roughly the same among people who feel betrayed by Republican politicians and those who don’t.

Is his support instead about immigration? He certainly did markedly better among the 15 percent of Republicans who picked it — rather than the economy, terrorism or government spending — as their top issue. But he won among the people who picked each of those other issues, too. (A majority of New Hampshire voters said they favored offering legal status to illegal immigrants. Trump won 23 percent of those who favor making this offer.)

These results suggest that Trump’s support is more visceral than substantive—that voters are drawn to him more out of a desire to see a strong leader and a grand simplification at a time of crisis and drift than, as many thinkers on the right and left seem to assume, by any particular policy platform. As WRM wrote in August, Trump’s populism is rooted more in his particular anti-PC affect and freewheeling style:

Some politicians appeal to popular constituencies by advocating for their economic interests, at least apparently. This was the path of Huey “Every Man A King” Long in Louisiana. It was also the strategy President Harry Truman took in 1948 when he warned working Americans against Republican plans to destroy the trade union movement and the New Deal welfare state.

But Trump offers a different kind of “representation.” By flouting PC norms, reducing opponents and journalists to sputtering outrage as he trashes the conventions of political discourse, and dismissing his critics with airy put-downs, he is living the life that—at least some of the time—a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live. In this sense he’s not unlike Italy’s bad boy Silvio Berlusconi, who accumulated tremendous popular support by flaunting his refusal to abide by conventional rules of behavior.

None of this means that policy isn’t part of the picture, or that the GOP shouldn’t try to reach voters who, citing immigration and economic opportunity, did break disproportionately for Trump. But it’s important not to give “Trumpism” too much credit as a coherent political ideology.

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