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Taking Trump Seriously

Trump Speech at Fountain Park

Justin Vaughn

Justin S. Vaughn is an associate professor of political science in the School of Public Service and director of the Center of Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University. His research focuses on American politics, with an emphasis in executive politics, political rhetoric and communication, and the linkage between public policy and public opinion. He earned his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, and his B.S. and M.S. at Illinois State University.

Political and media elites still missing significance of Trump camp

I have argued for some time now — whenever asked — that pundits, party elite and professors of political science need to take the current GOP delegate leader, Donald Trump, more seriously. As anti-Trump forces have unleashed an extraordinarily well-funded attack plan and key members of the establishment have begun to loudly campaign against The Donald, it becomes a little more difficult to claim that people aren’t considering the likelihood of a Trump nomination, if not a Trump presidency. But I still think political elites and commentators alike are not taking the broad swath of Trump supporters seriously enough.

Following the conclusion of the Wisconsin primary on April 6th, Trump has nearly 2 million more votes than Cruz and over 5 million more than Kasich. Similarly, he’s taken 20 states to Cruz’s nine and Kasich’s one (in his home state of Ohio). A recent CBS/NYTimes poll shows 46 percent of Republican primary voters prefer Trump (highest ever), and three-fourths of Republican voters expected him to become the nominee. Further, 63 percent have him as either 1st or 2nd choice, compared to 56 for Cruz and 57 for Kasich , 65 percent thought a brokered convention leading to someone other than the person who won the most delegates would be a bad thing.

More importantly, since RNC Establishment declared war on him, he’s GAINED 10 points. From October to late last month, Trump suffered only a four point drop in favorability ratings; meanwhile the Republican Party as a whole had historically low favorability/unfavorability number (28/66 percent) – the worst distribution since the question was first asked in this poll in 1985.

The other powerful narrative that has been pushed by commentators on the right and left concerns the voters who are supporting Trump. Only recently have Republican leaders come to terms with the fact that the Trump phenomenon is more than a passing curiosity. And now that the establishment has identified the threat, most commentary along the lines of “taking Trump seriously” concerns the need to team up against him before it is too late. Few are attempting to understand seriously why so many more voters have flocked to Trump. Most coverage explains Trump’s success either by emphasizing the mistakes his failed competitors have made or noting how angry and disaffected voters are this cycle. There has been very little concern for what he represents otherwise.

This is a disservice. As of the results of the recent western primaries, more than 8 million Americans have voted for Donald Trump. It is foolish and undemocratic to think these people are simply brainwashed dolts. Moreover, it is delusional to think they are simply responding to Trump’s brashness and casual racism. Most analysts refuse to look beneath the superficial (and admittedly offensive) rhetoric, however. If they did, they would note several important factors, such as:

  • Trump is a more than a known figure; he is a cultural icon, a symbol of American success, to more than a generation.
  • He is a political outsider, though willing to acknowledge how he used to be embraced by the establishment of both parties.
  • Trump is bold, brash, confident, which leads some in the electorate to believe that maybe he’ll actually do what he says, unlike everyone else (including George W. Bush and Barack Obama).
  • Despite being a billionaire, he is critical of the role money plays in politics, and willing to talk about how donations really affect the actions of elite policy makers.
  • He rhetorically goes where other politicians won’t. In doing so, he admittedly says numerous horribly offensive things, particularly concerning immigration and terrorism, but the fact that he does signals to many of his supporters that he “gets it” and is willing to confront difficult and politically sensitive challenges.
  • Most importantly, Trump is critical of free trade. While commentators focus on clips of his more incendiary statements, his criticism of free trade agreements actually makes up a significant portion of his substantive stump rhetoric.

Taken together, the combination of Trump’s demeanor, “outsider” status, and policy positions makes him a reasonable bet for those people who support him the most. But who exactly are these people? Elite pundits don’t know them, and certainly can’t empathize with them. Nicholas Kristof had to invent one! Elite media has no way to engage with them in a meaningful way, and most of their attempts to do so drip with elitism.

The pattern of this coverage has become noticeable. For example, in a recent op-ed by Thomas Frank in The Guardian:

Stories marveling at the stupidity of Trump voters are published nearly every day. Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.” A New York Times reporter proved that Trump’s followers were bigots by coordinating a map of Trump support with a map of racist Google searches. Everyone knows it: Trump’s followers’ passions are nothing more than the ignorant blurtings of the white American id, driven to madness by the presence of a black man in the White House. The Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race-hate. Its partisans are not only incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.

Until political and media elites get over their need to repeatedly point out the less savory aspects of Trump’s candidacy and instead attempt to understand fully why The Donald is resonating with voters across party divides, the establishment will fail in its attempt to stop him, and will continue to fail the American people.