Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon

Photo: Reuters

The below conversation between CWCP's Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman took place over the past week via email. It has been slightly edited for readability and length.

Brad Nelson: Let's start by discussing the big picture aspect of the Trump phenomenon. What's going on? And how did we get here?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There is major backlash in both Democratic and Republican parties from people who feel like they’re left out, either the restless Millennials or middle-age white formerly blue collar workers, in flyover states.

In the Republican Party, Trump has managed to make them feel that he understands their pain and that he’s the only bona fide outsider. With the Republican Party badly fragmented with 15 other candidates in the race, Trump managed to win simply by maintaining a strong cohesive minority bloc of around 30-40% of GOP primary voters. So basically you have a badly fragmented base of Republican voters.

The reverse is true in the Democratic Party. Sanders' revolution was stopped because he was only facing one candidate, Hillary Clinton, the de facto nominee, who received support from the leadership of the party.

If you're a Trump supporter, it's good that he managed to clinch the nomination already, making people get used to the idea that he is the nominee. Yes, there are some holdouts, like Bill Kristol or even Paul Ryan, but by and large, Trump looks like he will get the party united.

In contrast, I think that if Sanders still refuses to surrender by the July party convention, and his voters have the impression that they are expected to just fall in line and vote for Hillary and that the election was stolen from Sanders thanks to a rigged electoral system, many of those Sanders voters might simply sit home or even vote for Trump.

BN: Ah, the holdouts. My prediction: by the end of summer the overwhelming majority of the "establishment" GOPers refusing to back Trump will be those who don't have to run for office in the fall. In other words, I'm referring to a group of Republicans like Romney, the Bushes, Bill Kristol, some of the big GOP donors, and the like. Day by day, more and more GOPers are falling in line with Trump, and the reason for that is that the race is tightening. Party members recognize that Trump can win, that victory isn't a major long shot, as many pundits, forecasters, and party officials thought just a few months ago.

I do think the issue of Bernie supporters--whether they "come home" to the Democrats, defect to Trump, or simply sit home or cast a 3rd party ballot--is interesting. Yes, he's drawing from a somewhat similar, though not identical, pool of voters as Trump. And the growing fissures (see Nevada) within the Democratic Party are surely giving Clinton a major headache. But history says that it's likely that most of them will vote Hillary in November. But even if a healthy portion of Bernie voters don't vote Hillary, that might not be Clinton's demise. For what if Hillary draws a sizable portion of Republicans away from Trump, what happens then? In short, we might see mass defections on both sides of the political spectrum.

But back to my original question. There are many factors, in my view, that account for Trump's rise. Such factors include Trump's personal characteristics (his wealth, celebrity, and personality), his appeals to authoritarianism, a weak GOP field of candidates, the state of the US economy (low growth, stagnant wages), a strain of racism and xenophobia within America, the incorporation of "new" voters into the GOP base (though the exact number has been disputed), and a growing sense among mainstream voters (on both the left and right, as you suggest) that Washington is lazy and corrupt, among other things.

There will be a temptation to explain what Trump's rise says about American politics. While an important enterprise, to be sure, I think scholars and analysts ought to be very cautious and prudent about the conclusions they draw. Put simply, I think Trump is the ultimate "black swan" of American politics, a rare outlier case that's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, regardless if he wins or loses in November.

The recent writings by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Kagan, Fredja Buric, Robert Reich, among others, have discussed how Trump is fascist or is bringing fascism to America. This is wild hyperbole that overlooks the role that US domestic political institutions--which are durable and strong--play in American politics and policymaking. For instance, should Trump win the presidency, a host of American institutions and actors (Congress, public opinion, state governors, etc.) will be strongly motivated to circumscribe his power and block his proposed policies. Moreover a Trump victory later this year will highly likely lead to the Democrats winning back Congress in 2018. If anything, I foresee heightened political paralysis and gridlock, not fascism or strongman rule. 

YS: I agree that the majority of the holdouts will end up falling in line with Trump. They look at his numbers and see that it is not as bad as they thought, especially with Hillary struggling. Furthermore, if the worst that the New York Times could get is this tabloid-like story after months of dredging mud on this already very well-known guy, then Trump probably has little to worry about. In fact Clinton might be the one who should be worried, as Camille Paglia, a Sanders supporter, stated: "Wow, millionaire workaholic Donald Trump chased young, beautiful, willing women and liked to boast about it. Jail him now! Meanwhile, the New York Times remains mute about Bill Clinton’s long record of crude groping and grosser assaults—not one example of which could be found to taint Trump."

These attacks, in my view, have made Trump seem like a normal Republican now, as he's getting the harsh treatment that many GOPers get, or think that they get. And the more I see Trump, the more I think he knows what he's doing. His spat with Amazon's Jeff Bezos has reinforced the perception among Republicans of Trump as the victim of media bias. And also by attacking, he is attracting older, non-technology savvy people, whose mom-and-pop stores could not compete with and got steamrolled over the last two decades. Furthermore, releasing the names of people whom Trump considers fit for the Supreme Court only solidifies his credentials as a conservative Republican, pushing back against the arguments of people like Bill Kristol who see him as a Republican in name only.

Frankly, I believe Trump's strategy is to gather all the "losers" in America, people who lost their blue-collar jobs, got their mom-and-pop stores steamrolled by Silicon valley, and think their values have been undermined by the elitist media on both the East and West Coasts. This is more and more like the Chapter II of the Tea Party Revolution. Yes, it is a black-swan effect, but I would argue that like a great businessman, he sees a niche that he can fill, and he's jumped on it. He might be politically incorrect, but he knows his audience well, and that has arguably brought them, the "silent majority," into the mainstream.

BN: I'm not entirely convinced Trump always knows what he's doing politically, that's he's a competent political strategist. Of course, it's easy to infer that he is, since what he's been doing has worked, at least in the sense that he's now the GOP nominee for president. In my judgement, much of his campaign has relied on his outsize personality and celebrity. But perhaps I'm underestimating him.

I'm dubious about any outreach to minority groups. Any attempts so far have been clumsy and, quite frankly, perceived as rather racist, and I don't expect any improvement on these efforts. I suspect Trump and his staff believe--or at least they should--that his best route to the presidency is to win the white vote, particularly the white women vote. Slyly cozying up to the KKK and other white supremacists and references to the"Silent Majority," as you mentioned, play into this idea. At bottom, if Trump rolls up strong numbers on the white vote, that could very well offset Trump's struggling support from Hispanics, Muslims and African Americans. In a recent Fox News poll, Trump is winning the women vote by 9 percent over Clinton. If that result is duplicated in November, he wins.  

Don't be surprised to hear about the importance of the so-called "security moms" in this election--that group of women who were an important bloc of support for George W. Bush. And in fact, the quest to lure that voting block, I believe, will only turn off Muslims, Hispanics, and so on. Why? Because to win the women vote, especially white women, he'll be very tempted to double down on his incendiary rhetoric/policy proposals on crime, terrorism, law and order, and so on.

YS: I agree that he is not a political strategist. What I observe is that he's calibrating his messages, tactically trying to build short-term momentum that might help him over the long-run. Actually, the more I think about it, Trump reminds me of Napoleon's portrayal in Owen Connelly's "Blundering to Glory," in that he relies on his talent to improvise and capitalize on his enemies' weaknesses in order to win rather than his expertise or competence.

I think this explains Trump's tendency to throw everything until it sticks, from belittling his opponents, to "building a wall," etc. Yes, he has alienated a huge segment of American population, but he is gambling that Hillary will make bigger mistakes in the future. This especially rings true to me, given the potential legal problems piling up for Hillary and Sanders' sniping from her left. As you noted, Trump's outreach so far has been very clumsy, and even racist. But Hillary has political problems, too.

The question for Hillary is whether she--who has to juggle many interest groups, including African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, blue-collar union workers, women, Wall Street financiers, Silicon Valley executives, environmentalists, Millennials, and so on--will be able to maintain the loose coalition of longstanding Democratic voters, which won't be easy or a given. Hillary is prone to making mistakes, as is evident in her massive loss in West Virginia and her very slim victory in Kentucky, after having offended many of them by denigrating the coal industry. Keep in mind that Trump likely only needs to satisfy his white blue collar supporters. 

BN: "Throwing stuff against the wall" is hardly thinking and acting strategically. I do agree with your argument that he's effectively throwing everything but the kitchen sink against Clinton, whether or not these attacks are grounded in fact/reality. And he's not waiting until the later summer/fall, he's already enthusiastically launched wave after wave of attacks, many of which are personal ones against Hillary. One of Trump's problems is that he can't control himself and the campaign has little control over him. It's one thing to engage in mudslinging against Hillary, it's quite another to go after John McCain, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and so on. And this past week offered another example of his inability to control himself. Trump unnecessarily went after New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez after Martinez skipped a Trump event in Albuquerque. He stated that Martinez wasn't doing a good job, blaming her for a whole host of state issues. Talk about dumb, this is it! Not only is Martinez popular within the GOP--she is widely viewed as a rising star within the party--she is a prominent Latina, two groups that Trump desperately needs to win over.

Trump won't change his behavior. But if he's smart, he'll let his campaign call more of the shots, which might restrain him a bit. He's probably too egotistical to let that happen, and I doubt anyone in his campaign is brazen enough or has Trump's ear to convince him to relinquish some strategic and organizational oversight. Perhaps his kids? There was much chatter about a month ago, right around the time that Paul Manafort was given an elevated position within the campaign, that Trump was seeking a more "presidential image." Political pundits pointed to Trump's staying away from the cable talk shows, especially the Sunday morning telecasts, and that his stump speeches seemed to be generating fewer controversial headlines and attention. But that didn't last long. He's right back at it.

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