Leadership and Democracy LabWestern Social Science

What Explains Donald Trump

What Explains Donald Trump? 

March 3, 2016

By: Eric de Roos, Former Democracy Lab Student Director

For much of the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump was the figurative elephant in the room of the Republican Party. His presence alone in the race, let alone his apparent popularity, was troubling for many. However troubling as it may have been, Mr. Trump was ignored by the majority of the candidates until recently. Indeed, early in the crowded race the only candidates who genuinely took on Trump were vanity candidates who had nothing to lose (Lindsey Graham and George Pataki). Not until Jeb Bush similarly reached a “do or die” point in his campaign did he begin to attack Trump. Now, with Trump surging and showing no signs of slowing down, it’s possible the window to attack Trump has past.

While some attribute this lack of early opposition to Trump as an underestimation of his chances – as many pundits predicted were practically nil – there is another reason, one that explains the Trump phenomenon itself.

There have been many thoughtful analyses written by many smart people over the past nine months that have sought to explain Trump’s success. Trump’s success has best been articulated in terms of economic stagnation and inequality, a moral rot and social decay, a lust for a charismatic authoritarian, and, of course, a rising xenophobic and nativist sentiment. All of these are pieces of the puzzle that has become, after Super Tuesday’s results, Trump’s more likely than not nomination.

The above explanations for Trump, like his candidacy itself, have long been uncomfortable elephants in the room for the Republican Party. The reason Trump went unchallenged for so long in the campaign wasn’t that his opponents thought Trump wasn’t worth attacking, it was that attacking his policies begged questions that the Republican Party have long ignored and remain ill-equipped to answer. The catch-22 of the last 20-30 year of American politics, however, has been that the GOP has ignored the issues Trump has capitalized on while relying on the constituents to whom these issues evidently resonate. Trump’s success is the culmination of this growing disconnect.

In Republican politics Ronald Reagan is still talked of in a near-deified manner. Reagan won two landslide elections by winning over the voting block of white, blue-collar males – referred to as Reagan Democrats. While Reagan Democrats never entirely left the Republican Party (except for perhaps 1996), the Republican Party long left Reagan Democrats. The party that offers free trade, open immigration, low capital gains tax, cuts to social services, and high defence spending, offers little to this demographic. Having been alienated for the political party that is supposed to represent them, many have turned to a man who’s willing to break with the GOP on these issues.

Of course, not all Trump supporters are white, blue collar males; and not all white, blue collar males support Trump. But this key electoral demographic group serves as a useful example to help explain the larger failure of the Republican Party to connect its policies to its constituents. Political parties are supposed to serve like-minded groups of citizens – not the other way around. Parties are far from perfect democratic institutions, but they are, at a certain level, democratic institutions. Academic literature has long shown that party elites decide the nomination, but when the internal political fissure becomes this large, the elites can longer control their base.

Publically criticizing Trump is the responsibility of thinking people everywhere. His political pathologies are too numerous to mention here, but his overt dishonesty, boorishness, ignorance, and racism – clear to even the casual follower of this election – should disqualify him as a serious candidate. Those on the Left been critical of him from the start (although many are probably silently relieved since they feel he is effectively handing the White House to the Democrats), but sadly very few on the political Right, who bear more responsibility, haven’t understood the ramifications of Trump until recently.

The intention of explaining Trump’s success is not meant to excuse his politics in any way. There seems to be a genuine confusion, especially of those on the outside looking in, as to what is fueling Trump’s campaign. Understanding and explaining Trump is key to preventing someone like him from replicating a similar campaign in the future. The Trump experiment has been comical to many thus far, but this has long ceased to be funny. There are serious ramifications to allowing someone like Trump to assume, or even contest, the office of the President of United States – none of which are in anyone’s best interest, certainly including Trump’s own supporters.

The views expressed here are the author's only and do not reflect those of his employer or the Leadership and Democracy Lab.