Most of our readers are, I’m confident, familiar with the various ways conservatives see Donald Trump and what many of us view as his hostile takeover of the Republican Party. But how does the left view Trump’s rise?
The hack party line, expressed by President Obama, is that Trump isn’t much different from his Republican primary opponents — he merely articulates their God awful positions more colorfully. This self-serving view requires no response, though I offered one here.
Josh Marshall provides a far more thoughtful take. I agree with several of his points. First, I agree that, although a Trump victory in November is certainly possible, Hillary Clinton is likely to beat him because he probably won’t be able to “defy political gravity” in the general election.
But why has he been able to defy it among so many of those who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses? Marshall argues that to answer this question we need to focus on “the portion of the electorate he is currently operating.”
I agree that we need to focus on the portion of the electorate that is supporting Trump. It won’t do, in my opinion, to blame the media. Yes, it has provided a massive amount of free air time to Trump. But if Trump didn’t have considerable appeal, that air time would have caused him to crash, not flourish.
It also won’t do to blame his opponents. Yes, they should have attacked him earlier and harder. But Trump’s non-conservative views, his authoritarian tendencies, and his deplorable personal qualities have been on display for many months. Why has he continued to flourish?
It must be because a sizable portion of those who vote in GOP primaries like what they have seen. The real question is whether they like the non-conservativism, authoritarianism, and/or viciousness and are supporting Trump precisely because of one or more of these attributes, or whether they supporting Trump for other reasons, in spite of these features.
Marshall thinks it’s the former. In his view, Trump’s authoritarian transgression of norms is seen by his supporters as “a positive good.” It is “a feature, not a bug.”
Marshall points to three aspects of Trump’s appeal. First, at the substantive level, “a large segment of the American right is animated by a belief that ‘their’ world, their America, is being taken away from them. [T]his includes everything from declining white racial dominance, having to choose whether you want to hear the phone tree message in English or Spanish, changing cultural mores.”
Second, Marshall believes that part of Trump’s success lies in “the appeal to power and force.” Trump, he says, “is the master of GOP ‘dominance politics’, the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others [which] has a deep appeal to America’s authoritarian right.”
Third, according to Marshall, Trump’s very outrageousness attracts many because it signals “the willingness to tear down a corrupt order that is unwilling (Democrats and elites) or unable (RINOs, mainstream GOP) to turn back the tide of threat.” Thus, for example, “whether or not you think it’s a good idea to kill terrorists families, saying you will is a signal that you won’t accept limits.”
I assume that there are Republicans and Independents who support Trump for one of these reasons or some combination of them. I also assume that there are Democrats who support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders because, owing to their authoritarian tendencies, they want to see the state come down hard on speech they disagree with, on traditional religion, and on the Second Amendment. And especially in the case of Sanders supporters, they want the federal government to take control of the commanding heights of the American economy and take more money from people they envy.
Back to Trump, Marshall doesn’t quantify the extent to which the three strands he identifies account for Trump’s support. In addition, he fails to consider alternative explanations for Trump’s success.
The one that comes to my mind is this: when Trump says America will win non-stop under his leadership thanks to his ability to make deals and solve problems, lots of voters believe him. This has nothing to do with a desire to enhance “white racial dominance” or a craving for authoritarianism. It has little to do with a desire to tear down existing structures (less, in any event, than Sanders’ appeal).
Instead, it has to do with belief in the Trump brand. It’s the same faith exhibited by those who enrolled in Trump University.
Trump himself must believe that faith in his leadership and deal-making ability is what’s driving his support. Ordinarily, he talks about banning Muslims from entering America, for example, when he’s responding to questions or attacks. The rest of the time, he likes to speak of “winning,” of making “great deals” for America, and of the “tremendous company” he built.
Trump also emphasizes his ability to get along with everyone, albeit on his terms. If anything, he seems less like a destroyer of the existing order than Ted Cruz.
Many voters must simply think that Trump will be a more able executive than the two wet-behind-the-ears Senators and the squishy governor running against him, as well as the “low energy” ex-governor once considered by many the GOP frontrunner.
To be sure, this is speculation on my part. But it’s no more speculative than Marshall’s analysis. And mine is, I think, more consistent with what Trump tends to say when he’s telling voters why they should support him.