Theories of the rise of Donald Trump too often rely on the anger, bigotry and general backwardness of his supporters. This grounding isn’t much questioned, even by commentators who think they’re questioning it. The inferiority of those people (formerly known as “we the people”) is widely taken for granted.
This points to the real driver of Trump’s success: the armor-plated complacency of the politicians, commentators and other political professionals he is running against.
To many liberals and more than a few conservatives, support for Trump proves your unfitness for civilized society. Articles that purport to offer a somewhat deeper analysis – promising, for instance, to blame the country’s elites for Trump’s success – often wind their way back to the same premise.
Blame the elites for failing to respond sympathetically to the understandable rage of desperate losers; or for manipulating their bigotry to gain political advantage; or for failing to do what elites in democracies are supposed to do, which is shield a correctly constituted government of laws from the rabble.
I don’t doubt there are plenty of angry, stupid bigots in the U.S., much as you would find anywhere else. And as a loudmouth insurgent, Trump presumably gets more than his fair share of support from that part of the electorate. Still, polls currently give Trump 40 percent or more of the vote in much of the country. It’s far from impossible that he might win in November. Are the vicious, brainless masses really as numerous as that?
It seems unlikely. If all those declared supporters (together with the people who don’t like him but tell you confidentially, “Well, he does have a point”) are as worthless and benighted as the political establishment appears to believe, then the case for democracy would seem to need rethinking, Trump or no Trump. Alternatively, one could ask a better question: why so many decent, reasoning, responsible people – citizens deserving of respect, if democratic self-government means anything – are saying they’ll vote for this outrageous man.
The Trump supporters I know aren’t bigots or fools. They’re protesting, in part, against the condescension of the country’s self-appointed upper orders. Economic stress is certainly a factor, though I wonder if too much is made of this; the Trump supporters I know are getting by, and the last thing they are is sorry for themselves.
What seems most important is that they think they’ve little to lose in smacking down politics as usual. They’re tired of being ignored and want that understood. Washington, D.C., is broken, incapable of action and apparently content to stay that way, so why not declare, in unmistakable terms, that enough is enough?
I only wish it were harder to quarrel with their assessment. National politics in the U.S. has all but collapsed to a gusher of money, a source of rotating employment and a platform for ideological self-affirmation – a forum for graft and posturing and endless impotent argument but seldom for solving problems. Even before things got this bad, would-be presidents often promised to shake up Washington. Trump is different, as his critics point out: He might actually do it.
I could never vote for the man. He isn’t a would-be dictator and even if he were, the Constitution would stop him. But he has some unusually bad ideas, and in foreign policy he would have more freedom of action. He seems totally uninformed, intellectually unanchored and completely unpredictable.
Who knows what he might do, or try to? It’s a frightening prospect. The view that you can safely vote for Trump because things really couldn’t be any worse is just wrong. He’s the man to prove they could be.
Believing otherwise, however, doesn’t make his supporters idiots or racists. As to whether politics as usual has failed the country and something needs to change, I would definitely start paying attention to those people. On that important point, they’re absolutely right.
Clive Crook, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.