To the continuing dismay of the Republican Party, it’s now clear that Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is neither a media-manufactured chimera nor ironic Astroturf. Whether he wins or not, he has genuine support from real people who have cast real ballots.
What makes a person vote for Trump? Most obvious is that he says (and does) whatever comes to mind without much apparent thought, and without appearing to suffer any negative consequences. Trump’s personal wealth and lack of formal connection to the political establishment mean that there are no carrots or sticks that the GOP or the media can employ to cajole or threaten him.
But the support for Trump is rooted in more than just his candor -- it’s in what he chooses to do with that freedom. When his supporters listen to him, they hear the unpolished, impolitic truths that they themselves believe in, things they believe the average American privately agrees with. They believe that the United States is decaying from within, its strength sapped by a culture unmoored from the ideals that made America great, and that the source of this rot is immigrants who don’t understand American values, depress the country’s wages, drain government coffers, and increase crime. They believe that in this weakened state, America isn’t strong enough to fight off terrorists abroad or infiltrators within. They are haunted by the amorphous fear that the America they knew is vanishing. And they believe establishment politicians and the press are too cowed, calculated, or corrupted to either voice these truths publicly or act upon them.
So when the media attacks or mocks Trump, portraying him as ignorant, ridiculous, or extreme, his supporters take it as a deeply personal insult. No criticism from the traditional media or the political establishment can really hurt Trump with his supporters, because they don’t just distrust these institutions, they actively despise them. Trump has something almost as politically valuable as the right set of friends -- he has the right set of enemies.
As is usually the case with demagogues, Trump’s enemies are what define his candidacy. That’s part of the reason his campaign has treated several traditional conservative issues -- fiscal discipline, minimal government intervention -- as ideas not worth taking seriously. And that is why polls have shown that Trump’s supporters aren’t even entirely conservative -- that the primary characteristic they share is a taste for authoritarianism.
Authoritarians like strong leaders with expansive powers, who take an aggressive posture toward both outside threats and internal disorder. Authoritarians are the ones who get the angriest about the failures of the establishment and seek to replace that establishment with a strongman. They want their enemies brought to heel.
While Trump’s peculiarities make it unlikely that he will be the Republican nominee, it is a mistake to dismiss his candidacy and constituency as unimportant, or to continue to treat it like a throwaway joke. The alienation of the people who have turned to Trump points to a deeper, broader problem in American society. And if we ignore it, we will regret it.
So how did we get here?
To understand the root of Trump’s appeal, we have to look at the most dominant economic trend of postwar America: a sharp increase in income inequality and the subsequent establishment of a new upper class. Since the 1960s, after-tax real income for households at or below the median has barely increased, if at all. Instead, the benefits of economic growth have gone to those households in the top half of the income distribution. In fact, most of the growth has been concentrated at the very top: Household income for those at the cutoff of the top 5 percent of Americans has doubled, and for those at the cutoff of the top 1 percent, it has more than doubled.
This basic fact has been one of the primary political preoccupations of our time. In his book Coming Apart, conservative political scientist Charles Murray points out that those who shape America’s politics, culture, and economy -- the upper echelons of the political establishment, the most widely read political commentators, the executive class of industry, law, and entertainment -- have incomes that place them at or very close to the top 5 percent of Americans. It is these people we refer to when we say “the elite.”
Of course, it’s always been the case that the elites were among the wealthiest in the country, and income inequality has always been a fact of American life. But the less severe income inequality of the 1960s meant that the lives of most members of the elite were just fancier, more comfortable versions of the lives of average Americans -- not fundamentally and deeply different enough from them to constitute a separate class.
This is no longer the case.
Today’s elites live in very wealthy neighborhoods where they’re insulated from average Americans. Their kids grow up and go to schools in these neighborhoods with other members of their class. They end up concentrated in the top colleges with other members of the elite, where they gain the skills and connections to put them on track for the most lucrative jobs. Deserved or not, this has resulted in the elites seeing their incomes rise rapidly, while everyone else’s have stayed flat.
Since people tend to marry those from similar backgrounds and social circles, we then see the elite pair off among themselves and move to elite neighborhoods, where the cycle perpetuates itself. They’re wealthy enough that they can support whole markets that cater only to them. The result is that the elite have lives that are culturally, geographically, and experientially segregated from those of average Americans. This renders them largely unable to relate to those average Americans, much less act or speak in a way that recognizably addresses their concerns.
But the sentiment underlying Trump’s support isn’t just that the elites are distant. It’s that they have failed -- publicly, repeatedly, and completely.
The Iraq War, for example, had broad support across the political establishment, including both parties and the mainstream media that covered them. The elites who promoted the war assured everyone that the war was necessary to secure peace and safety, and that it’d be over quickly. Instead, we got a conflict that was abruptly entered, poorly strategized, and haphazardly ended; that cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of American deaths; that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and left Iraq and the surrounding regions in a chaos that has yet to be resolved; and that, in the end, left the United States less safe than it was before.
The Great Recession was another stage on which Americans watched elite failure play out. We don’t need to litigate the precise mixture of misguided government policy and Wall Street misbehavior that led to the recession -- they were both actions of elites. And while the causes of the recession might be hard to understand, the government’s response was not: The solution, which again had broad consensus, was to put out the fire on Wall Street with taxpayer money.
It was a strategy we can only call successful based upon educated guesses about what might have happened if we hadn’t tried it. And the same people assuring us that this was the right decision are the ones who didn’t warn us of impending crisis in the first place. In fact, some of them assured us that everything was fine right up until the moment it was clear that it wasn’t.
It doesn’t help that the current economic “recovery” isn’t really reflected in the job market. While the unemployment rate is back where it was before the crisis, many workers have been out of work so long that they aren’t even looking for jobs anymore, and thus aren’t even included in the federal unemployment rate. Other measures of the health of the labor market, like the average length of time people are unemployed, still remain stuck near levels that would typically be seen in recessions.
Most Americans are employees who derive almost all of their income from wages, not from business profits, the stock market, or other investments. To them, the labor market is the economy, and the fact that the media and some politicians are declaring that the “economy” has recovered while the circumstances for workers haven’t improved much only serves to emphasize the extent to which elites are out of touch.
On two of the biggest issues of our generation, the elites and the institutions they run have failed dramatically. So it’s no surprise that the rest of America is trusting that upper class less and less. The rise of social media and digital outlets also means that the power of the traditional media has diminished; not only is it much harder for them to push a dominant narrative, it has even become difficult for them to relay objective information. Many people across the political spectrum have simply lost faith in the authority of both the political and press establishments. And in that vacuum of authority, people are more likely to turn to a candidate like Donald Trump.
Trump’s appeal is that he makes a simple, intuitive diagnosis of America’s woes. He addresses the concerns of a swath of American whites, and finds the source of their problems in forces beyond their control. In doing so, he plays to their prejudices, strengthening his appeal.
It’s obvious, according to Trump: The problem is foreigners. Trump blames both the long-term trend of flat middle-class wage growth and the short-term problem of a stagnant labor market on the notion that immigrants come from Mexico and work cheaply, bringing down wages for everyone, while foreigners abroad take advantage of the U.S. by heavily taxing American goods and running sweatshops that take American jobs. Similarly, Trump pins white Americans’ generalized fear on immigrants bringing crime from Mexico or terrorism from overseas.
Not only does Trump’s diagnosis of America’s ills resonate with his audience, his prescription for curing them represents a satisfying rejection of elite opinion. There’s consensus among both political and corporate leaders that our immigration system is broken, for example, and that it needs to be reformed by increasing the number of people who are able to work in the U.S. while finding a way for the undocumented immigrants who are already here to become citizens. Trump’s solution, on the other hand, is to deport every undocumented immigrant and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Similarly, the elite of both parties have long agreed that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid should be modified to lower their costs. Trump has all but promised to leave them untouched.
While Trump is a member of the 1 percent, his career for the past three decades has been to embody a working-class person’s fantasy of what they themselves would be like if they became rich. He has perfected the role. The fact that he has had no role in any significant policy debate or decision in recent memory is an asset, not a liability, because it means that he is not implicated in those failures.
This is how it becomes possible for a real-estate plutocrat to lead an ostensibly populist revolt in a country recovering from a collapsed housing bubble. This is how it’s possible for a man whose primary qualification for the office of president is that he’s incredibly wealthy to run a campaign driven by resentment of the elites. There is no paradox; Trump’s supporters expect Trump to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. In fact, this is part of what draws them to him.
We should feel grateful for the Sign of Trump. His immense personal wealth has allowed him to rise as a political novice, and his lack of discipline and failure to build much of a ground operation mean that his nomination is unlikely. But he has found a vein of support that others will try to mine, and those that follow him will learn from his mistakes. The gap between average and elite is going to continue to widen, propelled by forces that have been gathering strength for half a century. The ones to come after Trump might find the ground from which he rose more fertile.