While negative campaigning is part of political competition in most societies, the run up to 2016 US presidential elections has been pretty striking in its cynicism. It has become a contest between those who genuinely dislike and even hate Hillary Clinton and those who are positively terrified of Donald Trump. Equally importantly, the campaign season has been unusual in its almost substance-free, policy-free messaging by one candidate. From “I will get jobs back” to “I will build a wall and have Mexico pay for that” to “I will defeat ISIS,” Trump did not even pretend to have a detailed policy that substantiated how he will fulfil these promises. Trump’s main message is his problem-solving abilities (not detailed grasp of policy). However, for someone whose claim to fame is primarily about his ‘successful business acumen‘ (“I am the most successful person ever to run for the presidency”; “I make a lot of money”), almost all information news media has uncovered since he declared his run for the presidency have raised questions about the extent of his successes. However, while analysts kept pointing out the vacuity of Trump’s policy proposals and lack of details, these did not hurt Trump in the Republican primaries, where he triumphed.
There have been many analyses of the reasons for Trump’s success in the primaries and a showing enough to keep him in contention in the general elections. Anger against elites seems to be the most common explanation. However, as an explanation, it is a little vacuous, particularly considering that Trump is an epitome of the elite – until recently liberal elite – which he now supposedly despises so much. Of course, one can metaphorically channel and represent the anger even if until recently one was part of the same establishment elite, but there is neither a good explanation for such transformation in the case of Trump nor does it explicate why people believe him, if indeed they do. Further, focusing on anger as an explanation suggests that people do not really care about solutions as much they care about expressing protest. Why support someone who possibly has no idea of how to solve things even if he can represent the anger driving the population? Only if people do not care about solutions or lack belief that any alternative solutions presented are better.
However, data suggest there is a better way to understand people’s anger that makes sense of contradictions in Trump’s electorate. Trump represents almost nothing that the traditional political philosophical conservatism stood for. He is not for small government (he wants to keep social security and maybe even find a replacement for Obamacare); is against free trade agreements (at least existing ones), even though he has quite likely benefitted from investment from foreign sources in his company and investments in foreign countries; wants to use the coercive power of the government to stifle criticisms (which should scare conservatives, who are limited government apologists); and hardly represents any traditional social values that Evangelical Christians profess (he has married thrice, boasts of sexual dalliances and even sexual assault). So why did most Republicans support (and continue to support) Trump?
While it is commonly suggested that the US is a centre-right country, Trump’s biggest insight is to suggest that this “centre-right” does not necessarily mean philosophical conservatism that Edmund Burke or even William F. Buckley, Jr. stood for. Americans prefer small government only in principle but are not opposed to government programmes that benefit them. During the opposition to Obamacare, polls suggested that people were “opposed to Obamacare” but were supportive of the individual policies that made up Obamacare, with the exception of an individual mandate. Most Americans – including a majority of Republicans – wanted to keep benefits like no lifetime caps on medical benefits, no denial of coverage due to preexisting conditions and ability to keep children on parents’ plans until 26. Healthcare economists know that individual mandate was necessary to cover the costs of the benefits. This was like children eating candy but not wanting to pay for it. This was not conservative political philosophy. It was not a belief in small government as the solution to people’s problems. In fact, this was an explicit suggestion that it is okay for the government to have programmes that benefit oneself but that it should not care about other people (subsidy for the uninsured). The contradiction expressed itself in competing demands, “Get government out of health care,” but “Don’t touch Medicare” (which is a taxpayer-sponsored medical insurance for the elderly).
What Trump effectively did during the Republican primaries was to shatter the myth that even Republican primary voters care for the principles of conservative philosophy. Trump adopted positions that he thought were politically advantageous (acceptable to the primary voters) even if these turned out to be a bunch of contradictions and in contravention to his previous professional and personal life. This is best seen in two of his main propositions. Someone who has previously employed undocumented immigrants became the biggest votary of mass deportation and the building of the wall. One who has benefitted from Chinese labour became the strongest opponent of trade with China. Trump’s genius lay in striking at the correct time.
This is not to suggest that there no consistency in Trump’s worldview. He seemed to be pretty consistent in his opposition to most free-trade agreements that the US has negotiated. He definitely borrowed many ideas (consciously or unconsciously) from the “America First” movement and possibly in his most erudite foreign policy pitch, insightfully discusses the costs and benefits of alliances. He is obsessed with negotiating winning deals. The singular idea that defines Trump’s campaign message is his belief that the US has made bad deals – many of them – and others (countries, people) are taking Americans and the US for a ride. Of course, only he can fix it. If there is one thing that seems to genuinely rattle Trump, it is that others are free riding on the US. Immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants are free riding on US services; Muslim immigrants are taking advantage of liberal immigration policies to pose a security threat; Mexico and China, among others, are free riding on US economic policies; and allies are free-riding on American military expenditure.
Thus, the most important message of Trump’s campaign boils down to: others are taking the US for a ride; only a strong man can fix it and he is that strong man.
Creating white victimhood
The villains in this piece are pretty explicit but the construction of “victims” is the most fascinating phenomenon. Trump has taken possibly the most powerful group in the US – non-Hispanic whites – and made them a victim. Evidence does not support such a claim but the anger that exists and Trump’s utilisation of that resentment are unquestionable. However, the anger seems more related to presumed loss of (relative) political influence. Data on his supporters suggest that they are uncomfortable in a dramatically changing US. During the primaries, racial resentment (rather than economic adversity) strongly correlated with support for Trump. Trump’s supporters are likely to be richer than the median family in the US. In fact, Trump’s supporters were less likely to be adversely affected (at least economically) by trade or immigration. Nor are his voters more likely to be unemployed than the general population.
In an evolving country, where non-Hispanic whites are expected to be a minority by 2050 and non-white children are already a majority of births in a given year, there was tremendous concern among a group of Republicans about the diminishing influence of whites. Interestingly, non-whites themselves are not a single category. While the Republican Party review after Mitt Romney’s defeat argued that Republicans have to diversify their base while focusing on philosophical conservatism (how small government benefits diverse communities), Trump’s eruption represents virtually the opposite in that it wants to go big on the (last) strategy that cost Romney the elections. Thus, Trump has doubled down on the myth of the missing white voter.
Some Trump apologists indirectly acknowledge this. David Wong, recounting his experience of living with and growing up amidst “Trump people,” thus explains the attitude towards non-whites in Trump Country: “I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us” (emphasis added). Thus, as long as the minorities lived by the code decided by the majority, things were fine. However, over time, minorities became more substantive numerically, politically and culturally, a development which threatened to upend existing order and made large sections of society uncomfortable. This had little to do with conservative political philosophy. This was a threat to a distinct ethno-nationalist definition of what constitutes “America”. Thus, Trump’s rise represents white man’s (likely) last battle for political control in the US. Trump represents the fightback of that part of the US which is uncomfortable with change seen in cultural and political spheres, rather than suffering from economic difficulties.
While his campaign messaging has suggested all sorts of contradictions, he was in a somewhat unique situation – he did not need to resolve the contradictions to keep his support base. This is because different parts of his electorate liked him for different reasons. That different groups support a candidate for different reasons is true in any election, but this is particularly striking about Trump because of the contradictions he presents. Trump is hardly a political conservative and barely represented traditional Republican policy positions, except possibly on taxes and in a more limited way (and a more recent development) immigration. So, while he hardly represents the values that social conservatives like Evangelical Christians profess, most importantly family values, he was quite successful in gaining their support even in primaries (even against more socially conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee) because of his opposition to immigration. Elected representative Republicans like John McCain or Paul Ryan hardly liked him but supported for a long time simply because they needed Trump voters to come to the ballot box and vote other Republicans like themselves. So, most established Republicans including voters and plenty of Republicans who hate Clinton decided to support Trump. While the business class does not like his opposition to free trade agreements – the Chamber of Commerce has consistently supported free trade agreements and Republican candidates – they like his position on taxes (and quite likely, hope that if elected, he won’t destroy the trade agreements). Economically struggling Republicans still support him because of his position on immigration (immigrants are the easy targets for job losses) though Trump has promised nothing on how he plans to get “jobs back from China” as, in practice, most of these jobs are
So most established Republicans, and plenty of Republican voters who hate Clinton, decided to support Trump. While the business class does not like his opposition to free trade agreements – the Chamber of Commerce has consistently supported free trade agreements and Republican candidates – they like his position on taxes (and quite likely, hope that if elected, he won’t destroy the trade agreements). Economically struggling Republicans still support him because of his position on immigration (immigrants are the easy targets for job losses) though Trump has promised nothing on how he plans to get “jobs back from China” as, in practice, most of these jobs are lost to technological changes. Among the Republicans, it is only the philosophical conservatives (National Review conservatives who believe in small government) and national security hawks that truly oppose Trump.
It can be noted that many elements of Trump’s view – for example, opposition to free trade agreements – shares similarities with “liberal” views. Trump could have run as a Democrat. If he couldn’t and if he didn’t it is because Trump was as much uncomfortable with diversity (or at least he wanted to appeal to a constituency opposed to diversity) as to immigration. It is the political commitment to diversity and equality that liberals and Democrats have internalised that Republicans were uncomfortable with, which Trump ended up exploiting. Thus, the Republican Party made Trump as much as Trump has refashioned himself. His campaign legacy will quite likely destroy the party that arose amidst the historic fight against slavery. It seems ironic that the party’s difficulties come in its failure to come to terms with changing values in the US – of dealing with diversity with equanimity and equality.
Whether Trump wins or loses, such campaigns do impact national political life by making compromises difficult. Compromise is essential to governance in a democratic country. In addition, party polarisation has increased considerably in the country recent past, partly because of the rise of the Tea Party movement. After a campaign period as vicious and nasty as the 2016 one, if Trump questions the legitimacy of the elections, governance will become that much harder. The most important point about his supporters is not just that they are angry. It is that while different sections of his support base are irate about different issues, they all channel their resentment towards Democrats and those Republicans willing to compromise. Increasing partisanship will make governance more difficult.
Vaidya Gundlupet is a research scholar focusing on international security issues.