In retrospect, this weekend’s primaries may come to look like the turning point in the race for this year’s Republican presidential nomination. Polls had shown Donald Trump as the leader heading into all four of the contests held on Saturday, and Ted Cruz emerged as the winner in two. Although some pundits later claimed that his success in Kansas’s caucus was predictable, no one could have anticipated that he would win in such a landslide, and his victory in the Maine caucus—his first in New England, where Trump had already won Massachusetts and New Hampshire—was universally held to be a surprise. Even more strikingly, Cruz came within several points of winning in Kentucky and Louisiana. Exit polls in the latter—Louisiana was the only state that held a primary Saturday, as opposed to a caucus—suggested that momentum is on his side. Among voters who cast their ballots early, Trump had a decisive lead; on election day, he was narrowly edged by the Texas senator. And a nice little lagniappe came from Washington, D.C., where Cruz won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll. By the end of the day is was clear that Cruz is the candidate best equipped to stop Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination.
Cruz has, of course, been running in second place in national polls for months now, and even prior to Saturday, he had defeated Trump five times, beginning with the Iowa caucus, the first official contest on the calendar. So the fact that much of the national media and GOP establishment is only now waking up to Cruz’s prowess is ominous for those of us who think that Trump would be a severely suboptimal president. It suggests that the nation’s political and media elite still doesn’t understand why so many Americans are supporting the mogul.
To be fair, Trump’s popularity is a phenomenon that defies easy explanation. No one—other than Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert—anticipated how popular his candidacy would prove to be and his voters continue to challenge conventional wisdom about the contemporary Republican electorate. Plenty of theories have been offered, only to be scuppered by the size of this movement, and its heterogeneity.
The confusion is, perhaps, inevitable, given the yuge enigma at its center. It remains uncertain how Trump would operate if elected president, or what he would seek to accomplish. And the mystery goes deeper than that: it’s still not clear why he’s decided to run in the first place, or even if he wants to win. At the most recent GOP debate Trump seemed to suggest that he’s only doing this to avenge himself on McKay Coppins, a writer at BuzzFeed who had, in 2014, casually scoffed that Trump’s repeated references to his presidential aspirations—which began in the 1980s—were nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Still, it’s worth making an effort to understand who Trump supporters are, and why they’re supporting Trump, for two reasons.
First, they are shaping the Republican primary, and may well decide the outcome of the general election. If the ambiguity about Trump’s appeal persists even after the Republican primary, his Democratic opponent will struggle to counter it. As I noted on Friday, we already know that the electorate is mutable, as is Trump. His support may have a “ceiling”; alternatively, it may not.
Second, regardless of the outcome of the Republican primary, or the forthcoming general election, the question of who Trump supporters are is worth taking seriously because—at the risk of sounding sentimental—these are our fellow Americans we’re talking about. Already, he’s received about 3.6 million votes. Some of the people who have declared their support for Trump in public—such as former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, or former right-wing cable news starlet Ann Coulter—merit none of our attention or concern. But any time a controversy implicates a sizeable subset of the American public, it’s a safe bet that there’s more than one side to the story. I’d be reluctant to take a Manichean view on Trump supporters as a group, even if I didn’t know any in person or hadn’t talked to any one-on-one.
And so, over the past couple of months, I’ve become preoccupied with the deceptively simple question of who Trump’s supporters are, and have come up with a deceptively simple answer: they’re the Americans who haven’t had effective representation in national politics lately.
I’m still not sure if that’s the most precise way to summarize the common denominator of this large and diverse group of Americans. But the only option that seems more precise is the tautological one: the only thing that all Trump supporters have in common is that they all support Trump’s bid for the presidency. The alternatives I’ve considered seem overly narrow in a way that could lead Trump’s critics, Republican or Democratic, to dangerously underestimate his potential appeal in a general election. “Anti-establishment”, for example, is plausible, and a lot of Trump supporters describe themselves as “angry”, but some are noticeably less oppositional, seeming instead to be amused by his antics, or intrigued by the experiment he represents.
And the theory that Trump supporters haven’t had effective representation is consistent with what we know about the voters, about Trump, and about the 2016 election thus far. At this point in the election cycle, that is, we can rule out a number of characteristics that have been offered as common denominators of the Trump coalition. The first twenty primary contests, along with the exit polls and qualitative assessments that have accompanied them, show that Trump’s support is not reducible to ideology, policy preferences, or even partisan identification. Similarly, Trump’s support isn’t confined to one region, religious affiliation, race, or socioeconomic status.
Trump does have disproportionate support, however, among certain groups—all of which are clearly underrepresented in national politics. Some of the subsets of his coalition are marginalized for very good reasons: Neo-Nazis, for example, don’t have effective representation because the vast majority of Americans would agree that they don’t deserve it—and beyond that because their policy agenda, such as it is, is preemptively precluded by our Constitution. Others are underrepresented for reasons that make sense in context: there aren’t many nonprofits dedicated to advocating for white men, for example, because the group at hand is delineated by characteristics that complicate efforts at advocacy.
But then a lot of Trump’s supporters, like the voters who supported him by huge margins in eastern Kentucky’s coal country, are from parts of the country that are known to be struggling economically. So they may have had representation, but it clearly hasn’t been effective. The same could be said of the evangelicals who have, counterintuitively, proven receptive to Trump. They have plenty of unapologetic advocates, but as Ben Domenech argues astutely, many of them have interpreted recent cultural shifts as setbacks to their core beliefs. And then there’s the subset of Americans who support Trump in secret: as the confessions solicited by Amber Jamieson show, the common denominator is that they perceive some disincentive from even articulating their reasons in public. And Trump supporters, writ large, are part of a more general group of Americans that is consistently misunderstood or ignored by the nation’s political and media elite, if not sneered at or scolded. They are the people of Wal-Mart, the Americans who cling to their guns and religion, the unwashed masses who insist on ignoring enlightened opinion about what would be in their best interests.
The good news is that if this theory is correct, Trump supporters are more rational than they’ve been given credit for; they’re wrong about Trump, in my view, but they’re not wrong that they, themselves, are often unheard. The putative inexplicability of Trump’s popularity, ironically, illustrates the point. Most of the theories that have been offered about Trump’s appeal have been either condescending or judgmental in a way that’s made me, at least, a lot more sympathetic to the voters actually supporting him. Even if I would never vote for him, I can perceive that a lot of his supporters, wrongly or not, view him as strong and effective rather than belligerent and blustering. And I can appreciate why they might therefore bridle at analyses like this one from Vox, to give a recent example, which explains that Trump supporters are helplessly drawn to Trump because their inchoate fears leave them longing for authoritarian leadership. Even if the diagnosis is true, that’s a highly prejudicial way to describe it. And such diagnoses, unsurprisingly, have done nothing to mitigate Trump’s appeal. He’s one of the few people in America who hasn’t been talking about Trump supporters with condescension or contempt. Instead of pathologizing his voters, Trump has proclaimed himself their champion, aggressively and unapologetically. In other words, Trump is offering to provide the effective representation his supporters have otherwise been lacking.
Since Trump has never held political office before, or evinced any particular concern for the people now supporting him, it’s odd that so many Americans are buying his snake oil. But Trump’s CV seems to have convinced many people that he’s an inherently effective person. You’ll notice how often Trump supporters refer to his wealth, his fame, and his striking wife, and while campaigning, he’s been representing disaffected Americans in the sense that he’s been overtly antagonistic to the political and media elites who have, so often, overlooked them. And, since our great nation has apparently turned into an M.C. Escher drawing, the fact that Trump is winning the race for the Republican nomination is lending credence to his promise to effectively represent the voters who are propelling him to victory. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning,” he promised in September; there’s no way of knowing if that would prove to be true, but it certainly hasn’t become less plausible in the months since then.
If this theory is roughly correct, the candidate most equipped to take on Trump in the Republican nomination is, in theory, Cruz. And he has, in fact, now defeated Trump in seven states. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, I’d like to end with a comment to any Trump supporters who may be reading this: despite what it says on his hat, I doubt Trump will effectively represent your interests as president and, frankly, I doubt that he’s even sincere in saying that he will try. After all, during his long career in the private sector, he never fought for the American people; he did what was best for himself. And, surface appearances aside, that’s exactly what he’s doing right now. I can give you three examples of how he’s failing to effectively represent you.
First, although Trump talks about how much he loves you, he only talks about you with reference to himself, as Trump supporters. That’s why no one has any idea how to describe you correctly and so many people have dismissed you all as racists, nativists, people who are afraid and helpless, people who are being bamboozled, and so on. Trump gets angry when people are mean or unfair to him. When they’re mean or unfair to you, he doesn’t say a word.
Second, there are people working to represent your legitimate interests—not many, maybe, but some—and Trump has made their work that much harder. When he talks about how much he cares about an issue, or a group of Americans, he’s really talking about himself. Look at the VA, for example. Trump keeps saying he loves veterans and he keeps saying he’s angry that veterans aren’t getting the care they should. Back in August, I spent an hour talking to Beto O’Rourke, the U.S. Representative from El Paso, about this exact issue. It’s his number-one issue and he’s been working to improve access to health care, especially mental health care, for the veterans in his district. I could tell how much he cares, because he wouldn’t stop talking about it, and I guarantee you he knows far more about the problems with the VA than Trump. I would have really liked to write about everything O’Rourke told me. But I couldn’t, because I had to write about this selfish buffoon, Trump.
Third, and probably most importantly, it doesn’t matter if Trump is the strongest person in the world, or how much he loves you, because he’s repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn’t understand the source of your rights as American citizens, the document that enshrines those rights and that ultimately makes it possible for you, or any of us, or all of us together, to win. What makes America great is the Constitution. And Trump doesn’t even know what it says.