Theories of the rise of Donald Trump too often rely on the anger, bigotry and general backwardness of his supporters. 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’s running against.
I don’t doubt there are plenty of angry, stupid bigots in the United States, much as you’d find anywhere else. And as a loudmouth insurgent, Trump presumably gets more than his fair share of support from that part of the electorate. But 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.
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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 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.
It isn’t just presidential politics. Congress is widely viewed with disdain.
Many voters like the idea of an anti-politician, which is what Trump claims to be. In fact, that’s almost the whole of his pitch. Things have gotten to the point where it may be enough.
Personally, I could never vote for Trump. 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’d 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.
Believing otherwise, however, doesn’t make his supporters idiots or racists. And as to whether politics as usual has failed the country and something needs to change, I’d definitely start paying attention to those people. On that important point, they’re absolutely right.
Clive Crook is a columnist with Bloomberg View.