What more can be said about Donald Trump? His personality has been fully exposed for months by the media, and his narcissism, impulsiveness, ignorance, anger, and hatreds have been scrutinized, dissected, and criticized since his candidacy began. Yet, contrary to what Paul Ryan said when he pronounced that Trump would never be the nominee of the Republican party, Donald Trump will be the nominee, and he will get a substantial amount of backing from the Republican establishment. Members of the media have tried to stop his ascendancy and failed. Members of his own party have tried to stop him without success. So, the question everyone is asking is: Why do voters continue to support him, even though he has no political experience, lacks the temperament to be the president, offers no solutions to the country’s problems (except that things will be great!), and is opposed by the leaders of his own party.
When he makes his “pronouncements” that have worked well at attracting attention, but have alienated large blocks of people, why don’t people perceive and judge him negatively? Why do they vote for him anyway? Trump is not a Teflon candidate, i.e., someone who can screw up or make exaggerated claims and soon thereafter deflect criticism. He doesn’t spend much time spinning what he is criticized for saying; instead, he tends to double down. He’s like the blob from the old science fiction movie of the same name–he sucks up everything in his path; those who criticize him for scapegoating others help him to attract more attention, which in turn making him bigger and better able to swallow more things put in his way. Oppose him, like his Republican rivals did, and get eaten. Just ask Jeb Bush.
What’s the answer? Why is he exempt from our normal rules for civil discourse? Why do people continue to like him even though most do not agree with much of what he says. The easy answer is that people follow him because he’s a celebrity and a novelty, but underlying the “we want something different motivation” is real anger and a desire for change. Why do people feel that way? More people have jobs today than they did eight years ago. Interest rates are low. The stock market, along with people’s retirement funds, have recovered. Health care is more widely available. We are not engaged in a war with men and women dying regularly. Murder and violent crime rates are down. By most measures, the country, contrary to what the polls say, has been on the right track. Yes, the country has big problems, for sure, but the typical American is better off today than she was eight years ago. So, why the anger? One problem that hasn’t been solved is the shrinking of the middle class. Another problem is people’s feeling that the government no longer represents them and it can’t get anything done. Those are two anger evoking issues, but the problem runs deeper. We need to dig into history a bit to discover a more robust answer.
While Bill Clinton was the president, the world was engaged in the Culture Wars. Those from the left, whose sensibilities aligned with 1960s antiwar protesters, feminists, civil rights activists, and advocates for new forms and freedoms of expression debated with conservatives who valued stability, traditional roles, and religious doctrines. The 60s youth, the baby boomers, became the 40-something establishment by the time the 90s rolled around, so what began in the sixties as a childhood rebellion, reshaped the worlds of business, politics, academics, and culture as it matured 20 or so years later.
Since the time of Clinton I, the Culture Wars dissipated, morphing from a war into occasional skirmishes. The debates about values never stopped, but they were not often taken to the streets. Most of the hippies took off their beads, cut their hair, and bought into most of the values of the ruling class. The older generation became more accepting and the result was a general consensus about how society would function. People from both sides of the Culture Wars did not always agree, and people had significant and passionately felt differences about many political issues, but at the end of the day, the left and the right all agreed to live with the things as they are. Extreme views were marginalized. America has always been known for its pragmatism. The Democrats and Republicans fought on some issues throughout the 90s, 00s, and early 10s, but at the end of the day there was a flexible compromise that most people understood, even if they did not totally agree with it.
The consensual approach ended with the rise of the Tea Party. The Tea Party demanded ideological purity. No negotiating. The Tea Party gave voice to the frustrations people felt over accommodating the left during the culture wars. True, America had seen this kind of approach before. Remember Newt Gingrich? But, the Tea Party forced the middle of the road Republicans, who were pragmatists favoring business and individualism, to the right. In many cases, long-time Republican candidates become more concerned about opposition from within their own party than from their Democratic opponents. The Tea Party fostered a more radical element in the Republican mix, and these supporters were vocal protesters. The Tea Party, as a party, never really ended up getting off the ground, but its agenda has become increasingly influential. The Tea Party got swallowed up by the Republicans, who ate many tainted elements that were in the Tea Party mix. Many establishment Republicans are now not sure whether it is better to suffer the pains of the illness, hoping it will pass or throw up the rotten flesh immediately. The result of the Republican shift to the right, the vocal activists, and the “all or nothing ideological approach” has been Congressional gridlock. But, not total gridlock. The Democrats have largely managed to push through their agenda over the past seven years, while the Republicans are doing things like voting over and over again to reject Obamacare. It’s difficult to sort out cause and effect, but the culture has changed, in some ways as much as it did in the sixties, with the consensus on social issues having shifted toward the “left.” All the strident talk from the right over the past decade ended up being just talk which is increasingly frustrating to those who believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. Those who believe that they must win at all cost who have ended up losing repeatedly have gotten angry. They believe that the president is an evil doer who is intentionally trying to bring the country down (as he is often portrayed on radio talk shows, on Fox News, and by ex-presidential candidates), so the anger given that perception is logical. The political became personal. What’s the tenor of the country like today?
Seven years ago a socially liberal, African-American was elected president. The promise of the Tea Party has faded. Running for the presidency is Hillary Clinton, a woman. Running against her is a socialist. What a nightmare for those who want to drink their tea straight up. Trump looks like a savior. He doesn’t have to explain how he will change things. He will perform miracles. Trump need not bother with issues. He simply channels people’s frustrations. The Republicans, for political gain, have used codes for years that tapped into people’s fears. Now Trump expresses those fears in plain English. Refreshing, many think, even if they don’t always agree with him. Many people want a powerful father figure to protect them and return them to the perceived happiness of childhood. Things were simpler then. The world was black and white. White males ruled. Males and females had clearly defined roles. Marriage was between a man and a woman. Bathrooms were not controversial. People worked or starved. There were Christian church goers and everyone else. The rules and norms were clearly defined. In this decade, those clear distinctions and definitions have come into question once again. We are engaged in Culture War II. Seen in this context, the rise of Trump is not quite so difficult to understand. He is a kind of warrior. He has, what Max Weber termed, charisma. His simplistic understanding of politics and the world is not a limitation; it is a strength. His appeal is not intellectual at all; it’s an appeal to the gut. Charisma earned him the nomination.
One more all-important question: Does Trump have a chance of winning the general election? If you were going to be in a physical fight and you had to choose between Hillary and Donald, who would you pick? Hillary has little charisma. Would you follow her into battle? Weber argued that charisma in warfare was largely supplanted by rationality. Historically, he argued, in warfare, charisma was a means of organizing that was successful for a long time. The soldiers who followed the impulsive, charismatic leader, the one who appealed to people’s emotions, were victorious over those who lacked charisma as a unifying force. But, charisma was not strong enough to win against the more mechanized face of rationality. Armies following charismatic leaders were cut down by the armies led by strategic planners. Tribes lost to disciplined armies. The disciplined mentality largely replaced charisma as a characteristic of effective leadership, and knowing how to operate within rational, bureaucratic structures became more important than knowing how to evoke and manage people’s emotions. Clinton wins on the discipline front. She’s a bureaucrat who knows how the game is played, but Trump is trying to change the rules. Or, maybe he is questioning whether rules are necessary at all. Who needs rationality, he’d argue (if he could)? Charisma and change are what he’s selling. Are the people buying? If the election is perceived as a fight for civilization with those in power being seen as corrupt liars and the current state of affairs, the bureaucratic system, as being intolerable, enough people may want to follow him to make Trump triumphant. If that happens, two systems will collide. The concept of a consensus will be fractured and the damage to the Republic will be difficult to repair. Angry people do not, unfortunately, care about breaking things. They don’t stick around to clean up the mess. That’s a job for the maids, isn’t it?