Why Trump? Why Now?
In this final installment of a series on the Donald Trump phenomenon, RealClearPolitics explores a growing divide in America and why the 2016 GOP frontrunner is embraced by those who feel silenced.
Having looked at Trump’s true base of support and his general election prospects, I ask: “Why Trump? Why now?” The answer is a bit abstract; to explain what I think is going on requires a lot of wind-up, but I promise I’ll bring this home at the end.
There is an important but often overlooked divide that runs throughout modern western history (possibly other histories as well; I’m not familiar enough to say) – a divide between what we might call cultural cosmopolitanism and cultural traditionalism (the more loaded term is modernism v. anti-modernism). You can see it in studies of Stuart and early Hanoverian England, where discussions of so-called court/country disputes are central. You see it in various populist insurgencies throughout American history. It features prominently in the works of American cultural critics, especially the late Christopher Lasch (who got so many important things right that it only makes the crucial things he got wrong the more tragic).
This divide is typically shoe-horned into the white/nonwhite, rich/poor, religious/secular divides that receive so much attention, but it has reached the point that it needs to be intellectually separated from them; indeed, most of these splits are in many ways derivative of the cosmopolitan/traditionalist split. In other words, there are plenty of poor Americans who who nevertheless would consider themselves culturally “blue,” while there are a plenty of wealthy ones who spend much of their time rolling their eyes at their elite counterparts’ comments.
It’s difficult to describe the divide precisely. While I’m probably more in the culturally cosmopolitan camp these days, especially as it relates to politics, I can think of numerous events from my Yale undergraduate days, which today we might have labeled “micro aggressions,” that encapsulate the differences. Some are small and innocent (“Do you have electricity and/or ride horses in Oklahoma?”) Some are oddly revealing (the freshman-year friend from Andover, Mass., who, upon finding out my I’d forgotten my father’s birthday, couldn’t fathom why I was beside myself and assured me Dad would understand “because it was during finals.”) And some are grotesque (the teaching assistant who found out my father served in Vietnam and immediately asked if he had nightmares from the horrible things he must have done).
But suffice it to say, there is simply a difference in attitudes in America about the importance of family, religion, achievement, intellectual advancement, diversity (at least within categories deemed important by elites), patriotism, and nationalism. This isn’t to say that cultural cosmopolitans don’t value family or hate their country – though it appears that way to many cultural traditionalists – nor is it to say that traditionalists don’t place emphasis on intellectual advancement or achievement – though it appears that way to many cosmopolitans – but rather to say they express and often prioritize these things differently.
I’m not entirely certain why this has catapulted to the forefront of American politics over the past few decades. One possibility comes from this outstanding, lengthy SlateStarCodex piece, which remains one of the best things I’ve ever read on the Web, period, and which I’ll quote at length:
There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.
This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.
I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere one to one hundred quintillion against . . . I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them.
Some of this is a function of self-segregation; if you want to raise a devoutly religious household, you don’t move to Charlottesville, Va., whereas if you are looking to be a family of free thinkers, Danville, Va., is probably low on your list of places to go. You can walk through a list of interrelated causes: income inequality, gated communities, the rise of DINKs in cities, but they all point to a situation where the red tribe and the blue tribe (and the small-but-growing gray tribe, described in the above link) rarely interact.
I think the outcome of this is that neither side is capable of seeing America as it actually is, and both sides believe they are far stronger than they actually are. Cultural traditionalists don’t know many gay marriage supporters (much less anyone who refers to “Caitlin Jenner”), are flummoxed as to how it could have become the law of the land, and are convinced that it must be the result of some giant lawless action. Theirs is a world turned upside down.
Cultural cosmopolitans, on the other hand, forget everything they learned in college about social desirability bias when they view polls rapidly swinging their way (with some notable exceptions), mistakenly see their victories as largely total (people online are always surprised when I point out that a near majority of Americans consider themselves Young Earth Creationists), assume that their discussions about diversity at the Oscars or transgender rights resonate with almost all Americans, and have recently moved to purge an increasing number of opposing views from the bounds of acceptable discourse, again, without a full understanding of just how many people they are silencing.
In fact, I think many cultural cosmopolitans, and again, I largely place myself in these ranks, don’t recognize these beliefs for the purely ideological statements that they are (evolution aside). The cultural cosmopolitans have an advantage in that they occupy the commanding heights of American culture, but the democratization of cyberspace and the freedom that comes with 2,000 channels on television have weakened their influence and have probably only further inflamed tensions between the groups.
Where this becomes relevant – indeed, I think this is crucial – is that the leadership of the Republican Party and the old conservative movement is, itself, culturally cosmopolitan. I doubt if many top Republican consultants interact with many Young Earth Creationists on a regular basis. Many quietly cheered the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decisions. Most of them live in blue megapolises, most come from middle-class families and attended elite institutions, and a great many of them roll their eyes at the various cultural excesses of “the base.” There is, in other words, a court/country divide among Republicans.
This has been exacerbated by the crack-up of the Clinton Coalition and the rapid transformation of the Democratic Party into an aggressively culturally cosmopolitan institution (think Bill Clinton to Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama). This change pushed out many of the Jacksonians that formed the backbone of the party for 150 years, creating an influx of lower-middle-class/working-class voters, in turn swelling the ranks of the cultural traditionalists among the Republicans.
We’re left with an odd situation in which neither party’s leadership is particularly well attuned to the most important divide in American life. Democrats are openly suspicious, if not hostile, to these voters, while Republicans at best hold their noses on cultural issues if it advantages them (but they will go to the mattresses for unpopular tax cuts for wealthy Americans).
So the Republicans offer up candidates who are from cosmopolitan America, who have their speeches written by speechwriters from cosmopolitan American, who have their images created by consultants from cosmopolitan America, and who develop their issue positions in office buildings located in cosmopolitan America. Then they wonder why the base isn’t excited. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but a large part of why he was successful was that he didn’t talk like your average D.C. denizen. He was routinely mocked by the press and his own party derided his malapropisms, but he connected with a class of voters that Republicans sure could use these days, in a way that Willard Mitt Romney never could hope to (and without resorting to the demagoguery of Trump).
Which brings us to Trump. If there is anything positive I can say about Trump it is this: He gets this cosmopolitan/traditionalist divide, and he is the only candidate who lands foursquare with the traditionalists. He isn’t a fundamentalist, but he gets the whole “why can’t we just say Merry Christmas in supermarkets anymore?” He’s a billionaire, but he gets the anger at wealthy donors that many see as perverting the political system. There’s little doubt that his hotels have employed undocumented workers, but he gets the anger at what many see as a foolish unwillingness of this country to “control its borders” as the unwillingness of many in the Republican leadership to take strong, unambiguous stands on these issues (largely as a result of their own discomfort with these stands).
How did Republicans and the political class respond to Trump initially? They made fun of how he talked. Everyone was then surprised when people whose speech patterns are among the only patterns that are still socially appropriate to mock responded by liking Trump more (I actually think Trump’s accent is one of his biggest advantages). Making fun of his hair? Think about this the next time you make fun of someone with a mullet. Expressing outrage at his politically incorrect statements? I think Kevin Drum is part of the way there in this typically thoughtful essay in which he discusses the impact that political correctness has on people who feel silenced because they don’t know how to talk. But even this reflects Drum’s own internalized belief that the politically correct way to speak is the correct way to speak, while non-cosmopolitan Americans’ response is more visceral: “Why the hell can’t we call them illegal immigrants? Says who?” And Trump is the only candidate who unambiguously calls this out.
Take Trump’s speech announcing his candidacy. David Byler and I had no idea what we were onto when David text-mined Trump’s speech and found that his announcement was the only one out of the 15 candidates’ announcements that sounded different. We (and others) took this as a sign of Trump’s quirkiness and a reason Trump wouldn’t last. But we clearly missed the boat. It was actually one of the most important data points of the campaign, and it has a lot to do with why Trump has been successful.
We can go down the list of events in the Trump campaign since then. Cosmopolitan America sees a strong, moral – frankly ideological – interest in accepting refugees from Syria. Traditionalist America thinks that after Paris, this is insane. Which candidate is unafraid to say this unambiguously, without feeling the need to offer caveats? Traditionalist America thinks that the nation that put a man on the moon can “control its borders"; cosmopolitan America at best offers lip service to the need for doing so. Again, how many of the surviving Republican candidates fully side with the traditionalists? Traditionalist America wants to “kick the tires and light the fires” against ISIS/Daesh, and Trump goes on Blutarsky-ish rants against them. Trump doesn’t do nuance on these issues, but the cosmopolitan Republican candidates feel the need to. (Suggest raising taxes on the wealthy, however, and all nuance goes out the window with the rest of them).
All of this is a lengthy way of saying that Trump is a creation of the Republican establishment, which is frankly uncomfortable with many of its own voters, and which mostly seeks to “manage” them. This is a group that looked at the Tea Party revolts of the past decade, looked at the broad field of Republican candidates (many of whom at least had ties to successful Tea Party revolts), and decided that none of these candidates were good enough.
This is a dangerous situation (the Democrats have their own, similar problems, but that’s a different article). Outlandish third party candidates have a long, storied history in America. Our parties have generally responded to third party, outsider candidates by absorbing them and tempering them, be it Ross Perot, George Wallace, Bob LaFollette, or even Millard Fillmore (1856 edition). The one exception in American history is the post-Civil War period, when the inability and unwillingness of party elites to address debt and deflation led to a series of populist insurgencies, culminating in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan, who simply destroyed and rebuilt the Democratic Party with a speech.
We see a similar situation emerging in Europe today, where party elites who claim to know better than their voters ignore their bases on things like the “European project,” immigration, austerity, and a host of other issues. Down this road lie Syriza, Viktor Orban, and Marine Le Pen.
Here, that road leads to someone like Trump. And if the parties don’t remember whom it is they serve, sooner or later that is the direction we will head.