What the Media Miss About Trump's Appeal

What the Media Miss About Trump's Appeal
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Story Stream
recent articles

Television, radio, print publications, and podcasts have spent thousands of hours describing Donald Trump’s spectacular rise—and his dominance of the Republican primaries. So you might think his appeal has been thoroughly explained. Not so.

What’s been well covered is his populist allure, his nativist bombast, his blunt statements and swaggering threats, his vast riches, and, of course, his ability to surprise and entertain. That’s all accurate. So is his appeal to a dark undercurrent of voter resentment and anxiety, what historian Richard Hofstadter once called the “Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

What’s missing, then? The public’s sense that, whatever Trump’s failings, he is actually competent. That’s a compelling proposition to many Americans, who don’t think Washington bureaucrats or bloviating senators could organize a two-car funeral.

These voters look past the gale-force winds of The Donald’s hot air. They believe that he knows exactly what he is doing and that his impressive record of accomplishments proves it. They see his office buildings, golf courses, and apartment towers and conclude he can smash through Washington’s gridlock.

Trump can manage tough, complicated projects and complete them. If his managers don’t get the job done, he’ll fire them. He won’t just talk about negotiating a tough deal, as President Obama or John Kerry do. He’ll use leverage effectively, hold his cards close, and wring every last nickel out of a deal.

With characteristic marketing savvy, Trump has turned his wealth from a liability into an asset. His money didn’t come from financial sleight-of-hand, as did that of some Wall Street bankers. It came from building stuff people wanted. That, his voters say, proves he can deliver the goods. And that’s exactly what they want in Washington.

What they don’t want is more corporate lobbying, earmarks, and insider deals. Trump has effectively exploited this revulsion, saying his billions insulate him from Washington’s sweetheart deals, which favor special interests at the expense of average folks.

That’s Trump’s own narrative. Many voters buy it and find it a welcome contrast to the stumbling incompetence and self-dealing they see from their government every day.

This powerful element of Trump’s appeal has been hiding in plain sight. Voters haven’t forgotten Washington’s countless fiascos. They know, too, that hardly anyone in government is ever fired or held to account. They shudder at the costly, disastrous rollout of Obamacare and the lethal mess at veterans’ hospitals. They remember the bungling after Hurricane Katrina, capped by George Bush congratulating his Federal Emergency Management chief for a job well done. They remember Bush and his intelligence chief saying Iraq absolutely, positively had weapons of mass destruction and then compounding their mistake by launching a massive invasion with no plans to stabilize the country after overthrowing Saddam Hussein. They saw the same chaos erupt in Libya after NATO chased out Muammar Gaddafi and his thugs. Nobody bothered to think what would happen next.

To Trump voters, U.S. Mideast policy under Democrats and Republicans alike is akin to building apartment towers without installing elevators—or, rather, leaving empty elevator shafts where stairwells should be—with equally disastrous results.

They saw a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed in Benghazi, followed by the administration’s repeated false claims they were killed in a riot sparked by an Internet video. No one, except the filmmaker, was held to account. They saw an American president draw a red line in Syria, saying America would act decisively if Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons. When such weapons were used, America did nothing. They saw vacuous promises to roll back Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The list goes on and on.

Everybody, it seems, gets shuffled into a different government job, pockets a bonus and pay raise, and eventually becomes a lobbyist. This dismal record of incompetence and corruption is bipartisan. Primary voters in both parties know it, and they feel betrayed by it.

A big part of Trump’s appeal is his promise to stop this marathon of malfeasance. That’s a compelling message when Americans have a palpable sense of national decline and believe their government is failing to meet its core responsibilities. With a bittersweet slogan printed on his cap, Donald Trump promises to reverse all that and “make America great again.”

Many voters look at his business record and think it’s not an empty promise. His political future depends on how well it withstands the harsh scrutiny soon to come from Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, and an American media that, so far, has missed a central feature of Trump’s appeal.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Show commentsHide Comments