Trump’s genius and his weakness


I have said that Donald Trump’s strength lies in his intuitive sense of where the Republican party members’ passions lie and his ability to tap into that populist strain. I thought that this analysis by Jonathan Chait hits the mark in fleshing out that idea.

Chait points out that Trump’s plans for the economy can cost anywhere between half a trillion dollars and a trillion dollars but it triggers hardly a peep from these alleged fiscal conservatives.

Why, that is quite a puzzle, isn’t it? The entire Republican Party treated Obama’s stimulus as a threat to the Republic, yet has said nothing as Trump has embraced a proposal with equally objectionable features.

But the truth is that the freaked-out Republicans in America, watching Fox News in their Barcaloungers, were not animated by newfound appreciation for Rand and Hayek. As careful studies of the tea-party movement revealed, what animated Republican voters was a fear of cultural change. Their anti-statism was confined to programs that seemed to benefit people other than themselves. Racial resentment and ethnocentrism, not passion for limited government, drove the conservative base.

In the conservative elite’s imagination, the romanticized history of the tea-party revolt — a story of liberty-loving Americans rising up against Big Government excess — still prevails. It is a story that attributes the party’s extraordinary opposition to the president’s policies, not to the primal fears he aroused. Trump has not only disproven the conservative movement’s theory of its own base. He’s disproven its history of the Obama presidency.

Republican elites always knew that they were using dog-whistle politics, using respectable-sounding ideological policies and coded language to disguise the fact that they were appealing to more base instincts. It took Trump to realize that the façade carefully created by the Republican intellectuals was a waste of time and could be dispensed with, that the passions of the Republican party base could be appealed to directly, and use that realization to destroy his opponents within the party who tried to steer the conversation away from blatant xenophobia and outright racism and bring it back to some sort of orthodoxy.

As Chait says:

Almost alone within the party, Trump understood this. That is why his comically long list of ideological deviations never hurt him. Trump’s racism demonstrated to most Republican voters that he stood with them on the essential divide that ordered their political world — one defined by identity more than ideology.

While it is true that his many, many contradictory statements have not harmed his support within the party thus far, his basic message of xenophobia and nativism and racism has remained pretty consistent. I think that his weakness is that he now cannot deviate from that core message. Observe how he can always get the crowd to cheer loudly simply by repeating his pledge to build the wall. He can flip on NATO and taxes but I don’t think he can flip on Mexicans and Muslims. He cannot let down those supporters who think that he is going to restore the primacy of white cultural supremacy, where people can express racist sentiments free from the restraints of ‘political correctness’ and everyone says ‘Merry Christmas’.

The success of the Trump campaign is going to be a measure of the support that this kind of sentiment commands in the broader electorate. But what worked in the Republican primaries where the audience was the Republican party base may prove to be a harder sell to the public at large. If it turns out to be tougher going, and the current precipitous drop in his poll numbers is not a good early sign for him, I don’t think he can change his message in response.

Here again is the compilation of clips of Trump supporters at rallies that I showed yesterday that indicates the passions of his crowds.

One should view these compilations with caution. They are suggestive but not definitive, since it is possible to edit videos to highlight the most extreme members of any movement. The raucous behavior within the Trump rallies, often egged on by the candidate himself, are more indicative of the nature of the campaign that he is running.

Comments

  1. says

    While it is true that his many, many contradictory statements have not harmed his support within the party thus far, his basic message of xenophobia and nativism and racism has remained pretty consistent. I think that his weakness is that he now cannot deviate from that core message. Observe how he can always get the crowd to cheer loudly simply by repeating his pledge to build the wall. He can flip on NATO and taxes but I don’t think he can flip on Mexicans and Muslims. He cannot let down those supporters who think that he is going to restore the primacy of white cultural supremacy, where people can express racist sentiments free from the restraints of ‘political correctness’ and everyone says ‘Merry Christmas’.

    He’s also genuinely racist.

  2. says

    I think that his weakness is that he now cannot deviate from that core message.

    I find myself in agreement with those who don’t find Trump to be some genius that figured out the Republican party. Rather, Trump is a racist and is just being himself. Having been one of the non-politicians in the Republican race, he wouldn’t be used to using coded messaging. It’s more that he accidentally stumbled on the secret to getting Republican votes than figuring it out. And this is perhaps why he’s stuck with giving the same primary message.

  3. drken says

    To his credit, he’s still using dog-whistles. What did you think his “I will be the ‘Law and Order’ President” statement at the RNC was about? Cracking down on Wall Street fraud? His affection for Dick Wolf created police procedurals? Nope, it’s about “taking the gloves off”, so cops can protect good, honest white folks from those marauding thugs Democrats are trying to protect with BLM. The ‘problem’ is that he also retweets white supremacist memes, making it impossible for the RP to defend him with “he’s not racist, you’re the racist if you think he was referring to black people.” and so forth. There’s been a lot written about this on the web by better writers than me, so I won’t get into it too much.

    Can’t say I feel for them, live by the racist dog-whistles, die by being associated with the racists who’ve been listening to these dog-whistles and hear them for what they are. I probably need to tighten that up a bit, but you get the point.

  4. enkidu says

    I know. But a small part of my mind keeps insisting that he is really the ultimate performance artist, who is doing this to uncover the hypocrisy of the Republicans. Still, it can be hard to distinguish a genius performance artist from a rapacious conman.

  5. John Smith says

    I think Republican pundits- and Democratic ones as well – see voters as married to an ideology, rather than voting for a vision or looking for someone to fix their own ails. Note how Sanders won democrats both more conservative and more liberal than Obama. Those who identified with Obama voted Clinton. Barring major differences in social issues (like TRUMP) they support whoever offers them hope. Most swing voters support the candidate of change. They backed Romney in 2012. They are the damned – ready to burn it all down in the vain hopes that something will rise from the ashes. That’s how you got Bush, Reagan and Nixon. That’s how you’d get Trump. Trump doesn’t particularly need to address his rhetoric against muslims or mexicans – he just needs to remove it entirely and focus on anti-interventionist foreign policy. Make the theme of his campaign – “lock her up” and focus on attacking Clinton.

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