I confess that I have been struggling to understand the Donald Trump as much or more than any other pundit out there. His appeal is a phenomenon that defies conventional explanation, and if anyone had really come to understand it before now, they could have reduced it. However, no one really has.
The most common (and obviously false) explanation for Trump’s popularity is that it is all about his stance on immigration. This is the explanation you will find commonly offered by folks like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, in the comments section of conservative blogs, and by people who have over ten hashtags in their twitter bios – in other words, the places where immigration hard liners tend to congregate and convince themselves that they are more numerous than they are, because everyone they know is one.
The problem, of course, is that this is nonsense. There’s a humongous amount of polling data that suggests that the vast majority of the Republican voting base is in favor of a conditional path to citizenship. FiveThirtyEight compiled data from eight polls conducted so far this year and found that, on average, an astounding 72% of Republicans favor a path to citizenship if certain conditions (paying back taxes, paying a fine, learning English) are met. These are “amnesty” positions, according to the folks who support Trump, and yet they are the clear majority position within the GOP.
Additionally, the explanation that immigration is the one issue that Trump voters care about is flatly inconsistent with the actual polling data that demonstrates his rise to the top. If you look at the RCP averages since Trump entered the race, it is clear that he has pulled the bulk of his support from Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. It beggars the imagination to think that, here were all these Republican voters who cared nothing about anything other than immigration, but before Donald Trump came along, they were going to support the two most moderate candidates in the race on immigration. Further, if you look at Trump’s recent dip in the polls, it is clear that the voters who have left his ship have gone to Rubio and Fiorina, neither of whom is an immigration hard liner by any stretch of the imagination.
If immigration were the end-all-be-all in this year’s election, then before Donald Trump entered the race, [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] should have been way out in front, as he was clearly the most doctrinaire immigration candidate in the race – but he wasn’t. Further, if all The Donald’s supporters care about is immigration, then to the extent that they leave Trump’s camp, it should be to another immigration hard liner like Cruz or Santorum or someone. But they’re not. In fact, the stubborn resistance of [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ]’s polling numbers to respond either positively or negatively to changes in Trump’s fortunes is nearly conclusive evidence that immigration is not the primary driver of Trump’s support.
I think the reason that it appears that it is, at least on a surface level, is that the Laura Ingrahams and Ann Coulters and twitter border warriors of the world have a vested interest in making it appear that Trump’s completely unexpected rise to the top of the polls is based on immigration. If their narrative is believed as to why Trump has risen, then of course they gain more power and influence within the coalition, such that even if Trump falters, they can say to whoever takes his place, “If you don’t take our concerns about immigration seriously, and bow and kiss our rings, then you are doomed to fail.”
I don’t really blame them for this tactic at all. Lord knows if I could concoct a plausible story about how life issues explain Trump’s rise to prominence, I would probably be trying to sell it, as well. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to ignore facts, or that other candidates will be able to duplicate Trump’s success by trying to co opt his message on immigration; to the extent that some portion of his supporters really are in it just for the immigration (and that is doubtless true), those folks aren’t going anywhere, and they probably aren’t the majority of his support, or even close to it.
I also don’t think it’s true that “But he fights!” is a meaningful explanation for Trump’s popularity, for many of the same reason. That might possibly explain some defection of Walker supporters, but not Bush supporters. And it likewise doesn’t explain why [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], who has been picking high profile fights for years, wasn’t in first place before Trump entered, and why he hasn’t benefitted from Trump’s recent slump.
So what is it, then? Here’s what I think, and hear me out.
I think all the things that horrify some people about Trump – the fact that he makes these childish jokes about Carly Fiorina’s face, and the way [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] looks, and Jeb Bush’s wife – are features to his supporters, rather than bugs.
I think Donald Trump’s success is a reflection of the frustration people have in being told to act like adults. I really do. I think we’ve become such a repressed society in terms of what you can say to people these days (largely due to the damn lawyers like me). You can’t say anything about anyone – either at your workplace or anywhere in public, without being called into the HR office or getting sued or having the government come knocking at your door. You can’t even say the obvious biological fact that Caitlyn Jenner is still a man without having hundreds of angry emails and tweets threatening your job.
I think we’ve become a nation full of people who are painfully repressed and that there’s a significant part of the population that is sick to death of it. I think that’s why people behave the way they do online. The things people will say through their phones and through email are things you never hear people say real life, and I think that is reflective of the fact people are dying for an outlet to just achieve catharsis sometimes and just let it all out – and Donald Trump is just a personification of that.
I don’t think the Trump support is reflective of any issue at all. I don’t think it’s even reflective of disgust with the GOP. I think it’s reflective of the disgust we have with the new unwritten rules of society
Those rules say, “if you’re going to have a successful position in life, and especially in politics, you can’t go around saying that Megyn Kelly was on her period, or that Carly Fiorina’s face is a problem, or that [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ]’s appearance is a target rich environment for jokes.” And prior to Trump, the truth is that you couldn’t.
The reality is that people are excited to see, hey, here’s a guy who goes on TV, and if he wants to pop off at the mouth, he pops off at the mouth, and if this guy can rise to being President of the United States then maybe I don’t have to always shut my mouth and I can sometimes say what I feel and maybe I can call my annoying coworker ugly and not have to risk being sued, too.
Maybe that’s what it is. And I’ll tell you, if it’s that, you can forget about Trump going away – because that feeling and frustration is not going to go away, as long as American society continues to constantly oppress basic expression and as long as we’re forced to keep refusing to say out loud things that we all know to be true.