I want to quickly list all the explanations for Trump’s campaign that I know of or can think up, whether or not I believe them. The hope is that it might be useful to see them all in one place. Maybe the Trump phenomenon is overdetermined, and more than one of the causes listed below is responsible. Not all of them can be, however, because several of them contradict one another.
- There are always fringe elements in American politics, but over the past few decades, the political establishment unilaterally disarmed against them. The political middleman, seen as a corrupt figure, was reduced in rank, and many of his tools were taken from him: pork-barrel spending, big-money campaign donations, conventions where candidates could be decided in smoke-filled back rooms. As a result, the political parties are now incapable of exercising discipline. It was easy for Trump to hijack the Republicans, and the Democrats should consider themselves lucky that Sanders is an honorable man. (This is Jonathan Rauch’s explanation, in a recent Atlantic article.)
- Twitter and other internet media have removed the benign censorship with which newspapers and magazines once insulated the public. Twenty years ago, Trump would only have been able to reach people by means of articles that fact-checked his lies and registered disapproval of his xenophobia and his racist dog-whistling. Now he can reach people directly. Truth and social norms have become optional, and the contagion of toxic words can spread more quickly.
- The internet has accelerated the shift to “secondary orality” begun by television. In a post-literate media environment, politics has a new texture:
The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate’s health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion… The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion… In a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with. Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer… Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching… He thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions.
Trump’s supporters may still read his messages and read about him, but outside of the elite, most people in America no longer perceive the world in a skeptical, detail-rich, fact-centered way.
- Globalization has exposed American workers to competition with foreigners with much lower wages, and NAFTA and other free trade deals of the last few decades have accelerated the damage. The working class feel that America’s political elite has betrayed them, fattening their own bottom lines by offshoring industries that will now never return, and workers are embracing Trump because they no longer believe either the pro-business nostrums of establishment Republicans or the nanny-state reassurances of the Democrats. Government successfully nurtured industry in countries like South Korea in the twentieth century. Trump’s manner is appalling, but maybe free trade isn’t the panacea that orthodox economists think it is.
- Increasing automation of the workplace has raised the productivity of manufacturing in America, and American factories simply need fewer workers now. The working class, unable to understand or accept their displacement, blame foreign competition, which they were going to have to face anyway. Trump is channeling an incoherent rage over an inevitable economic misfortune, and the workers themselves would be harmed if a President Trump were to kibosh existing and future free-trade deals.
- Workers blame the political elite for exposing them to foreign competition and for failing to take care of them as automation caused their jobs to evaporate. But they probably also understand that electing someone who promises to nuke free trade will bring economic misery to everyone in the country, even themselves. They’re willing to bear the cost in order to have the pleasure of punishing the political elite.
- White workers have lost jobs and wages to globalization and automation for decades, but they used to have the consolation of being able to look down on blacks. Nowadays, though, suburban whites have rates of drug abuse, to name one dysfunction, that used to be blamed on urban black “culture.” Since 2009, the President has been black, and perhaps inspired by him, a new protest movement has exposed, and is threatening to remove, the routine racism of much policing, which helped to cause many blacks to feel like second-class citizens. A white rage, over a loss of relative social status, has crystallized around Trump, who flirts with a white-supremacist message.
- Since the 19th century, capitalists have divided workers by fomenting racism and ethnic hatred. In the early 20th century, unions proved uniquely capable of convincing workers that cross-race solidarity could protect their wages. But unions have been discredited in the popular imagination, and now there are no institutions in workers’ lives that can make that argument cogently.
- Trump supporters are actually a little better off than the average American wage-earner, and the Trump phenomenon shouldn’t be blamed on the white working class but on the white petty bourgeoisie—the class just above the working class, notoriously vigilant about not slipping back into it. They may have racist and xenophobic bias, but their real enemy is the grand bourgeoisie, the class above them, and in particular the liberal element in it, who they see as having made a political alliance with people of color, at their expense. They feel, for example, that when grand bourgeois liberals give away seats in college to affirmative action students, it’s the children of the white petty bourgeoisie who get displaced.
- There has always been racism in America, and there have often been economic difficulties. Rage is erupting now because Trump has sown and tended it, ever since his campaign to deny that Obama was born in America. He has worked steadily to make mainstream kinds of speech that would have been heavily stigmatized as recently as a decade ago.
- At least since 1968, when Richard Nixon proclaimed himself the candidate of the “silent majority,” the Republican establishment has aroused enthusiasm for itself on the far right with hateful messages, including racist ones. In the 1988 campaign, for example, George H. W. Bush’s team smeared Dukakis with an ad featuring the black felon Willie Horton, who committed rape while on furlough. In 2004, the campaign of George W. Bush riled up supporters by playing on fears of gay marriage. The establishment tapped these fears and angers but never really satisfied them once in office, and now the demon has got away from the sorcerer.
- Waves of immigration have provoked nativist backlashes in America before, notably during the 1840s and the 1930s. For the past few decades, many European nations have had to cope with nativist, rightwing parties—led by Nigel Farage in Great Britain, the LePens in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—and America has been lucky in not being saddled with one sooner. Perhaps the luck will hold: Trump shows little signs of being able to institutionalize his xenophobia. But perhaps it won’t: even if Trump loses in November, he might decide not to leave the political stage.
- As a bullying, charismatic, media-savvy billionaire, Trump is attacking a chink in democracy’s armor previously exploited, in Italy, by Silvio Berlusconi. If Berlusconi’s career is a yardstick, it would be a mistake for the political elite to underestimate Trump. Though dismissed and scorned as a clown, Berlusconi was a damaging force in Italian politics for decades.
Three more, 2:30pm:
- As manufacturing jobs have given way to service jobs, men in the working class have become less likely to have jobs that are categorically different, in pay and in kind, from those of women. Add to this decline the prospect of a woman President, and a number of men may be feeling less powerful than they once did. With his disparaging remarks about rival candidate Carly Fiorina and news host Megyn Kelly, Trump has shown himself to be a misogynist. Perhaps hatred and fear of women are driving his campaign.
- Misogyny is a perennial force in American politics; there’s no need to hunt for a recent historical trigger. Trump has cultivated an image of himself as a misogynist for years and continues to do so, and as with race, he has helped to foment the rage that is supporting him.
- The internet has accelerated the political balkanization of American life. Social media companies know that most people find cross-cutting conversations (that is, conversations with people who hold a different political opinion) unpleasant, and they make it easy for users to dodge them. As a result, supporters of Trump may not be challenged about his falsehoods, and most of his detractors may be expressing their disapproval of him, rather pointlessly, to each other.