The electorate is so varied that it’s difficult to make useful generalizations, but it seems clear that a large body of voters feel that they’re being shut out of the prosperity that others have achieved and that politicians don’t seem to care. These are the Disaffected, voters who see a filtered version of what goes on in Washington and feel left out. Their preferred solutions may vary: some may want greater spending on the poor, or a higher minimum wage, or taxpayer-funded health care and college education; others see jobs taken by illegal immigrants and want better border control, or fewer job-killing regulations (for example, on coal), or just to be left alone and not taxed at every turn. Maybe they don’t spend a great deal of time thinking through the issues, but they don’t see Washington working for them. To quote Network, they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor contained to Republican voters. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton expected to cruise to the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was the outsider candidate – yes, sure, a U.S. Senator for a couple of years, in Chicago politics before that, but here was a guy who had almost nothing of substance to say, and in 2008 this was an advantage. His campaign was about “hope and change,” and the Disaffected convinced themselves that, whatever the problem, Obama was the answer. This election cycle, the continued strength of Bernie Sanders reflects the unhappiness Democratic voters have with Mrs. Clinton. Ethical problems and legal problems aside, Mrs. Clinton acts like a career politician, going through the motions on the campaign trail, making one uninspired stump speech after another, as if she can’t wait to get the process over with and get on with the business of doing things her way, away from the unwashed masses. Sanders sounds inspired, and offers up a steady stream of promises: free college! Free health care! Anything you want, all free! He’s pretty vague on how he plans to pay for all this, other than some references to “corporations” and “the rich” who aren’t paying their fair share. Never mind that the numbers don’t add up. What’s important to the Disaffected is that he represents hope ‘n’ change, 2016-style, and never mind that he’s spent almost his entire career in politics, mostly in Washington.
On the Republican side, voters had all sorts of candidates from which to choose, most if not all of whom could lay claim to being outsiders in one form or another. Two Senators (Rubio, Cruz) who were relative newcomers to Washington and, particularly with respect to Cruz, doing business differently than usual. A former Representative, now governor (Kasich), and four governors who had no ties with Washington (Perry, Walker, Jindal, Christie). A businesswoman (Fiorina) and a surgeon (Carson). Voters weren’t starved for anti-establishment choices, and they chose… Donald Trump. No one is voting for him because he’s conservative, and he feels free to state a position one day and contradict himself the next, so no one is voting for him on how intensely he holds his views. As far as I can tell, his positive attributes in the minds of voters are:
- Opposition to illegal immigration. Forget the goofy “make Mexico pay for the wall” thing, and, as in everything else, he has walked back his statement that he plans to deport millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. This is the issue that got him on the Presidential radar, and the one that no other candidate, with the exception of a halfhearted Cruz, was willing to address. People who don’t have to deal with the consequences of illegal immigration can afford to be hostile toward border security, but those who have to deal with increased crime, reduced jobs for unskilled labor, and a feeling of cultural appropriation (say, why are all these signs in Spanish, anyway?) seem to think this is a serious problem. And many legal immigrants apparently are cool to the idea that other people didn’t have to go through the time or expense to do things the legal way. As Democrat Mickey Kauss often notes, it’s weird how so much ink can be spilled on how Trump got to where he is and yet not discuss his signature issue.
- Protectionism. As in every other policy proposal, he’s maddeningly vague, but part of the populist appeal (see: Sanders, Bernie) is to focus on the down side of international trade, the part where U.S. workers lose their jobs because foreigners make stuff more cheaply. Trade often, though not always, makes both sides better off in the aggregate, but it’s hard for the losers to swallow the idea that the winners are better off by more than the losers are worse off. If you’re out of work, complaining about NAFTA or Chinese-made electronics doesn’t seem unreasonable.
- Belittling the opposition. Frankly, I find the name-calling (“Lyin’ Ted,” et al.) to be juvenile and beneath a serious politician, but what do I know? I’m a genteel sort of person who is not comfortable with people sharing personal information talking on a cell phone in public spaces. I suspect that many people see the name-calling as an example of how Trump tells it like it is. He’s willing to insult the appearance of an opponent (Fiorina), carp about a TV talking head (Megyn Kelly), belittle a war hero (John McCain). I’d prefer politics not stoop to that level – or continue to stoop to that level – but apparently millions of others find it refreshing.
- An empty vessel. Like the 2008 Obama, the 2016 Trump can be anything his supporters want him to be. He says a lot of things, but, as noted above, he often is for an issue and then against an issue – something for everyone! The anti-Trump crowd claims he’d govern as a liberal. Maybe that’s right, but how could anyone know? The Disaffected see a candidate who is not part of the Washington establishment, has enough money not to need the establishment, and is willing to antagonize the establishment. To a voter who is pissed off at the way things have been going, that sounds pretty appealing.
- Making America great again. Consistent with the previous point, Trump’s slogan is both appealing, especially to people who have been left out of the good times in recent decades, and completely meaningless. (Who doesn’t want to make America great? How exactly does one go about this task?) But he presents a positive view of the country: he’s a proud American, he sees promise in other people, he sees opportunities just waiting to be realized. He doesn’t apologize for America’s past, or bow to foreign leaders. He sees a sunnier tomorrow, even if the path to get there is fogged in. In contrast, his Republican primary opponents droned on about tax reform, the debt, opposition to ObamaCare – all fine topics, worthy of discussion and debate, but hardly the stuff to inspire the Disaffected.
In my view, it’s a big mistake to ignore the concerns of a big chunk of the electorate.