A United Theory of Trump

For those following the primaries, at the moment there is one that : When will Donald Trump go away? Trump is less likely to win the nomination than all but the absolute bottom tier of the primary field (Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham), his favorability numbers are poor, and he has no support from established party actors. In spite of that, fueled by a non-stop barrage of acerbic comments, Trump continues to dominate the airwaves and the polls.

Many have turned for comfort to the 2012 primary cycle, which was characterized by the ersatz dominance of hardcore or anti-establishment conservatives challengers. Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrinch, and Rick Perry all had their moments at the top of the polls, but each of them faded before long. In one of his “stop talking about Trump as a series candidate,” pieces, Nate Silver argued that Trump’s meteoric rise mirrored that of the 2012 challengers. While Trump’s chances of winning the nomination as low or lower than any of those candidates, the direction of his campaign presages a different fate.

The 2012 “challengers” were a diverse group, but they had the same core message, “I am very, very, very conservative.” By taking this posture, they were able to attract the support of the 25% or so of the Republican Party that views itself as “extremely conservative.” However, these candidates had little appeal to libertarian, moderate, or, mostly importantly, “generic” Republicans. As soon as any personal flaw surfaced or ideological impurity came to light, the extreme conservatives who had supported them would start looking for a new champion, in the vain hope of finding a candidate who both shared their values and would also be acceptable to the rest of the party.

Trump is a totally different phenomenon. Polls have shown that he draws support from all wings of the party. His rallying cry is not that he is the most conservative candidate, but rather that he alone is utterly unbeholden to any interest or group, a claim that he supplements with the boast that he is far more intelligent than most of his rivals. Once this is understood, becomes the puzzle of imperviousness becomes elementary. If, say, Scott Walker, had denigrated the military service of a critic, doubled down on sexist comments, his poll numbers would likely have plummeted. Even those in the extreme wing of the party want to support a candidate who can win, hence Bachmann and Cain saw their support crumble in short order following the a series of gaffes and sexual harassment allegations respectively. For Trump’s supporters, however, his comments are proof of his authentic disregard for established institutions.

Given that Trump’s support comes from anti-establishmentarianism, rather than arch-conservatism, what could trip him up? One interesting, if counterintuitive, possibility is a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee. While such a pledge, which Trump has heretofore eschewed making, would seem to be the perfect way of bolstering his support among Republicans, it’s possible that his supporters will be disappointed if Trump swears fealty to a party they distrust.


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