As the smoke clears from the wreckage of Indiana, which brought down both Ted Cruz as well as John Kasich, we now know that the pundits and analysts who predicted Trump’s demise on so many occasions were wrong. We also know that Trump, who once remarked that some thought he could shoot someone in Times Square in broad daylight without losing supporters, appears to have been right about himself.
Some 40% of those voting in Republican caucuses and primaries this year have voted for Trump. In what he has constantly derided as the Republicans’ “rigged system,” that sufficed to garner enough delegates to clear out the competition.
Who are these Trump voters? Why was the accumulated conventional wisdom so wrong about Trump and his political chances at every turn?
Victor Davis Hanson, writing in National Review, posts a lyrical description of the Trump constituency in the attempt to explain why so many of us have been baffled:
[Trump] is a postmodern creation, for whom traditional and time-tested rules do not apply. He is neither brilliant nor unhinged, neither ecumenical nor just a polarizer, not a wrecker and not a savior of the Republican party, but something else altogether. He does not defy conventional wisdom. There simply is no convention and no wisdom applicable to Donald J. Trump. For years postmodernists have lectured us that there is no truth, no absolutes, no timeless protocols worthy of reverence; Trump is their Nemesis, who reifies their theories that truth is simply a narrative whose veracity is established by the degree of power and persuasion behind it.
His supporters want a reckoning with a system that has not so much failed as infuriated them. What drives their loyalty to Trump — if not the person, at least the idea of Trump — is a sort of nihilism. As a close friend put it to me this week, “I don’t care whether Trump wins or not, I just want him to f*** things up as long as he can.”
This rage has been a long time building.
It first began to manifest with the rise of the Tea Party movement in the wake of the underhanded process used to pass Obamacare before Scott Brown, explicitly elected in Massachusetts to frustrate its passage, could take his Senate seat. Obamacare’s passage fueled the massive Republican legislative landslide of 2010, when the party regained control of the House of Representatives.
The frustration of Romney’s failure in 2012 added to it, fueling a second landslide of 2014 that strengthened the Republican hold on the House and gave them control of the Senate.
That campaign was characterized by a tremendous amount of over-promising by the candidates regarding what could happen once the Senate was taken back. This created expectations which anyone who had ever taken a high school civics course and paid attention could have known were unrealistic. Obama was still in the White House, and the GOP lacked a veto-proof majority in either chamber.
Those frustrated expectations poured gasoline on the rage already existing. National talk radio and prominent writers castigated the slightest disagreements over political tactics, calling the dissenters “RINOs” and “sell-outs,” casting them into the darkness.
Trump supporters looked for someone who would express their rage and frustration, which generated attitudes Hanson described as follows:
On race, Trump supporters are tired of hearing that black lives matter, while no one mentions that all lives matter. They are sick of seeing protestors wave the flag of the country they do not wish illegal aliens to be sent back to and trash the country they under no circumstances want them to leave. They don’t like getting a letter from an IRS that employs Lois Lerner — a letter that would be ignored with impunity by those who are here illegally or who run the Clinton Foundation.
They are tired of wealthy minorities claiming they are perpetual victims of ill-treatment at the hands of people who are less well off than they. They don’t like hearing from elites that huge trade deficits have little to do with loss of jobs or that cheating by our trade partners is just a passing glitch in free trade. They cannot stand lectures from those who make more money in an hour than they do in a year about their own bad habits or slothfulness.
They don’t know what the on-screen savants mean by a leg-tingle or a perfectly pressed pant leg or a first-class temperament or a president as god — and they don’t care to find out. They do not hate political correctness so much as one-sided political correctness, which gives a pass to some to say things that would get others fired or ruined. They don’t want to be lectured that their own plight is part of a larger, healthy creative destruction or a leaner, meaner competitiveness or an overdue restructuring — by those who are never destroyed, rendered noncompetitive, or restructured.
And they don’t like to be talked down to by the experts who ran up $10 trillion in debt, ruined the health-care system, dismantled the military, and screwed up the Secret Service, the IRS, NASA, and the VA.
Trump is their megaphone, not their solution. The Trump supporters have seen plenty of politicians with important agendas, but few with the zeal to push them through; at this late date, they would apparently prefer zeal without agendas to agendas without zeal.
Hanson is correct in his analysis, but there is something missing, because the very same frustrations mentioned above are also shared by Rubio or Cruz supporters, who together represent at least as large a percentage of the Republican electorate this year as the Trump voters do. What, then, is the difference between Trump’s 40% and the “anyone but Trump” 40%?
The answer lies in two places.
The cumulative train wreck of eight years of Obama has left Republican voters in general in what may be called a “—structive” mood, but prefixes are decisive: While the typical supporter of the more qualified candidates were in a constructive mood — seeking to build momentum and the legislative muscle to change things for the better (as had happened in Wisconsin following the “red tide” of 2010) — the typical Trump supporter has a nihilistically destructive attitude, what Hanson’s friend described as the desire “to f**k things up as long as he can.” Tear everything down; burn, baby, burn.
The second attitude is something that most of the pundits have yet to come to terms with. Contrary to the views of Eric Cantor, we didn’t underestimate Trump. We overestimated many of our fellow voters, who never attended that civics class (or failed to pay attention), who don’t understand how the system works, and who increasingly inhabit a world of 30-second soundbites (at most) and 140-character Twitter slogans. Who can rattle off statistics for their sports teams, but can’t be bothered to know who represents them in Congress, let alone their state legislature or any of their voting records or positions.
We have as many “low information voters,” as Limbaugh famously calls them, as the Democrats do, and they have voted: To hell with the Constitution! Tear the whole thing down! Burn, baby, burn!