Belmont Club

Agent Provocateur

The secret to understanding Donald Trump’s appeal may lie in understanding Bernie Sanders’. The problem that political pundits are trying to explain is why Trump, who in their judgment should be anathema, is doing so well in the polls. Chuck Todd thinks it’s style. He’s “a refreshing figure who is unafraid to fight back”. But style doesn’t entirely explain why voters are willing to forgive his very real missteps. The Wall Street Journal’s Dante Chinni attempts to formulate a theory for his popularity in Iowa.

Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating contest every four years, is more than rolling cornfields. It’s a complicated mix of rural agriculture (the western half of the state), small-town union country (in the east), college towns (Iowa City and Ames) and a metropolitan center (Des Moines).

And for right now, wherever you go, it is all about Donald Trump. The brash businessman might seem an odd fit for the staid, pastoral Iowa that people see in their mind’s eye. But people across the state say his supporters here don’t seem dissuaded by his squabbling with much of the rest of the Republican field.

One clue to unraveling the mystery is the candidacy Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, the Democrat with no chance is doing surprisingly well in the polls against Hillary Clinton. In the elegant prose of Allen Rappeport of the New York Times, Clinton has “shown weakness” in the polling against her rivals.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is showing some signs of weakness against potential Republican rivals in three swing states, according to a poll from Quinnipiac University that could raise concern within the Democrat’s campaign.

The survey found that Mrs. Clinton is lagging behind Senator Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Jeb Bush in head-to-head matchups in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, three swing states. Her favorability ratings have declined and voters are increasingly questioning her leadership abilities.

Perhaps the reason both are doing “unexpectedly” — this is the word of the decade for the Obama administration — well against the field is because both represent, in their own way, a rebellion against the status quo. In fact Chinni says Trump’s popularity remains high because of “Trump’s business background and his desire to say things others won’t”.  You could probably find a Democratic source willing to make an equivalent assertion about Sanders.

Both have decided to keep talking about what polite circles have deemed unspeakable. Trump is willing to say illegal immigration sucks and Sanders is not afraid to assert Obamacare is a disaster.  Both assertions are unsurprisingly, widely supported, probably because large numbers of people are thinking exactly the same thing, leading to the possibility that voters like both not so much for their platforms as much because they’ve found someone who is willing to actually fight back.

The disaffected have been waiting for someone to give voice to their secret resentments for so long they’re willing to forgive both men their rough edges. Against their better judgment the crowd is rising to its feet and cheering on the men who were supposed to lose. It’s like one of those moments in a boxing movie when the hero finally starts punching back against the merciless beating being administered by the hulking Drago and turns what everyone in the crowd had taken to be a foregone conclusion or a fixed fight  into a real bout.

Of course that could be the plan, either intentionally or fortuitously, if the promoters believe the challenger doesn’t have enough talent or muscle to beat Drago.  Give the rubes a little hope.  Make them think they’re only “one punch away” from actually challenging the system, just so when the fall comes, the eventual lesson lasts a even longer.

Those who have followed the civil war in Syria will remember that Bashar al-Assad actually encouraged the most vicious Sunni Jihadists to lead the rebellion against him, going so far as to arm them, in the belief that given a choice between ISIS and himself, that most people including the West would pick the lesser evil.

A structurally similar situation is facing both the Democratic and Republican establishments in Washington.   Not even Hillary is so stupid as to fail to recognize the deep pool of resentment and dissatisfaction churning under the surface. The establishment’s deepest fear is that this resentment should find a credible leader or coalition to lead it to victory.  The only way to head off a rebellion is to put up a chump to lead it to disaster.

In that strategy, better that the rebels should be led by a Trump or Sanders so that the rebel alliance may more easily be encouraged to crash and burn. This was a favorite tactic of the Russian Okhrana no less than Assad’s secret police. “A political organization or government may use agents provocateurs against political opponents. The provocateurs try to incite the opponent to do counter-productive or ineffective acts to foster public disdain—or provide a pretext for aggression against the opponent.”

But then where are the Czars now? And where may Assad shortly be? Agents provocateurs have never been able to more than mask the underlying problem. The most significant piece of information conveyed by the popularity of Trump and Sanders is that a real, deep and genuine dissatisfaction with Washington exists. People are deeply unhappy, even though they may attribute the causes of their discontent to different causes, depending on their ideological bent. There’s a huge pool of potential political energy in America that can neither be defused nor permanently channeled away by the establishment parties.

Someone is going to drill and tap into this reservoir of energy — eventually. The big unanswered question is whether any 2016 presidential candidate from either side of the political divide can unite in himself or herself two attributes: the genuine willingness to fight the establishment and the ability to do so.


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