Understanding Donald Trump’s Appeal

Trump runs over GOP

W.J. Astore

I lived and taught in a rural and conservative area in Pennsylvania for nine years, an area that’s “flyover country” for Beltway elites.  Back in 2008, I remember how the locals went gaga over Sarah Palin’s visit to the area, and how crestfallen so many people were when Barack Obama was elected president.  I remember how people sported Bush/Cheney stickers on their cars and trucks (even the faculty at the largely vocational college at which I taught), long after these men had left office.  Sadly, I also recall a lot of Confederate flag license plates, especially on trucks, but there were also people who flew them at home from their flagpoles.  This was not about “heritage,” since Pennsylvania was Union country in the Civil War.  No – it was about being a White “redneck” and taking the country back from, well, the “other” – Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, anyone considered to be an outsider, anyone part of the “influx,” a racially-loaded word that referred to outsiders (where I lived, mainly Blacks from Philadelphia and its environs).

Rural PA, previously Sarah Palin country, is now Trump country.  In the recent presidential primary, fifty thousand Democrats in PA changed party affiliation so they could vote Republican.  An educated guess: they weren’t switching parties to vote for Kasich or Cruz.  They were caught up in Trump hype about making America great again!

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It says so on his hat!

That’s a slogan to be reckoned with.  Some say it’s a racist dog whistle.  Those with ears attuned to the frequency hear the message as “making America great again by making it White again.”  There’s truth to this, but the message is also one of nostalgia.  Trump, like many of his followers, has recognized that the USA is no longer NUMBER ONE in all things, and he’s got the balls (as his followers might say) to say it plainly.  No BS about America being the exceptional nation, the bestest, the kind of nonsense that flows freely from the mouths of most U.S. politicians.  America is acting like a 99-pound weakling, Trump says, and he’s the Charles Atlas to whip us back into shape.

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Trump’s vulgarity, his elaborate comb over, his tackiness, the shallowness of his knowledge (especially on foreign affairs), have contributed to the establishment’s ongoing dismissal of him.  A recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani documented the many dead certain (yet dead wrong) predictions of Trump’s imminent demise, even as he was winning primary after primary and gaining in the polls.  The establishment elites just couldn’t believe that a man not vetted by them – a man best known for bloated casinos and lowbrow reality TV – could be a viable candidate for the presidency.  And indeed they continue to predict his imminent demise at the hands of one of their own (Hillary Clinton) in the fall.  Yet as I wrote back in July 2015, Trump is not to be underestimated.

What exactly is the appeal of Trump?  Speaking his mind is one.  Yes, he’s vulgar, he’s boorish, he’s ignorant, he’s sexist.  Just like many of his followers.  In a way, Trump revels in his flaws.  He has the confidence to own them.  Many people are attracted to him simply because (like Sarah Palin) he’s not a typical mealy-mouthed politician.

Another obvious appeal: He’s a rich celebrity who acts like a rube.  Indeed, he acts like many regular folks would if they’d just won a Powerball jackpot.  He’s got the trophy wife.  He’s got a lot of pricey toys (How about that Trump jet?).  He doesn’t have much class, but so what?  Trump is Archie Bunker with money, a blowhard, an American classic.  What you see is pretty much what you get.  And that’s a refreshing feature for many of his followers, who have little use for complexity or nuance.

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Not presidential?  He already has his own “Trump Force One”

For all that, let’s not ignore Trump’s positions (such as they are) on the issues.  He’s against a lot of things that many Americans are also against.  He’s critical of immigration.  He’s more than wary of Muslims.  He despises “political correctness.”  He’s against trade deals (so he says).  The Chinese and Japanese come in for special opprobrium as trade cheaters.  “And China!  And China!” Trump declaims as he launches another round of attacks on the Chinese for stealing American jobs.  Trump’s followers believe they’ve finally found their man, someone who will stand up to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims, and all those other foreigners who are taking their jobs and hurting America.

Trump is a master of scapegoating.  But more than this, he takes positions that show a willingness to depart from Republican orthodoxy.  He’s expressed support for Planned Parenthood (except for its abortion services) because of the health care it provides to women.  He’s outspokenly critical of U.S. wars and nation-building (as well as Bush/Cheney and company).  He wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  He wants to force America’s allies to pay a greater share of their own defense costs.  He’s not slavishly pro-Israel.  He’s not enamored with neo-conservative principles and the status quo in U.S. foreign policy.  He wants to put “America first.”  As far as they go, these are respectable positions.

Yet I’ve not come to praise Trump but to explain, at least partially, his appeal and its persistence.  Trump’s negatives are well known, and indeed I’ve written articles that are highly critical of him (see here and here and here).  Most of Trump’s supporters are aware of the negatives yet plan to vote for him regardless.  Why?

Desperation, to start.  Americans are drowning in debt.  They’re scared.  Not just the lower classes but the middle classes as well.  Just consider the title of a recent article at The Atlantic: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans: Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.  Times are far tighter for ordinary Americans than Beltway elites know or are willing to admit.

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In tough times an unconventional candidate like Trump (or Bernie Sanders) offers hope – the promise of significant change.  What does Hillary Clinton offer?  So far, more of the same.  But scared or desperate people don’t want the same, with perhaps a few more crumbs thrown their way by establishment-types.  They want a political revolution, to quote Bernie Sanders.  They want freshness.  Authenticity.

Strangely, despite all his flaws and insults and bigotry, or rather in part because of them, Trump seems more genuine, more of a candidate of the people, than does Hillary.  Bernie Sanders, another genuine candidate with big ideas, beats him handily in the fall, I believe.  But Bernie is being elbowed out by the establishment powerbrokers in the Democratic Party.  The big money (of both parties) is pegging its hopes on Hillary.  It’s already predicted her sobriety and “experience” will triumph over Trump’s wildness and inexperience.

Given the record of “expert” predictions so far in this election, as well as Trump’s own track record, I wouldn’t be too confident in betting against The Donald.

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17 thoughts on “Understanding Donald Trump’s Appeal

  1. So now we have Trump “Make American Great Again” and oh the Chinese and Russians are just going to stand by and let him turn back the clock!!
    In case The Donald hasn’t notice or done any research, we can safely say that the Cold War between Russia and U.S. has resumed. Russia lead by Vladmir Putin is encouraging Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons so as to present a threat. (Remember who managed NK raid over the 38th parallel in June 25, 1950 – USSR)
    Putin doesn’t like the U.S. continuing to be the world leader. He wants to establish Russia as an equal to the U.S. on the world stage. And he doesn’t like the U.S. flexing its power and placing defensive weapons on its borders.
    Like China, Russia is extending its reach first by taking back the Crimea which borders the Black Sea. Russia doesn’t want U.S. warships passing through the Bosphorus straits from the Mediterranean, where the U.S. has maintained a fleet since the end of WWII. Thus you have Russian planes and ships confronting U.S. forces. In often dangerous ways. Chine is reclaiming international waters off its coast by building an island and runways.
    I think we can see where all this is going. Or can we?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I think we can see where all this is going. Or can we?”

      Speak for yourself. It appears to me that you don’t see very well, especiallay concerning Russia and China. But do get back to us when those two significant nations start placing ostensibly “defensive” weapons in Canada and Mexico.

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    2. The Crimeans were and are more than happy with their decision. The right-wing coup in Ukraine, aided & abetted by you-know-who, is pushing it, confrontationally, so to speak. And now, the Germans & French grow tired of the baseless sanctions.
      As to Putin personally? Your speculations underestimate the man’s sophisticated worldview, and perhaps also his integrity.

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  2. Professor.

    “Make it [America] White again,” I don’t think so. Make America “American” again, you bet. This is the single issue and Trump, of all candidates, represents national hope. I also say that many of the black Americans of my generation will secretly vote for him. After all, their families fell apart during decades of “Guns and Butter” welfare, and the old folks will properly assign cause.

    Interesting your comments on central Pennsylvania – I know the region and culture well. Yes, a Confederate flag here and there (in my opinion a statement about all-consuming government), and do you class the fist salutes by numbers of USMA cadets as Black Panther homage?

    As a matter of interest I checked the Republican vote count of my rural Pennsylvania township. Trump 171, all other Republicans combined, 67 – and, for the record, I’ve never seen a Confederate symbol displayed anywhere.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Walt. Not all of rural PA is created equal. But I saw an incident on the street roughly in 2012 that made me think I was in Selma, Alabama in 1962. I wrote more about my experiences here, and believe me, I wrote with restraint:

      https://bracingviews.com/2015/06/25/a-little-honesty-on-the-confederate-flag/

      I’m not sure what making America “American” again means. For me, that would mean something about respecting the U.S. Constitution and honoring our commitments to help those less fortunate among us. Something about tolerance, being a good neighbor, respect for civility, treating others with decency, and so on. Does Trump advance such values? For me, his behavior often seems contrary to those values. Trump would rather insult people than listen to them. He’d rather demean than to elevate. I wouldn’t want him as a platoon leader, let alone as president.

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      1. Didn’t check the link, but I will. However, I offer an example of “American”: “There is only one color in the United States Army, and that color is green.” This is what the Constitution is about.

        Painting all central Pennsylvanians with a single incident surely gives me the right to paint all black USMA graduates with the black power salutes of a few.

        Also, Hillary as commander-in-chief! Why not, since, in 1996, she had her baptism of fire when EUCOM soldiers landed FLOTUS and daughter in a hot LZ at Tuzla – and her war-fighting judgement was so on with the invasion of Iraq and Libya.

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  3. Another article on why Trump is resonating with American voters:

    http://patriotpost.us/articles/42437

    A good friend of mine sent me the following comment, which is spot on:

    “I don’t like the polarization that’s developing in this country, nor do I like the prospect of joining the 3rd world. Can Trump make America great again? Not really, that’s up to us. That’s the part that people don’t seem to understand. You can’t tip back in your chair, down another beer, slap the dog and say ‘Trump’ll handle it.'”

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  4. Here’s an interesting interview with a (former) Trump supporter. It helps to overcome the stereotype of Trump supporters as ignorant or uneducated hillbillies. He ultimately voted for Kasich in the primary, and now is leaning toward Clinton.

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    1. Excellent sound quality.

      Here is reason enough to vote Trump: the mega-warmonger William Kristol will not. No surprise he is with Hillary because the so called “Republican establishment,” of which Kristol is a mouthpiece member, is really an oligarchy establishment without party. Someone should ask professed conservative William what GWB’s war in Iraq “conserved.” Certainly not lives and treasure, and the US government is grown bigger and more intrusive than ever.

      As an aside, another example of “American”: the grand ladies in big hats holding down the front pews in an African Baptist church. Love them.

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  5. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    Back in May, I wrote this article about Trump’s appeal and why he could win, especially against Hillary. After all his missteps, even after the tape in which he brags about grabbing women wherever and whenever, even after losing all three debates, Trump still won. I think in this article I hit on some of the reasons why.

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  6. The Democrats lost the election because they stuck with the Clintons long after the left wing of the party had. Bill Clinton compromised with the GOP (Gingrich) and turned welfare over to the states for which is has never been forgiven. Thus Bernie became their great savior. Adding Tim Kaine to the ticket didn’t help because for most of the Left he was an unknown. Trump was a gift to the Dems and Elizabeth Warren could have beat him, but not HRC.

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  7. I agree on Tim Kaine. Hillary seemed to choose him because he was “loyal” and self-effacing, i.e. he wouldn’t upstage her.

    I recall reading that Bernie Sanders was added to Hillary’s list of VP candidates, I think #36 of 36 choices — something like that.

    What if Hillary had chosen Bernie? Sure, he would have upstaged her, but he would have unified the ticket and generated real enthusiasm.

    But Hillary had no use for Bernie — or for progressives, for that matter.

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