Why has Donald Trump become such an enduring political phenomenon in this presidential election cycle? While, at first glance, the only things that would appear to explain it are name recognition, a degree of celebrity, a love of the Über-rich, and the ability to make increasingly outrageous statements that appeal to a minority of voters, dig a little deeper and you will find some troubling aspects of American political culture that have unfortunately become ingrained in our collective behavior.
Mr. Trump is of course not the first celebrity or Republican to throw his hat in the political ring, nor will he be the last. Previously, the most famous U.S. celebrities to become politicians were Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, and Sonny Bono (all Republicans). While none of them were known for particularly fiery rhetoric or demagoguery, they all used their celebrity to catapult themselves into political stardom. Mr. Trump is no exception.
To his credit, Mr. Trump is saying what is on many peoples' minds. He gets points for that. He also gets points for not being afraid to say exactly what he thinks in exactly the way he wants to say it. He doesn't feel the need to 'spin' anything, and he isn't reliant on PAC or externally-derived funding, which gives him the freedom to do what he wants when and how he wants. Bravo. Our political culture could use a large dose of that. It is a shame it is being done in such a despicable manner.
Mr. Trump also deserves credit for playing 'the game' the way he is playing it -- largely avoiding the primary and caucus states and going for the jugular -- using the national media (mostly from the comfort of his living room couch on Sunday mornings -- he can't even be bothered to go to a studio down the street in New York) to deliver his message, while all the other Republican candidates are busy shaking hands, kissing babies, and speaking 'from the heart' to a tiny sliver of U.S. voters in first caucus and primary states. (It would be great if this glaring dichotomy could open up a real debate about the wisdom of clinging to a caucus and primary process wedded to ancient history in this country, but that seems about as unlikely as opening up a debate about why Delaware and Rhode Island get two Senators, just as California and Texas do).
So, why do Republican voters seem to naturally gravitate to celebrities -- most of whom are, shall we say, 'short' on actual knowledge about politics, legislative issues, and global affairs? Why is it that someone with extreme views, like Mr. Trump, would be catapulted to the top of the polls rather than relegated to the very bottom, where he belongs?
Part of the answer has to do with the political apathy that prevails in the U.S., and the degree of wanton ignorance that prevails about matters of substance. According to the Federal Election Commission , between 1960 and 2014, national voter turnout declined from 63 percent to 36 percent for presidential elections. Fewer eligible voters are taking an interest in the political process in the U.S., which is mystifying given the free flow of information, the transparency of the process, and the stakes involved. Voters are happy to complain about the results of a presidential election, but they don't appear to be bothered enough to go out and vote!
According to Pew Research , its 2012 poll indicated that only 29% of Americans read a newspaper every day. A 2009 Harris Poll indicated that of the top eight newspapers by circulation in the U.S., number two was USA Today, number five was the San Jose Mercury News, and numbers seven and eight were the Daily News and New York Post - none being the bastion of sophistication.
Nielsen Media Research conducted a ranking of the most watched television programs in the United States between January 1964 and February 2010. Six of the top twelve were sporting events (five of the six being the super bowl) and the top two were the finale of MASH and an episode of Dallas (in 1983 and 1980, respectively). According to IMDB , all of the top 25 highest grossing films in history (and all but three of the top 50) in the U.S. have been either science fiction or animation. Until 2010 (according to Arbitron) the number one radio show in the country based on the number of listeners was America's Top 40 (today Rush Limbaugh holds the number one spot, with Sean Hannity at number three).
How reasonable is it to assume, then, that a person who doesn't read a newspaper on a regular basis and prefers science fiction to non-fiction may be expected to know much or care about the political process in this country? The truth is, the average American likes to be entertained; he/she doesn't like or want to know much about 'serious' things, knows very little about international affairs, and just doesn't care.
According to the U.S. Department of State , in 1989 less than 3% of Americans even had a passport, which is shocking. That figure is just under 50% today, largely the result of a spike in immigration to the U.S. and a rise in the number of business travelers. But until very recently, the vast majority of Americans had not even been outside the U.S. According to the U.S. State Department, the top three destinations for U.S. tourists in 2013 were Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. How much can the average American possibly know about the world by visiting these countries? Having the majority of voters know so little about the world is quite convenient for those who craft U.S. foreign policy. A public who doesn't know the difference between Austria and Australia isn't very likely to object to dollars being spent or actions being taken in places they've never heard of nor been to. According to a National Geographic poll, in 2006, only 37% of young Americans could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
In 2014, Newsweek released a poll of 1,000 Americans, the results of which are sobering. Nearly three quarters could not say why the U.S. fought the Cold War. 29% could not name the Vice President. A blind survey of another 1,000 Americans by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that just one in four Americans could identify more than one of their First Amendment Rights, while the same number could identify all five members of the Simpson Family.
So the answer appears to be that Mr. Trump is speaking to an apathetic, ignorant, and ill-informed electorate who gravitate toward emotional issues and appear to approve of demagoguery. Politicians who go on the stump proclaiming to speak on behalf of the American people saying "the American people in their great wisdom want..." don't know what they are talking about, or are deliberately spinning the political process. The truth is, the average American doesn't appear to have much knowledge or wisdom, and simply wants to be left alone and entertained.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of Managing Country Risk.