Don't Dismiss Donald As a Joke

A joke goes like this: two men emigrate from Bangladesh. Coming to America with their families, they fall in love with this country. otal, unrestrained love. So they make a bet to get together in a year and the winner will be the one who has become the best American. One year later, they meet. The first gleefully reports: "I've got my own business in the tech field. My kids are doing well in school. Today we took the boys to Little League practice and the family went for lunch at McDonalds. Tonight we're going to one of their friends' birthday parties at Chucky Cheese." The second simply says, "Drop dead, raghead!" This tells something important about the current election.

Everyone is talking about Donald Trump and why so many Republicans back him; party leaders especially are tearing their hair out. As the New York Times put it, "Mr. Trump is outperforming his Republican rivals with constituencies they were widely expected to dominate." Ted Cruz, for example, was sure to win over Tea Party supporters; among these individuals, however, Trump beats him 26 percent to 13 percent or double. Among evangelicals he leads former preacher Mike Huckabee 21 percent to 12. Jeb Bush expected to win over Republican moderates; they support Trump 22 percent to Bush's 16.

Trump's appeal has many sources. Frequently cited is his outspokenness, his ability to break out of politicalspeak and express the feelings of everyday Republican voters. One woman interviewed for the Times' article explained, "Even if he doesn't win, he's teaching other politicians to stop being politicians." Also cited is the fact that unlike any other candidate for either party's nomination, he can't be bought, using his own funds so far and eschewing donations.

But two factors more than any other explain Trump's rise. Both depend on a core argument. Many Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, as high as two-thirds to 70 percent in some polls. Republican voters especially are worried--deeply worried--about the fate and status of the country they love, and feel it is in decline. Complementing this sentiment is guilt over their own possible role in this backslide: are they good enough, smart enough, entrepreneurial enough, tough enough to make it in the world anymore? In the quiet of their thoughts, they nervously ask, just how responsible am I, as an individual, for the rise of China and the loss of American prestige? They fear the answers.

And then along comes Trump with the best possible solution. His basic premise is that America is great--GREAT, I tell you--without any doubts whatsoever. And if that's true, then equally obvious is the next step: that the American people are great too, and can do absolutely anything. Anything at all. So none of this is their fault!

But why all the problems? Forget about answers that involve complex analysis of difficult economic, political, and diplomatic questions. Trump has two solutions that will solve everything.

First, blame the outsider. It's not our fault, it's the newest outsiders'. As the joke I cited earlier pointed out, this is a long tradition, and as American as apple pie. Get rid of them--literally, Trump wants to round up and expel over ten million people--and things will get so much better as we purify the population.

Then Trump adds another powerful notion to this mix. All those problems are simply the product of a particularly bad batch of leaders, in both parties. Pay close attention to his rhetoric: America is "great" (just read his ball cap); this country and its people (and every one of his ideas) are "fabulous", a word he uses quite a bit. Politicians, on the other hand, are not just poor choices or inept. They are "STUPID" (his emphasis--he usually shouts this term) and just plain "morons".

This is wildly potent stuff. Both of these appeals have one common element. They release concerned Republicans from the burden of an enormous guilt trip. Trump recognizes their worries and plays off these fears beautifully. Yes, he trumpets, you're right, America is indeed in big trouble (right here in River City!). But you are doing fine; the country is great and so are you. Most important of all, it's not your fault! None of it! It's all the product of those outsiders and all the politicians, people in both cases you have no personal contact or identify with, so you can blame without compunction. You're off the hook. The country can be restored, and you don't have to get smarter, compete better, change in any way, or even feel the slightest guilt.

Trump is playing to powerful trends. Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for George W. Bush in 2004, observed, "The base of the Republican party is now blue-collar, frustrated white males, and that group is angry at big government and angry at Wall Street." James Poulos, staff columnist for the conservative Orange County Register, caught this spirit with a recent piece entitled, "Populist Fury on Immigration is Elites' Fault." Echoing Trump, Poulos ignores the possibility that anti-immigrant beliefs result, at least in part, from narrow minds or (heaven forbid) bigotry; rather "it's now impossible to deny that big business and big government have both benefitted from a generation's worth of undermining the rule of law and growing a national underclass." Working class border patrolmen are always "great guys," Trump repeats endlessly, but given bad orders by superiors. It's all so simple; the leaders did this to us. And so guilt-free.

The reality is Donald Trump is serving up a massive therapy cure for Republicans worried about America and nervous about their own responsibility for these ailments. That's a powerful appeal.

I honestly don't know if Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. But he's not just show. He's offering something real, something very valuable to his party's electorate that can't be laughed off or dismissed. Expect him to be around for a while.