The rise of Donald Trump and – to a lesser degree – Bernie Sanders is inexplicable to most professional pundits. Trump was supposed to be a joke candidate who was widely expected to fall at the first hurdle. The Republican Party was bound to opt for a Washington insider like Bush or Rubio. But as time passed, and Trump’s statements became ever more outrageous, his standing in the polls rose. Only an idiot would have put money on Trump securing the nomination. Yet that is precisely where we are today.
Trump appears to have defied the political equivalent of the law of gravity, which states that politicians can only win by holding the centre ground. Instead, Trump appears to have marginalised the soft centre of the Republican Party and, instead, garnered support from its extremes – white working class libertarians and conservative Christian Tea Party types.
What the pundits got right is that this isn’t about Trump. Donald Trump is an astute populist who happened to be in the right place at the right time to surf a wave of popular discontent. What the pundits got wrong was the nature of the wave that is propelling Trump toward the Presidency. Taking the orthodoxy set out by an earlier President, the pundits proclaimed that “it’s the economy, stupid!” Obviously there must be some mismatch between how people say they feel about the economy and how they are actually experiencing it.
There may be some truth in this; certainly the US economy has struggled since the crash of 2008, and there are growing storm clouds ahead. However, consumer confidence remains high and most Americans claim that they are better off today than they were eight years ago. So it is difficult to pin the rise of Trump on the state of the economy.
The pundits are overlooking a much simpler reasons for Trump’s rise according to Matthew Yglesias at Vox.Com:
“Occam’s razor says this isn’t displaced anger about an economy that’s actually doing pretty well. Political anger is about politics and a system of government that voters rightly see as headed off the rails.”
The US political system was deliberately created to prevent change. The various checks and balances that were put in place by the land-owning Founding Fathers were designed to avoid the mass of people using democracy to overturn their positions of privilege. In the modern era, this system of government simply doesn’t work… and not just for ordinary people like the white working classes who have turned to Trump (and Sanders) in the hope of change. Yglesias notes that even the elite, which spends billions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying, is disillusioned with US politics. Citing the example of the billionaire Koch brothers, who spent hundreds of millions to help secure both houses of congress for the Republicans, Yglesias notes that they failed to secure their modest aim of abolishing the Export-Import Bank:
“You can imagine the T-shirt now: I spent $100 million winning the midterm elections and I didn’t even get the stupid Export-Import Bank repeal.
“And if billionaire megadonors think the political system isn’t responsive to their wants and desires, then how are normal people supposed to feel? The Kochs have to live with the Export-Import Bank, but liberals don’t have their public option or federal minimum wage hike or sensible gun regulation. Social conservatives are probably further than ever from banning abortion with Antonin Scalia dead. It’s frustrating.”
Blaming the rise of populist politicians on the economy misses the point. People are angry despite the economy not because of it. And the source of their anger is an increasingly self-serving political system that was set up to ignore them. The sad part about this is that if Trump loses, the system is bound to stay the same; but even if he wins he is unlikely to change anything meaningful. In the absence of radical reform of the system, four years from now we may well be talking about a demagogue even scarier than Trump.