When people try to make sense of this topsy-turvy, norm-busting election year, one of the key mistakes they make is to assume that the dynamics that operate for Donald Trump in the Republican primary will operate in a general election. They won’t. I’m not saying Trump can’t win a national election. In a Clinton v Trump match-up I think anything from a shattering Trump defeat to a narrow Trump victory is possible. But many people now believe that Trump can defy political gravity – flouting conventions of propriety, embracing extremist positions, casually changing positions, all with no penalty. That won’t work in a general election.
The key to understanding the Trump phenomenon – his ability to do all these things and pay no price – is that it has very little to do with Trump and almost everything to do with the portion of the electorate he is currently operating in. The current Republican party is built in large part on roughly 25% to 30% of the voting electorate which is radicalized and revanchist – a topic I discussed here. We can think about the the nature of Trump’s appeal in three basic ways.
First is simple political substance. TPM Readers are entirely familiar with the fact that a large segment of the American right is animated by a belief that ‘their’ world, their America is being taken away from them – this includes everything from declining white racial dominance, having to choose whether you want to hear the phone tree message in English or Spanish, changing cultural mores. The whole package. This is the essence of Trump’s campaign – beating back the external threat – the harsh anti-immigrant policies, Muslim bans, flirting with white supremacists, etc. It is the most visible and literal part of Trump’s appeal.
Second is the appeal to power and force. Trump is the master of GOP ‘dominance politics‘, the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others. All of this has a deep appeal to America’s authoritarian right, especially in a climate of perceived threat, which has been growing over the last two decades – something political scientists are now catching on to. We might think of this as the embodiment and acting out of the policy drives noted above. The phenomenon of the imperiled, resentment right is something you’re well familiar with if you’re a close observer of American politics, certainly if you’re a regular reader of TPM. I noted back in December that we were seeing this show up in the demographic data in the unprecedented rising mortality rates of middle-aged whites – from chronic substance abuse, overdose and suicide. As the Washington Post’s Jeff Guo noted last week, the states where middle-aged whites are dying fastest heavily correlate with the states where Trump has had his highest margins. Think about that for a second. Trump’s message and policy agenda hit every dimension of threat and change.
The third factor is I think the least obvious but for these purposes the most important. On the radicalized, revanchist right, provocation and transgression of norms isn’t simply indulged. It functions as a positive good. It is a feature, not a bug, to use the tech phrase. What the mainstream electorate might view as an ‘outrage’ is actually a signal of the willingness to tear down a corrupt order that is unwilling (Democrats and elites) or unable (RINOs, mainstream GOP) to turn back the tide of threat. So whether or not you think it’s a good idea to kill terrorists’ families, saying you will is a signal that you won’t accept limits. How can Trump break all the rules and pay no price? What’s his magic? Changing your positions, obviously lying, taunting enemies – none of these hurt Trump because his core supporters are not seeing them through the same prism you likely are. They’re not signs of deception, bad character or untrustworthiness. They all signal a refusal to accept the norms of the threatening order and thus a willingness to overturn it.
To put this more simply, you’re being too literal. While the Trump movement is heavily tinged by racial backlash, it’s not like all Trump backers would embrace outright white nationalists. But that’s not the point. Provocation is a feature, not a bug. But this isn’t how the great majority of the American public approaches the world or our national politics. Indeed, the divide is what’s tearing the GOP in half at the moment. Because it’s a very big chunk of the Republican party. To put this concretely, most Democrats will never support Trump for simple policy reasons, even if there are segments of the Democratic coalition that might. But what we are talking about here is a distinction between policy and political mentality, specifically a view of politics based on resentment and desire for revenge. And that operates with a large minority but not close to a majority of the electorate.
As long as there is not an organized conservative third party candidate in the election, I think the overwhelming power of contemporary partisanship will pull the vast majority of ‘anti-Trump’ mainstream Republicans into the Republican Trump-supporting camp. But Republicans and Republican-leaning independents don’t make up 51% of the electorate. What all of this means is that a Trump v Clinton general election will be fought over the roughly 10% of the electorate which is not firmly anchored in the right/center-right or left/center-left blocs of American politics. It will likely be fought out over the contrast between Trump’s policies and the Democrat’s. But it will be fought out on conventional political norms – not ones in which rule-breaking and transgressive behavior are positive goods in themselves. This is not wishful thinking. It’s based on a clear understanding of the structure of contemporary politics – one backed up by Trump’s negative favorability ratings, which have never topped the mid-30s and are now trending down. We should not expect that Trump will be able to easily switch gears to become a candidate of racial unity or that it won’t boomerang on him if we find him calling Clinton “Little Hillary” at a debate in October. This doesn’t mean he can’t win. It means that we shouldn’t think his political magic is about him. It’s about his audience.