Trump’s popularity, while beyond doubt, is treated not as a legitimate expression of popular will but as a mass psychosis to be diagnosed. It would seem to be the duty of every American pundit today to explain the inexplicable and problematic rise of Donald Trump. The critical question, however, is not the source of Trump’s popularity but rather the reason his popularity is so shocking to our political culture. Perhaps Trump’s candidacy threatens a larger consensus that governs our political and social life, and perhaps his popularity signifies a profound challenge to elite opinion.
Why is Donald Trump so popular? Explanations range from mere celebrity, to his adoption of extreme positions to capture the most ideologically intense voters, to his explosive rhetoric. These explanations are not entirely wrong, but neither are they entirely right.
To begin with, his positions, as Josh Barro has written in the New York Times, are rather moderate. As Barro points out, Trump is willing to contemplate tax increases to achieve spending cuts. He supports some exceptions to abortion bans and has gone so far as to defend funding Planned Parenthood. He has called for protective tariffs, a position heretical for Republicans, who are typically free traders. Although opposed to Obamacare, he has asserted that single-payer health care works in other countries. Even on the issue of immigration, despite his frequently strident rhetoric, his positions are neither unique—securing the border with some kind of wall is a fairly standard Republican plank by now—nor especially rigid.
With respect to his rhetoric, whether one characterizes his delivery as candid or rude, it is hard to ascribe his popularity to colorful invective alone. Chris Christie, who never misses an opportunity to harangue an opponent, languishes near the bottom of the polls. Or ask Rick Santorum, as well as Mitt “47 percent” Romney, whether outrageous comments offer an infallible way to win friends and influence voters. Trump’s outré style, like his celebrity, helps him gain attention but just as certainly fails to explain his frontrunner status.
Most candidates seek to define themselves by their policies and platforms. What differentiates Trump is not what he says, or how he says it, but why he says it. The unifying thread running through his seemingly incoherent policies, what defines him as a candidate and forms the essence of his appeal, is that he seeks to speak for America. He speaks, that is, not for America as an abstraction but for real, living Americans and for their interests as distinct from those of people in other places. He does not apologize for having interests as an American, and he does not apologize for demanding that the American government vigorously prosecute those interests.
What Trump offers is permission to conceive of an American interest as a national interest separate from the “international community” and permission to wish to see that interest triumph. What makes him popular on immigration is not how extreme his policies are, but the emphasis he puts on the interests of Americans rather than everyone else. His slogan is “Make America Great Again,” and he is not ashamed of the fact that this means making it better than other places, perhaps even at their expense.
His least practical suggestion—making Mexico pay for the border wall—is precisely the most significant: It shows that a President Trump would be willing to take something from someone else in order to give it to the American people. Whether he could achieve this is of secondary importance; the fact that he is willing to say it is everything. Nothing is more terrifying to the business and donor class—as well as the media and the entire elite—than Trump’s embrace of a tangible American nationalism. The fact that Trump should by all rights be a member of this class and is in fact a traitor to it makes him all the more attractive to his supporters and all the more baffling to pundits.
Trump’s campaign is predicated on restoring American greatness here and now, and he is seen to select policies in support of that overarching purpose. Others, in contrast, appear to pursue public office mostly for the sake of implementing favored policies so that they can read about the results of their grand experiments in future economics textbooks. They are like doctors who use patients to advance medical research for its own sake, rather than physicians who use medicine to cure the patients before them.
Conservative pundits have complained for years about the base and its desire for “ideological purity.” Trump shows that what is most in demand, however, is not ideological purity but patriotic zeal. Only a fool would believe that the fate of the Export-Import Bank could motivate millions of voters. It is not a minor and complicated organ of trade promotion that motivates but whether the ruling elite is seen to care more about actual national interests or campaign dollars and textbook abstractions like free trade.
Trump’s critics misunderstand his political appeal just as they fail to comprehend his business appeal. Indeed, Trump is almost certainly not as rich as he claims he is, nor is his record as glittering as others’, nor is his a rags-to-riches story. What he offers instead is a portrait of business as a fully human struggle filled with almost romantic jousting competitions. For Mitt Romney, corporations may be people and capital the invisible hand, but for Donald Trump business success is about human battles and visible victories. When asked if he feared a backlash against rich candidates like the one that damaged Romney, Trump responded, “Romney isn’t that rich.” If listening to Bizet made Nietzsche want to be a composer, listening to Trump makes one want to buy real estate. He imbues business with glory. For Trump, business is about winning and losing, and for real human beings, that’s what gives it life.
It is the same in politics. Our election discourse, though increasingly mawkish and sentimental, has become almost Kantian when it does have a theoretical orientation. “Serious politics” is believed to be the politics of rational beings on the path to perpetual peace—not men, and certainly not Americans, with real interests that sometimes conflict with those of other nations. Questions of basic policy, if not argued from some victim narrative, are inevitably situated in arcane disputes over economic theory. The words victory and defeat have been banished from our discourse. “Serious politics” is now confined to detached rationality.
Trump, however, is eros and thumos incarnate, and his very candidacy represents the suggestion that these human qualities should have a role in our political life beyond quivering sentimentalism. Trump alone appears to understand that politics is more than policy and ideology. Beneath the bluster, he offers an image of Machiavellian virtù long absent from American politics.
Nothing in our politics seems worthy of being taken seriously anymore. The White House takes to Twitter with Straight Outta Compton memes about the Iran deal. We no longer know what political seriousness is—or we are afraid to pursue it, for fear of offending. We have reached a stage of decadence where we fear everything except frivolity. This is precisely the precondition for Trump’s popularity, and his unapologetic mockery of more conventional forms of political theater makes him in some ways the most serious candidate in the race.