By Matthew E. Milliken
March 5, 2016
If Donald Trump is so loathsome, why is he so beloved, or at least appealing?
The short answer is that Trump isn’t that well-liked among the general population, even when “general population” is defined as Republicans who have participated in a primary or caucus this year. As Nate Silver noted on Thursday,
Trump does not just divide rank-and-file voters from Republican poo-bahs. He’s also extremely divisive among Republican voters, much more so than a typical front-runner. In exit polls so far, only 49 percent of Republican voters say they would be satisfied with Trump as their nominee — remarkable considering Trump’s lead in votes and delegates.
At the end of January, Gallup pollster Frank Newport wrote that Trump’s unfavorability rating of 60 percent was unprecedented over the last 24 years:
Trump now has a higher unfavorable rating than any candidate at any time during all of these previous election cycles, and that conclusion takes into account the fact that unfavorable ratings tend to rise in the heat of a general election campaign as the barbs, negative ads and heightened partisanship are taken to their highest levels.
Still, I come here not to bury Trump but — sort of — to praise him.
Those who like Donald Trump really like Donald Trump. He knows it, too, boasting at a rally in Iowa in January: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
A lot of people wonder why Trump has amassed a significant lead over his rivals in the number of delegates needed to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones recognized a major part of Trump’s appeal last month, when he wrote:
The thing that knits all these Trump supporters together isn’t low wages or jobs disappearing overseas or xenophobic fear of anyone nonwhite. You can find each of these qualities in some of Trump’s supporters, but not in all of them. As near as I can tell, the only thing that all of them seem to share is a desire for someone “tough.” Mostly they want someone who’s tough on foreigners of various stripes, but Trump also does well by insisting he’ll be tough on crime, tough on insurance companies, tough on hedge fund managers, and tough on a slew of other malingerers.
But Drum was puzzled as to why others didn’t perceive Trump as phony. His blog post continued:
It’s not that I’m surprised toughness sells to a certain audience. What I’m surprised by is that so many people buy the idea that Trump is tough. To me, it looks like a reality show schtick. It’s so obviously phony that it barely seems conceivable that so many people are taken in by it. Is that really all you have to do? Just a lot of blustery talk and that’s that? When did so many Americans get that gullible?
Drum overlooks a few points. Trump, who has never held elective office, may not have a detailed grasp of politics or policy, but he does know how to keep people entertained. He hosted the first 14 seasons of the hit TV show The Apprentice, which spun off an international franchise with two dozen different editions. He’s written 18 books, with at least one best-seller, his 1987 memoir, The Art of the Deal. (Contrary to Trump’s typically modest claim, that volume is not the best-selling business book of all time.)
In other words, Trump is a master at getting and keeping the public’s attention. He’s had it for decades, especially since The Apprentice debuted in 2004. And the main thrust of his messaging is that he, Donald Trump, is perhaps the most successful person of all time.
There are different ways to measure success, of course, and by many material yardsticks, Trump certainly does seem successful. He possesses a fortune. He’s bedded a succession of attractive women. He’s owned, and has had his name plastered on, numerous prominent luxury properties. He even owned the Miss USA beauty pageant and several related pageants, something many adolescent and adolescent-minded men and women would kill to be able to say. And while some are turned off by Trump’s relentless self-promotion, for many others, it’s a draw — if only because they’re hoping, consciously or not, that Trump will swagger his way into a disaster.
Sure, Trump’s net worth (“in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS”) isn’t necessarily as big as he claims, and somehow Trump doesn’t dwell on how his casinos managed to go bankrupt on a total of three different occasions. But frankly, the public, which has been conditioned for decades to think of Trump as rich and successful, doesn’t have much interest in questioning the veracity of his claims. Nor do they have much interest in consulting sites such as PolitiFact that have put in the time and effort needed to do so.
As Drum himself pointed out yesterday, television debates have huge audiences, while news programs and newspapers have much smaller reaches. So when Trump says or does something outrageous, the initial statement gets a lot of coverage, but the retraction or debunking, if there are any, often flies under the radar.
The resulting impression most of the public is left with — strongly abetted by the collective decision of the Republican nomination-seekers to refrain from criticizing the Donald until mid-February — is of Trump as a confident, blustering man who is rarely, if ever, contradicted or forced to back down.
Two other big factors that explain Trump’s success, which I will expound upon shortly.