By Matthew E. Milliken
March 9, 2016
I wrote the other day that Donald Trump had bragged: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
I found that outlandish claim to be eminently believable, in part because voters supported Trump in large numbers after he issued that boast at a rally in Iowa in January.
Trump’s outrageous assertion now seems more believable than even after after Mitt Romney delivered an anti-Trump speech on March 3, thereby angering a number of conservatives. According to The New York Times,
even lifelong Republicans who cast a ballot for Mr. Romney four years ago rebelled against his message and plan. “I personally am disgusted by it — I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lola Butler, 71, a retiree from Mandeville, La., who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. “You’re telling me who to vote for and who not to vote for? Please.”
“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” Ms. Butler said.
There are some conservatives who will never vote for Trump. But his fan base, which draws from regular voters as well as those who have rarely if ever engaged with the political process, seems to have an unshakeable devotion to the New York real estate magnate.
As I explained the other day, those who like Trump do in part because he has been in the public eye for decades. The central message of his books, TV appearances and other publicity efforts is that he is immensely successful. Many members of the public don’t care to dig beyond the surface of Trump’s claims, and so his three (three!) casino bankruptcies and other fiascos have little impact on the billionaire’s image.
But two other big factors explain why a certain group of people adore Donald Trump.
One is that the conservative echo chamber has spent decades urging their audiences to get angry at the Washington, D.C., political establishment that wants to hold them down. The establishment — some on the left might once have labeled this institution the man — wants to oppress liberty-loving Americans through many, many ways, as conservative media constantly tells its spectators: By forbidding them from buying machine guns; by confiscating their guns; by obliging them to wear seat belts while traveling in passenger cars and helmets while riding motorcycles and bicycles; by banning the manufacture and sale of incandescent lightbulbs; by restricting the release of air and water pollutants; by attempting to restrict the sale of large sodas; by mandating equal pay for men and women; by requiring equal treatment regardless of gender, race and sexual preference; by raising taxes, or by maintaining existing taxes, or by collecting taxes; and by imposing other indignities. In other words, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, National Review, the Heritage Foundation and their numerous allies have spent countless years condemning in the strongest terms many of the acts and ideas that constitute the routine business of running a government.
This enterprise has extended to demonizing nearly everybody inside federal government, unless they are Republicans who hew to the most extreme conservative positions and who absolutely, positively refuse to compromise with Democrats — let alone deign to seem the least bit approving of any idea embraced in even the most tentative way by the hated Barack Hussein Obama. (See: Immigration reform and Obamacare.)
This extremism helps explain why one of the most powerful men in Congress, Eric Cantor (R.-Va.), became the first sitting House majority leader to lose a primary bid in 2014, when he was upset by obscure college professor David Brat. It also helps explain why a young lawyer named Ted Cruz was able to win the Republican Party’s 2012 U.S. Senate primary in Texas; why three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett (R.-Utah) got just 27 percent of the delegates at a state convention in a 2010 election that was eventually won by Mike Lee; and why Rand Paul was able to beat a protégé of Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), then the U.S. Senate majority leader, in a 2010 primary in that state.
Animosity toward the establishment was a major factor in Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell upsetting U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R.-Del.) in the Republicans’ 2010 U.S. Senate primary. (She went on to lose to the Democratic candidate in the general election; many political handicappers believe that Castle, a former governor of Delaware, might have won the seat easily.) And it also forced well-entrenched incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R.-Miss.) to engage in a rough-and-tumble battle for his political life in a bizarre, ugly 2014 primary race against a state senator who had tea party backing.
Trump has picked up on this antipathy toward the establishment and exploited it brilliantly. That’s why Trump’s denigrating U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) as a loser for being captured and imprisoned by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, which pundits predicted would be a highly damaging error, left the businessman’s popularity unscathed. That’s why Trump’s last-minute decision to cancel an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after having spoken there annually for the past several years is unlikely to have much effect on his standing with the electorate. And that’s why Trump has been able to flirt with all manner of conservative apostasies — criticizing President George W. Bush and company for failing to protect America from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and for botching a needless war in Iraq; allowing that Planned Parenthood contributes something positive to women’s health; arguing against some major tenets of free trade; and boasting that he would protect Social Security and Medicare — while still outperforming his primary and caucus rivals.
The other reason Trump’s base loves Trump is that they love seeing him cause upper-crust politicos, pundits and other folk to get their knickers in a serious twist. Trump voters skew heavily male, white, poorly educated and poor. In other words, these are people who love to see Wall Streeters and Ivy Leaguers and other elitists taken down a peg. (As a graduate of Stanford and Columbia universities, I know that many people consider me, with good reason, to be in the elite.)
When Trump insults former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (“low energy”), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (“the ultimate hypocrite”; “fraud”; “a cheater”), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (“Little Marco”), Arizona Sen. John McCain (“dummy”; “graduated last in his class”; “let us down”; “has failed miserably”), The New York Times (“failing”; “poorly run and managed”; “made all bad decisions over the last decade”), Fox News anchor Megan Kelly (“highly overrated”; “not very good or professional”), the U.S. government (“too much staff being paid way too much money”) and the Republican National Committee (“weak”), his fans love what he says and how he says it because they believe he’s standing up to elitists and Richy Riches and bullies.
If many of these reasons for Trump’s popularity seem to be closely tied together, it’s because they are. Trump fans adore Trump’s braggadocio and swagger, and they relish how he regularly takes swings at Obama, his rivals, Republican bigwigs, the media, protesters and other frequent targets of their ire. And one of the reasons that Trump engages in this pugnacious behavior so frequently, and so publicly, is that he knows it’s catnip to his fans. Remember that Trump, referring to audiences at his political rallies, said in January: “You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.” The man knows what his audience loves, and he knows exactly how to deliver what they want.
In other words, the same things about Trump that terrify many Americans are exactly the same things that electrify his base. Small wonder that Anne Applebaum wrote last week that we are only a few elections away from the end of the liberal world order.