Understanding Donald Trump's Appeal

05/09/2016 07:16 am ET Updated May 10, 2017
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REU
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jake Parrish

I lived and taught in a rural and conservative area in Pennsylvania for nine years, an area that's "flyover country" for Beltway elites.  Back in 2008, I remember how the locals went gaga over Sarah Palin's visit to the area, and how crestfallen so many people were when Barack Obama was elected president.  I remember how people sported Bush/Cheney stickers on their cars and trucks (even the faculty at the largely vocational college at which I taught), long after these men had left office.  Sadly, I also recall a lot of Confederate flag license plates, especially on trucks, but there were also people who flew them at home from their flagpoles.  This was not about "heritage," since Pennsylvania was Union country in the Civil War.  No - it was about being a White "redneck" and taking the country back from, well, the "other" - Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, anyone considered to be an outsider, anyone part of the "influx," a racially-loaded word that referred to outsiders (where I lived, mainly Blacks from Philadelphia and its environs).

Rural PA, previously Sarah Palin country, is now Trump country.  In the recent presidential primary, fifty thousand Democrats in PA changed party affiliation so they could vote Republican.  An educated guess: they weren't switching parties to vote for Kasich or Cruz.  They were caught up in Trump hype about making America great again!

That's a slogan to be reckoned with.  Some say it's a racist dog whistle.  Those with ears attuned to the frequency hear the message as "making America great again by making it White again."  There's truth to this, but the message is also one of nostalgia.  Trump, like many of his followers, has recognized that the USA is no longer NUMBER ONE in all things, and he's got the balls (as his followers might say) to say it plainly.  No BS about America being the exceptional nation, the bestest, the kind of nonsense that flows freely from the mouths of most U.S. politicians.  America is acting like a 99-pound weakling, Trump says, and he's the Charles Atlas to whip us back into shape.

Trump's vulgarity, his elaborate comb over, his tackiness, the shallowness of his knowledge (especially on foreign affairs), have contributed to the establishment's ongoing dismissal of him.  A recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani documented the many dead certain (yet dead wrong) predictions of Trump's imminent demise, even as he was winning primary after primary and gaining in the polls.  The establishment elites just couldn't believe that a man not vetted by them - a man best known for bloated casinos and lowbrow reality TV - could be a viable candidate for the presidency.  And indeed they continue to predict his imminent demise at the hands of one of their own (Hillary Clinton) in the fall.  Yet as I wrote back in July 2015, Trump is not to be underestimated.

What exactly is the appeal of Trump?  Speaking his mind is one.  Yes, he's vulgar, he's boorish, he's ignorant, he's sexist.  Just like many of his followers.  In a way, Trump revels in his flaws.  He has the confidence to own them.  Many people are attracted to him simply because (like Sarah Palin) he's not a typical mealy-mouthed politician.

Another obvious appeal: He's a rich celebrity who acts like a rube.  Indeed, he acts like many regular folks would if they'd just won a Powerball jackpot.  He's got the trophy wife.  He's got a lot of pricey toys (How about that Trump jet?).  He doesn't have much class, but so what?  Trump is Archie Bunker with money, a blowhard, an American classic.  What you see is pretty much what you get.  And that's a refreshing feature for many of his followers, who have little use for complexity or nuance.

For all that, let's not ignore Trump's positions (such as they are) on the issues.  He's against a lot of things that many Americans are also against.  He's critical of immigration.  He's more than wary of Muslims.  He despises "political correctness."  He's against trade deals (so he says).  The Chinese and Japanese come in for special opprobrium as trade cheaters.  "And China!  And China!" Trump declaims as he launches another round of attacks on the Chinese for stealing American jobs.  Trump's followers believe they've finally found their man, someone who will stand up to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims, and all those other foreigners who are taking their jobs and hurting America.

Trump is a master of scapegoating.  But more than this, he takes positions that show a willingness to depart from Republican orthodoxy.  He's expressed support for Planned Parenthood (except for its abortion services) because of the health care it provides to women.  He's outspokenly critical of U.S. wars and nation-building (as well as Bush/Cheney and company).  He wants to rebuild America's infrastructure.  He wants to force America's allies to pay a greater share of their own defense costs.  He's not slavishly pro-Israel.  He's not enamored with neo-conservative principles and the status quo in U.S. foreign policy.  He wants to put "America first."  As far as they go, these are respectable positions.

Yet I've not come to praise Trump but to explain, at least partially, his appeal and its persistence.  Trump's negatives are well known, and indeed I've written articles that are highly critical of him (see here and here and here).  Most of Trump's supporters are aware of the negatives yet plan to vote for him regardless.  Why?

Desperation, to start.  Americans are drowning in debt.  They're scared.  Not just the lower classes but the middle classes as well.  Just consider the title of a recent article at The Atlantic: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans: Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.  Times are far tighter for ordinary Americans than Beltway elites know or are willing to admit.

In tough times an unconventional candidate like Trump (or Bernie Sanders) offers hope - the promise of significant change.  What does Hillary Clinton offer?  So far, more of the same.  But scared or desperate people don't want the same, with perhaps a few more crumbs thrown their way by establishment-types.  They want a political revolution, to quote Bernie Sanders.  They want freshness.  Authenticity.

Strangely, despite all his flaws and insults and bigotry, or rather in part because of them, Trump seems more genuine, more of a candidate of the people, than does Hillary.  Bernie Sanders, another genuine candidate with big ideas, beats him handily in the fall, I believe.  But Bernie is being elbowed out by the establishment powerbrokers in the Democratic Party.  The big money (of both parties) is pegging its hopes on Hillary.  It's already predicted her sobriety and "experience" will triumph over Trump's wildness and inexperience.

Given the record of "expert" predictions so far in this election, as well as Trump's own track record, I wouldn't be too confident in betting against The Donald.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, Astore blogs at Bracing Views.