First, I’ll look at why Trump won the Republican nomination, even I and a lot of people thought he wouldn’t. Basically, why didn’t the things people thought would stop him actually stop him. Then I’ll consider the separate question of the actual source of his appeal.
Why Trump Wasn’t Stopped
Part of the problem was he had support from self-described moderates and self-described conservatives. Whereas, normally, liberal states help defeat anti-establishment conservatives, in this case they supported the anti-establishment moderate. He was a pragmatist who would bring his business acumen to Washington, and so presumably attracted a lot of Mitt Romney 2012 voters.
What was also necessary for him to win, though, was the polarization in the anti-Trump vote. The sort of moderates who see conservatism as too vulgar, and favor deference to respectable opinion, naturally opposed Trump, but they could not rally behind Ted Cruz. They became Kasich bitter-enders. Conservatives could not stand Kasich. People like me kept expecting a convergence toward Rubio, and it finally looked like it was going to happen, and then somehow it didn’t. Why not?
Movement conservatives embraced unreasonable expectations of Congressional Republicans and concluded that they couldn’t be trusted. I always figured that sort of thing was just all talk. Did the Tea Party really think the post-2010 Republican Party hadn’t changed from the Party of George W. Bush? Apparently so. “Insiders” (Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan and, by association, Rubio) weren’t delivering much in the way of policy victories, and couldn’t find other ways of proving to Tea Partiers that their intentions were good. Cruz, with the government shutdown, signaled commitment.
I happen to think conservatives were mistaken, and that Boehner and McConnell were quite good at what they did. But there weren’t any outstanding proofs of this. And conservatives wanted proof. Social trust allows societies to function; requiring a really complete proof of trustworthiness is inefficient. Breakdown in trust is a big part of our political crisis, and the Tea Party is part of this larger society, so naturally it participates in this distrust. (The lower social trust is, of course, the more rational it then becomes for people to distrust each other.) After 16 years of failed Presidencies (the same amount of times worth of failed Presidencies as we had between LBJ’s second term and Carter’s Presidency, inclusive), after TARP, after Obamacare, the Tea Party just couldn’t bring itself to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone in “the political class.” In that sense, it really wasn’t about Boehner-McConnell-Ryan-Rubio themselves.
Trump’s Positive Appeal
But what about Trump’s own appeal (to what is, we should always bear in mind, a minority of Republicans)? Here’s some explanations:
1. His proposed Muslim immigration ban. Anti-establishment, anti-Islam candidates are big in Europe; why shouldn’t they be in the U.S.?
2. The departure of college-educated voters, experts and people with respectable opinions from the Republican Party. There is less deterrent for a candidate to say non-respectable things when the people who are turned off by such things are voting the other way regardless.
3. Masses of nominally conservative voters are voting on identity rather than policy. Or, rather, it’s difficult to separate politics being “about policy” from politics that is about identity and group power. Technocratic policy empowers technocrats at the expense of others.
Lots of people like to say “politics isn’t about policy,” with the implication that voters are irrational, but that need not be true. Often, it’s hard to put together a coalition of people motivated sufficiently motivated by a particular policy issue (anyway, those are the despised “single issues voters.” Respectable critics of the voting public want it both ways! Here I mean the voting public in general, not the particular electorate that voted for Trump.) It’s hard, I was saying, to build a big enough coalition of single-issue voters, but it is easy to convey to a large number of people that you are will be a certain kind of President, and take stances on issues that are consistent with that type.
A voter may not know much about policy or, more importantly, be able to predict what policy issues will come up; but he wants to know that in general that people in power are acting in his interests, and aren’t beholden to the interests of bad people. Part of social trust breaking down of course is that people are more likely to vote in this way; people of other identities are more likely to act to keep you down, therefore you have to act to keep them down. See for instance Syria.
Progressives have in the last decade expressed, in rhetoric and action, increasing contempt for the “out group”- old people, white people (by which they mean “the wrong kind of white people,”) America (meaning “the wrong kind of Americans”), people without a college education, and so forth. Progressives have conveyed that people who are declining in social status have deserved this decline, that they are on the “wrong side of History.” (Of course, elite conservatives and Republicans have their own set of problems with these voters- Mitt Romney’s 47%.)
The conservative intelligentsia responds to progressive identity politics with universalist arguments for moral truth or equality under the law or universal human reason; or else arguments for a national common good. Sometimes, they respond with nationalism, which is (or can be) its own form of identity politics. But at the popular level, the counter to identity politics is…identity politics, fighting fire with fire.
Relatedly, a movement conservative is focused on policy. If Democrats pass Obamacare, the answer is to repeal Obamacare. Probably a big part of the reason Democrats went ahead and passed Obamacare, despite public opposition, is that they believed the kind of person who was against Obamacare (which was the majority of the public) is really too contemptible to deserve a political voice. They had no right to be “anti-government”; they themselves were more dependent on government than anyone, and thus should be grateful to the governing class, which ruled in their interests and knew what these interests were.
But for a movement conservative, Obamacare itself, not the cultural contempt that leads to it, is the problem. For a voter voting on cultural identity, Obamacare is only a data point in a larger story, a symptom of a general problem. They are responding to the contempt itself, which they see expressed in countless other ways. Their goals are therefore necessarily vaguer, less defined. They are drawn to a candidate who signals identity with them.
4. Masses of nominally moderate voters aren’t voting directly on policy. As I mentioned, Trump has appeal to Romney voters as a businessman who will run government competently (so again, we’re not talking about a focus on policy issues, but on “competence over ideology.”) His story is a bit different from Romney’s- he presents himself as the master of the art of the deal. He will ruthlessly outsmart competitors (China) the way they have hitherto done to us, and will break gridlock to make bipartisan deals with Democrats.
He also presents a similar image to McCain’s- outsider, teller of politically incorrect truths, enemy of party orthodoxy, special interests and money in politics (he was “self-funding,” of course.) All these are good signaling devices to attract centrist voters. Such voters are confident something is wrong with government- otherwise, it would fix things. They don’t themselves know what needs to be done (otherwise, they would vote for whoever promised to do these things), but they are confident a leader could figure it out if only he weren’t beholden to the wrong sort of people. They are convinced the politicians are acting in someone else’s interest rather than theirs, even though they can’t precisely identify how these interests are in conflict.
McCain’s famous straight talk was also comparable to the approach of Trump, whose voters believe he “tells it like it is.” (McCain even talked about “Gooks” in Vietnam!) A key difference is that whereas McCain won free publicity by straight talking in ways that appealed to the media, Trump wins free publicity by making the media hate him. The media says “look at this horrible thing Trump said,” but the audience doesn’t all share the media’s values. Here again the breakdown in trust may be responsible for the difference between what was effective for McCain and what is effective for Trump; people are no longer willing to accept the media as an authoritative arbiter. Those who still trust the media voted for Kasich.
But a policy-centered explanation for Trump’s rise is available, too. Back in September 2015, Ross Douthat made the case that Trump’s rise had some policy basis to it. Rather, it was Ben Carson (remember- September 2015) whose boom was personality driven, as evangelicals indulged in their regrettable tendency to pin their hopes on a heroic political savior. Trump, in contrast, was “populist and nationalist, a critic of open immigration and free trade and a backer of Social Security and progressive taxation, and he’s drawing support from working-class Republicans who tend to share those views.”
However, the reason Republican candidates tend to back upper bracket tax cuts is because all the passion within the Party is on that side. In any case the kind of upper-bracket tax cuts championed by “mainstream” Republicans like GW Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio advocate aren’t big enough for it to be worth anyone’s while getting worked up about them (Douthat always writes as if people like Steve Forbes or Ted Cruz routinely win Republican nominations; it’s how he indulges his own need for us versus them thinking.)
It is true that supporting Trump would make sense for a single-issue anti-immigration voter. But single-issue immigration candidates like Tom Tancredo never got anywhere in GOP primaries, and immigration opponents have shown a solid ability to keep the GOP in line without such people.
One possible conclusion is, then, is that Trump took the positions that made sense for a candidate pursuing the voters he was pursuing, but those policy positions don’t explain his support.
But then, other anti-immigration Republicans don’t tend to oppose free trade, so their appeal to an economically nationalist voter isn’t as complete. Then there’s the more general Jacksonianism- isolationist foreign policy, keeping out the Muslims, the argument that football is becoming too soft, keeping Jackson himself on the $20, where he’s the only voice for tens of millions of Americans. With this list, of course, we see policy substance and cultural signaling inextricably entwined; and of course the division I have been maintaining between them is artificial, though useful.
There were other ways in which Trump’s policy pitch was distinctive. Most Republicans’ climate change talk reflects the views of conservative voters. It took place at an elite level, focused on scientific debate and cost-benefit analysis, the same things that liberal elites focus on but from the other side. Trump’s focus, by contrast, is on the loss of coal jobs, and the need to put those people back to work. When movement conservatives think of the catastrophes of the Obama years, the loss of coal jobs probably doesn’t come to mind, but at the popular level that is one of the issues that animates opposition to Obama.
Trump makes the most natural appeal to voters who know someone who’s been laid off from a coal job. For those who don’t, the concrete pitch probably still works- the Trump voter will engage in abstract thought, but needs a concrete starting point to do so. If Trump will fight for coal workers’ jobs, he’ll fight for everyone else’s jobs, too. His coal stance is consistent with a pattern; he’s also protecting jobs by making sure the Chinese don’t get the better of us on trade, after all.