Reams of analysis have, by now, been devoted to understanding the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. Like many observers and analysts, I’ve had my preconceptions about American politics blown apart by Trump’s success.
The answers have started to come into focus: Trump appears to be powered by a constellation of hitherto underappreciated factors, ranging from the GOP’s longstanding internal conflicts to an identity-politics backlash among lower-class whites to working-class anxiety about economic and social change. People are angry and afraid and alienated from established institutions, making them eager for a raging nationalist who tells them who and what to blame.
All of these factors help to explain Trumpism. But none of them explain Donald Trump.
Why, after all, should a loudmouthed New York real-estate billionaire have been the one to capitalize on these underlying currents? Why should the avatar of modern populism be a man with his own lines of cologne and ties and bottled water? Why is Trump, specifically—a jet-set cosmopolitan, an entertainer, a womanizing germophobe—the candidate qualified to tap Americans’ long-simmering resentments? Put another way, could another politician have activated Trump’s movement, or did it have to be Trump?
The precedents most often cited for Trump were figures more intuitively suited to their role. Huey Long was a good ol’ boy; George Wallace was descended from dispossessed Alabama farmers; Pat Buchanan’s ancestors were Confederates. Andrew Jackson was imprisoned by the British and orphaned as a teen, and made his early career as a country lawyer. These men’s heritage and experiences gave them an intuitive level of sympathy with a certain type of voter, and lent credence to their ethnically based nationalism. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was born rich, went to Wharton, and lives in New York City in a building with his name on it.
My theory as to why Trump is the candidate for the moment is, like all Trump exegeses, post hoc. But here’s the best I can figure: First, to succeed the way Trump has, you have to be rich. Having your own money allows you to claim you’re not beholden to anyone, and allows you to circumvent the donors and organizations that are normally the gatekeepers of party politics. (Trump is lying when he redundantly claims he’s “self-funding my campaign,” but he has a point when he notes that, unlike the other candidates, he doesn’t spend his time groveling at the feet of the Koch brothers or hosting high-dollar fundraisers.) For Trump’s blue-collar fans, he appeals as a class traitor—one willing to side with the little guy over his snobby friends.
Second, you have to be famous. It’s hard to get a megaphone for the kinds of views Trump holds unless you have your own. Trump’s views, from protectionism to racial and religious bias, are the kind of sentiments that have popular, but not elite, currency—the kind you can lose a television show for espousing. But Trump already had a TV show before he started saying these things, and 6 million Twitter followers; he couldn’t be shut out by party bosses or any collective sense of propriety. A random no-name billionaire who wasn’t particularly conservative and said offensive things would have been unlikely to get much attention with an out-of-nowhere presidential campaign, but Trump had a built-in audience that made him impossible to ignore.
But there’s a third, essential element: Trump doesn’t care about his reputation. Plenty of people are rich, famous, maybe a little bit racist, and somewhat to the left of the official GOP platform. But they tend to be concerned about what other people think of them. This inhibits them from being fully outrageous or politically incorrect. Trump, on the other hand, acts like a man with nothing to lose. He has given up his show, his beauty pageant, and his Macy’s tie line for his campaign; his brand, which he claimed was worth $3 billion, has sustained inestimable damage. Yet he persists in saying the things people aren’t supposed to say (because they’re false and offensive).
It’s important to understand and appreciate the deep veins of discontent that have led so many Republican voters to gravitate to Trump. But give the man some credit: Plenty of other politicians were smart enough to see what the electorate wants and craven enough to try to give it to them. Only Trump had the unique combination of talents necessary to pull it off.