The Untapped Potential of Protest Voters

Donald Trump is a combed-over reflection of angry America.

National Journal

In a bizarre and blustering pitch for the presidency, Donald Trump reminded Politico's Jack Shafer of "a middle-age dad lounging on his couch, talking back at what he hears broadcast on the Fox News channel." The Washington Post's Dana Milbank said the mogul's mania "had the feel of a lonely bar patron's monologue to the captive saloon keeper."

They're on to something—and it's bigger than Trump. Set aside his delusional self-promotion, his exaggerations and lies, his bad hair and worse ideas (I know it's hard, but trust me)—and see Trump for what he is: a combed-over reflection of angry America.

"The American dream is dead," he declared. "We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't have them."

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This country is run by "losers," Trump said. "We have people that don't have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people who are selling this country down the drain."

Admit it: You've uttered those exact words, or know many people who have—couch potatoes, bar patrons, close family, and friends. Two-thirds of Americans think their country is on the "wrong track." Three-quarters say life for the next generation will be worse than it was for their parents, the opposite of the American dream. Trust in government is at a record low.

For the first time in the history of Gallup polling, approval ratings for the Democratic and Republican parties dipped below 40 percent. Most Americans say party leaders care more about themselves than the country. A study of voter turnout in the 2014 elections showed record lows in 15 of 25 states amid signs that voter discontent is an American epidemic.

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In the 1990s, "swing voters" were all the rage. Since 2004, the political establishment has been infatuated with party-line or "base" voters. Trump is channeling a constituency that is as old as the republic and still flexes new muscle: "protest voters."

He won't be president. He won't win the GOP nomination. Trump is a ratings-seeking celebrity, not a serious political leader. But he could become a vessel for anger, a man who—like Ross Perot, George Wallace, Huey Long, and other protest candidates—seems made for these acerbic times.

The political establishment can mock Trump, the person, but they shouldn't underestimate what his candidacy represents. It's an assault on the central and cynical premise of the two major parties, which is this: Politics is merely about winning, and the best way to win is to be seen as the least-awful alternative to a dwindling pool of voters. Political scientists speak of "negative partisanship"—the sad fact that, among those few Americans who vote, the motivation is fear and hatred of the other party, not the aspirations of their own.

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America's ruling duopoly, long corrupted by lobbyists and donors, clinging to government institutions that work for party interests rather than for an e-connected populace buffeted by change, has all but worn out its welcome. Even party-line voters, those who consistently side with Democrats or Republicans, increasingly identify as independents and are getting restless with their party homes.

These "base voters" know they're being taken for granted.

In the Democratic Party, protests voters are starting to move toward Sen. Bernie Sanders, a political figure far more credible than Trump, but who also won't be president. Polls show likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton quickly losing ground to Sanders in New Hampshire. Party leaders in Iowa tell me the gap will soon narrow there, too.

Much of Sanders's appeal is due to his unquestionable liberalism. The Democratic Party is fast moving left, and Clinton is considered by many liberal voters to be too moderate—too close to Wall Street.

The common thread is a lack of trust that even the nation's most loyal voters have in their own parties. These words from Trump could be just as easily shouted at a Sanders rally inside a Des Moines union hall: "We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people who are selling this country down the drain."

When I hear Trump speak, my first reaction is to wince. My second is to laugh and mock. Finally, I get around to realizing that there's something stranger than a "Trump for President" campaign. Something more pathetic. I'm talking about a general election without a credible candidate who appeals to disillusioned, disconnected voters and nonvoters.

Trump's not a credible candidate.

The Democratic and Republican parties are not credible vessels.

Who, if anybody, will make protest voters matter?