The Real Secret to Trump's Success

The frontrunner’s support is mostly built on his confident projection of executive intelligence.

Carlos Osorio / AP

The critique I hear most often of my big piece on Trump and the GOP is that I neglected the role of race.

Isn’t it obvious, critics ask, that Trump has enflamed xenophobic bigotry? That the secret of his success in the polls (39 percent in a CNN poll on Wednesday) is his racist appeal to bigots and haters?

It is certainly true that Trump supporters are more distrustful of the outside world than other voters, and more likely to agree that President Obama is a Muslim or a foreigner. But it’s also true that America has seen racist xenophobes before, but not since George Wallace in 1972 has one made any kind of dent in national politics. Thirty to 40 percent of self-identified Republicans is a lot of people backing Trump. Many of them may have unexamined prejudices and biases. But until now, they have not offered a constituency to outspoken prejudice, which is why the Patrick Buchanan candidacies went nowhere in 1992 and 1996. This remains the same country that elected Barack Obama, twice. It contains bigots, sure—what country doesn’t?—but not enough to power a front-running campaign to a major-party presidential nomination.

I’d suggest another explanation for Trump’s amazing political success. It’s just a guess, mind you, so I didn’t include it in the main article, but, for those interested, here goes.

In March 2007, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, published a gutsy article explaining the mood of the Republican Party after the George W. Bush presidency.

The first CEO president, Bush has had his reputation as an executive trashed by Katrina and Iraq. Bush had seen his role primarily as setting goals, then remaining resolute and confident about them. But the resolution and confidence are self-defeating if the goals aren’t matched with the appropriate means. Bush has been ill-served by his willingness to stand by failed subordinates (thereby eroding any sense of accountability), by his relative lack of interest in details and by his inability to establish coherence within his own government.

Because of these competency failures,

Republican candidates for president will have to contrast their styles and skills with those of Bush. Republicans don’t need more sheer IQ in their next nominee, but more EI—not emotional intelligence, as the popular book had it, but executive intelligence.

It was on this basis, Lowry argued, that Rudy Giuliani was leading the 2008 Republican presidential field—an argument I found so compelling that a few months later I volunteered to serve on the former New York mayor’s campaign.

These words were written before the weak expansion of the 2000s collapsed into the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009. Before the crushing failure of the Republican Party’s anti-Obamacare “Waterloo” strategy. Before the shock of a second loss to Obama. Before a succession of default threats and government shutdowns ended in fiasco after fiasco. Before the GOP was outmaneuvered on taxes and immigration in 2013. Donald Trump throws around the word “losers” a lot. From the perspective of GOP voters, who deserves the title more than their own party leaders?

Trump presents himself as a big winner: rich, powerful, self-confident, his name on buildings and golf courses around the world. He makes great deals! (As perhaps you’ve heard him say a time or two.) Remember the question Bill O’Reilly used to ask when his show was gaining traction back in the 1990s? “Who’s looking out for you?” Trump offers himself as the answer to that question.

Now you, as a sophisticated reader of political websites, appreciate that these boasts are mostly malarkey. Trump’s deals have often failed, he’s the least bankable name in real estate, and at this point he probably owes more of his wealth to his TV stardom than to his business acumen. Trump’s done well for himself—but not nearly so well for investors, lenders, or anybody else who ever trusted him.

But the question, as always in politics, is, “Compared to what?” It’s really striking how many of the elite-preferred rivals to Trump have records either zero executive accomplishments at all (Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Paul) or else of actual outright failure (Fiorina).

The case of Rubio is especially striking. What has Rubio ever done? His one project as senator, the Gang of Eight deal in 2013, fizzled out in the House without ever coming to a vote. That deal is now repudiated not only by Rubio’s own party, but by Rubio himself. Rubio is campaigning heavily on his foreign-policy vision, without ever having held a major executive role or held rank in the military.

Rubio rival Ted Cruz hits this thin record hard in his Iowa radio advertisements. Yet Cruz faces the same question. Cruz was a successful litigator in both private practice and as solicitor general of Texas. He had a bigger impact on the Senate than Rubio did. But on Lowry’s “EI” index, he scores no higher.

Meanwhile, the people who might score high on the EI index—Bush, Christie, and Kasich, the three leading governors in the race—face awkward questions of their own. Jeb Bush, in particular, got a lot done as governor. But he’s in the difficult position of seeking credit for his state’s growth performance over the course of a real-estate bubble, while trying to fix blame on Obama and Hillary Clinton for his state’s suffering during the ensuing bust. Florida entered recession in March 2007, nine months earlier than the rest of the country. Its rate of job loss was 75 percent steeper than that of the rest of the country during the recession; the overall shrinkage of its economy was 250 percent greater in Florida than in the U.S. as a whole.

And over all there hangs the question: “In whose interest?” The immigration issue cuts deep not because Republicans are so nativist, but because so many Republicans have come to fear that their leaders have turned anti-native. Speaking to the Faith and Freedom conference in Washington in 2013, Jeb Bush seemed to hold Americans up to unfavorable comparison with newcomers:

Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans over the last 20 years. Immigrants are more fertile, and they have more intact families. They bring a younger population. The one way that we can rebuild the demographic pyramid is to fix a broken immigration system to allow for people to come, to learn English, to play by our rules, to embrace our values, and to pursue their dreams in our country with a vengeance—to create more opportunities for all of us. This is a conservative idea. If we do this, we will rebuild our country in a way that will allow us to grow. If we don’t do it, we will be in decline—because the productivity of this country is dependent on young people that are able to work hard.

That last line of the quote seemed the most insulting of all: Left on their own, the descendants of the people who built the country lack what it takes to keep the country great.

Now once again, sophisticated reader of political websites, you recognize that there is more to being a successful president than executive ability in any narrow sense of that concept. Dwight Eisenhower was a great executive, but so, too, was Herbert Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a legendarily chaotic administrator, and Abraham Lincoln had never run anything bigger than a two-man law office.

But then again, perhaps you’ve successfully weathered the economic and political upheavals of the past decade and a half. Trump voters, by contrast, come from the much more numerous ranks of those who remain worse off today than they were in 1999. They want a strong leader who can and will keep faith with them. Who else in the GOP contest can plausibly make that claim?