The Real Secret to Trump's Success, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader doesn’t buy my argument that Trump’s frontrunner status is mostly built on his confident projection of executive intelligence:

Fifty five years ago, LBJ made the following remark to Bill Moyers:

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best
colored man, he won't notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

Well, isn’t that what Donald Trump is doing with the uneducated white
conservative branch of the GOP? Trump tells them that they’re better
than the Mexicans, better than the Muslims, better than the media,
better than the liberals, better than that “Kenyan Professor” Obamer,
better than “disgusting” women like Rosie O’Donnell, Hillary Clinton
and Megyn Kelly, better than Nobel Prize Economists like Paul Krugman, better than gun control supporters ...

In other words, Trump is telling them exactly what they want to hear. The price seems to be small: sell your brain and critical thinking skills to “The Donald” and give him your vote next November.

Who’d deny that xenophobia or racial feeling is part of Trump’s appeal? Not me.

But if you’re trying to understand why Trump succeeded in up-ending Republican politics in 2015, as I tried to do in my Atlantic cover story on the great Republican revolt, you begin by asking:

Was there really more xenophobia or racial feeling at large in the United States in 2015 than in 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975? Yet nobody like Donald Trump got anywhere in national politics in those years. Nobody like Donald Trump has gotten anywhere in national politics since George Wallace in 1972—and even Wallace abjured segregation before his presidential run that year.

What changed in 2015, then? In normal times, party elites write the menu of candidate choices from which the party rank-and-file will choose. There’s a tight screen of experience, financing, support through which an aspirant must pass - and that normally screens out amateurs, provocateurs, and extremists. Donald Trump ripped that screen apart. To my mind, the most important question about Republican politics this cycle was the question: How could Trump do that?

And the answer to that, it seemed to me, was less an answer about Trump—or even Trump’s voters—and much more an answer about the failure of Republican elites. They were so committed to their own ideology and their own class interests that they could no longer see or hear anything else. They heard, “protect Medicare” and reinterpreted it to mean, “end Medicare.” They heard, “restrict immigration,” and they interpreted it to mean, “double immigration.” They heard, “we’re really unhappy with the performance of our party over the past decade and a half,” and they interpreted it to mean, “please send us another Bush.” Trump was the incidental beneficiary of this crass cluelessness. Denouncing his voters as bigots gives too easy an excuse to his real enablers.

If you want to talk more about my cover story, send a question to, and I’ll answer here in Atlantic Notes.