First, the big picture. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how Trump voters are uniquely racist, voting solely on name recognition, not truly conservative, a return to ancient Know Nothing Party nativist politics, etc. I think a lot of this writing is basically missing the point because it assumes that voters are rational. By rational, I mean the premise that voters behave like subjects in economics models: they evaluate candidates policies against their preference function, calculate the personal financial impact of changes in taxes and government services, and figure out who is more likely to achieve these goals via nebulous “leadership credentials.” Rational voters are willing to switch parties and split tickets in order to select the best of the moderate middle. There’s little evidence that supports that voters do anything like that, and plenty to the contrary.
Instead, I’d like to postulate that are symbolically irrational. They vote for candidates who best match and articulate a vision of what the world should look like. My evidence: participate in some political conversations at your next family gathering; read the comments threads (don’t read the comments); examine your own rationales for how you voted in the past. And for the record, I care a lot about politics, I’m writing this blog post, and I definitely vote more on symbolic basis than rational ones. When we vote symbolically, we vote about what we treasure, what we regard as evil, and what kind of world we want to live in. Symbolic voting is ultimately aspirational.
So what of Republican symbolism and aspirations. Psychoanalyzing a whole group is liable to lead to error, Jonathan Haidt would argue that I am constitutionally incapable of doing so for conservatives, but I am going to try. The modern Republican party is based on a state of siege. From 9/11 onwards, George W. Bush justified his Presidency as the bulwark between America and an Axis of Evil. In 2008, that Axis of Evil conquered America in the form of one Barack Hussein Obama: Black, urbane, liberal, Black; for the tinfoil hatted an Islamofascist Kenyan Usurper out to destroy American liberties through tyrannical healthcare subsidies. The noise machine cranked up to air raid siren levels and hasn’t gone down since. And despite the outrage, 40+ repeals of Obamacare, government shutdowns, after seven years Obama remains President (and resolutely Black).
And it has not been a good summer. Recall that week in June where Obamacare was ruled constitutional along with gay marriage, and in the wake of the Charleston Church Massacre the country woke up and decided that maybe it wasn’t cool to fly the Confederate flag. That was a particularly eventful week, but pick an apocalyptic battle and it has not gone well for the radical conservatives. Jade Helm 15, the Iran nuclear deal, Caitlyn Jenner, the continued state of Kansas. True, Republicans have succeeded in dealing reverses to worker’s rights and access to reproductive healthcare, at the state level, but the big picture is one of constant reversal and retreat.
The siege continues. Hell, the siege is reaching yet another crisis as a CGI horde of orcs breach the gates and the true Conservatives retreat to the inner walls and reach for their AR-15s. But the thing about Donald Trump is that he is demonstrably not under siege. Donald Trump has all the money in the world. Donald Trump says what he’s thinking about women and Mexicans and everybody else who pisses him off. He rambles on about China, golf courses, ISIS going into the hotel business, and of course how rich he is. And while everybody else would be pilloried and forced to apologize, Trump crashes on to the next fiasco without mussing a hair. The GOP siege has been immensely profitable, both in terms of money and influence, for traditional conservative power brokers, but Trump offers a vision of what happens once the siege is broken and victory dawns. Calling him a fascist, or angry, or a pouting blowhard with bad hair profoundly misses the point. Trump is free in a way that most Conservatives only dream of, and that’s the aspirational quality that’s made him the front runner.
Right now, Very Serious People like Nate Silver say that this early out the polls mean nothing (historically they don’t) and that the establishment and party leaders will actually get people to low-turnout primaries and caucuses when the iconoclastic Trumpite stays home because he lacks a ground organization. Or maybe people will get bored of Trump, or he’ll cross a line and burn out. If I may hazard a guess, I think the most probable case for Trump’s implosion is that it’ll become far too apparent that he worships Mammon rather than Christ, and the nominally Christian GOP base will reject him.
Institutionally, this primary season is going to be a trainwreck. Not only is Trump dominating a very scattered field, but the Super Tuesday primaries are proportional representation, giving candidates every incentive to stay in as long as possible so as to have a say at the convention, which they can do with SuperPAC money and pocket billionaires. My favorite scenario is that Trump wins a plurality of delegates, and the Establishment maneuvers someone else to a majority (Marco Rubio?), and Trump runs as a third party candidate out of spite and clearly having the candidacy stolen from him, but it’s a long road to June and a lot can happen. There’s a debate this week, despite my theory maybe voters will start to care about policy.
What will happen? Hell if I know. This is a country that repeatedly elected Ronald Reagan. Trump kept The Apprentice on air for 14 seasons, and somehow convinced enough people that his stuff is classy and luxurious and he’s an insightful business leader that his brand might actually have been worth a billion dollars at some point. At the end of the day, Trump’s true skills are as a carney, and he is very very good at working the marks. I’d like to think that if he were the nominee, the Blue Wall would hold him in the general, but I would not underestimate Donald Trump.