Writing at CNN, Gloria Borger lays out a succinct explanation for Donald Trump's continued, even possibly growing, success with voters:
More important—and here's the key to Donald Trump's kingdom—voters believe the political system, including (and maybe most of all) the President, have completely and utterly failed to get a handle on, or even appear to have a strategy for, security. And why would anybody blame anyone for thinking that? Sixty-eight percent say America's response to ISIS has not been tough enough, and a slightly smaller number say that when we do take action (in Iraq and Syria,) we fail. And that's not just among Republicans: Majorities in both parties say the United States has been ineffective in its response to the terror threat. This is not a new storyline.
So this particular election-year story has all of the following: Disaffected and frustrated voters. Ineffective president. A level of public fear that has been rising steadily for at least a handful of years. Throw in anger at the collapsing political system, the establishment and the media, and Trump appears onstage like a vision emerging out of the clouds: the dark knight of our politics.
The CNN/ORC poll Borger mentions was taken between November 27 and December 1. It also found a slight majority (53 percent) of Americans want U.S. troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq, which is mind-boggling. The respondents were essentially split on the larger question of whether things were going well for them, with half in the yes and half in the no categories.
That Americans are restive and pissed-off isn't news, of course. The entire 21st century has been a shit show for various international, economic, and other reasons. The feeling that the wheels have indeed come off many public and private institutions is palpable and the continued inability of government at various levels to achieve much or regain trust is a major and ongoing problem.
Alone among the presidential candidates, Trump is not only absolutely willing to play on people's fears and anxieties, he is insulated from any taint of being part of the system. This may be the biggest thing separating him from Ted Cruz, whose supporters acknowledge is merely a "toned-down" version of The Donald. Trump didn't shut down the government (which was broadly unpopular); he isn't part of the government (yet).
He's an experienced opportunist. He knows full well that he has stepped into a leadership vacuum that exists in American politics, and has been around for some time: Why should the American public have any respect at all for its institutions when they have been failing? When Congress can't legislate, or even behave? When the President—elected with such high hopes—fails to inspire or connect or even explain strategy? When others running for president often look like they're made of the same torn fabric, just with different holes?
I'm still confident that, per historical precedent, Trump will fade in 2016, though if he makes an independent run, he'd still be a factor in the general election. More important, he may have already effectively set the tone for the 2016 campaign. Fear and loathing on the campaign trail is no longer just a book title. Even among the almost-certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, we see anxiety about America's place in the world and the need for a strong hand at the top. She's flip-flopped on free trade and is only slightly less dumb-sounding than Trump when yapping about policing the Internet and free speech. She remains a strong hawk and resists acknowledging foreign policy blunders such as the Libya invasion.
As I've noted before, lack of confidence in government may seem like a sign that libertarian values are ascendant. But distrust of and anger with government also predictably—if counterintuitively—leads to call for more government intervention into virtually all aspects of life. Ironically, one of the best ways to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government is for it to demonstrate competency in its core functions.
But until that happens, expect Trump and Trump Lite to still pack some punch.