Donald Trump is essentially running a third party campaign from within the fractured guts of the Republican Party and succeeding magnificently.
The frustation from within the party is loud and furious. He's not even a real Republican, they insist.
But that's not what matters to Trump's supporters, The attempt to use arguments that appeal to either party loyalty or party identity to get to his supporters is doomed to fail. That's because Trump supporters are essentially third-party voters.
What does that mean?
The struggle to suss out the motives of Trump supporters, at least by those who are willing to looking beyond (the very real) fears of nativism, authoritarianism, and racism, is reminiscent of the way participants of established, controlling political movements sometimes have a hard time grasping third-party voters. These voters would rather "throw their votes away" then support Democratic or Republican candidates, even if the end result is that another candidate that voter also detests may win instead. There is a not-insignificant number of conservatives who believe that Trump's campaign will undoubtedly help Hillary Clinton win come November. There are conspiracy theories that this is even deliberate.
It just so happens that I wrote about this dynamic back in 2013, when Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis challenged Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli for governor of Virginia and came away with more than six percent of the vote in a close race. Sarvis was seen by some (inaccurately) of having cost Cuccinelli the election, and there was palpable frustration at voters who went third party rather than lining up against McAuliffe. My post was titled "Read This If You Believe Your Candidate Lost Due to Third-Party Voters." It may seem strange to invoke the piece now, given that Trump is doing so well compared to any actual third-party candidate we've had in modern times and is leading a takeover of an established political juggernaut. But stick with me while I go back through my bullet points and see if it can't help grasp what is going on with Trump's supporters in a way that doesn't dismiss them or treat them like they're dumb or don't understand the kind of man Trump is.
Before going through this list, I'll state that I am not a Trump supporter and will not be voting for him in November if he gets the nomination. In all likelihood I'll be voting Libertarian Party or not even voting for president at all. Rather, like Nick Gillespie has been doing, I'm trying to get past a certain amount of establishment-fed oversimplification about what the Trump vote means and what may be learned from it. What can the "establishment" learn from visualizing Trump's supporters as third-party voters?
1. "[They] don't like your candidate." As I noted with Sarvis, you'd think this would be the easiest fact to grasp, but for some it seems to be a struggle. In this presidential cycle some confusion does make sense, because somehow Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are having to fight against the "Washington insider" label, even though they're both new senators who had to defeat "establishment" candidates themselves in order to get here in the first place. There are actually no "insider" candidates left on the Republican side in the conventional sense.
Nevertheless, the argument that voters should support a candidate they're not fond of in order to defeat the "other team" is not a compelling suggestion to those who don't see themselves as being on either team (and also as being abused or victimized by the policies of both teams). A big chunk of the Trump supporters we're talking about are not regular voters. They do not feel any obligation to go along with party wishes.
And in fact, the possibility that Trump could be the GOP nomination is allegedly prompting some establishment Republicans to consider voting for Clinton instead, and for some others to suggest a third party to drain votes from Trump, meaning they're going to help cause the very outcome they're telling Trump supporters they'd be responsible for. Because they don't like Trump. And so we end up full circle.
2. "You need to make an actual case for your candidate." In the original context I meant that attempting to reach third-party voters meant promoting their own candidate's appeal over complaining that the voter was helping the "other team." Make a positive argument why a libertarian should support a Republican instead of a libertarian.
In this case, Cruz and Rubio have been loudly trumpeting the case for themselves, even though the argument that Trump allegedly can't beat Clinton is still getting pushed. There is still the matter of the cases Cruz and Rubio are actually making. First of all, the two of them have been going after Trump for the lack of policy details. They're absolutely correct, but they're also completely missing the point. Trump voters don't want more policies. Accurately or not, they believe the policies that get put together in Washington ultimately end up hurting them. What they want is for Trump's "negotiation" skills to keep that from happening and make sure that they end up on the "winning" side.
And about those negotiation skills—let's make special mention of a recent turn in how Cruz, in particular, is attempting to attack Trump. Trump is on the record saying that the details of his anti-immigration policies are negotiable. "Everything is negotiable," he has said, though he also says the building of the absurd wall between the U.S. and Mexico is itself not.
Cruz and Rubio have both attacked Trump for not being hard enough on illegal immigration and responded accordingly to this idea of "negotiating." Cruz hit Trump in his victory speech Tuesday night, saying that he would not be "negotiating" with Washington; he would be "standing up" to them. He hit Trump for supporting Planned Parenthood and said Trump wanted to expand socialized healthcare.
So consider this line of attack for a moment: Trump is being called an authoritarian fascist with incredibly heartless, immoral plans for dealing with immigration and securing the border. Cruz's response is "No, he doesn't really believe this. He's lying. I really believe it, though! So vote for me!" That doesn't make any sense at all. You cannot make the case that Trump's positions are dangerous and then also make the case that they don't go far enough and expect to be treated seriously.
3. "Don't presume to tell [them] what [they] believe." This argument was initially presented as a criticism pointed toward those who would presume to tell libertarians what they're really supposed to stand for to try to get us to line up behind a candidate we didn't like.
But there's a completely different issue with Trump: There's an entire bipartisan movement to attack and shame Trump voters, as though this would somehow affect the election in some meaningful way. Why would a Trump voter care if people who already despise them and Trump think they're authoritarians or racists? They still get to vote exactly the same way more enlightened folks do.
For that matter, let's talk about "authoritarianism" for a little bit. Trump voters are being singled out as authoritarians. I happen to agree that Trump supporters are clearly driven by authoritarian urges as a way to get what they want and to bypass the machinery of Washington. The consequences of this actually happening could be very serious and harmful.
But here's the problem: They are far from alone in this election cycle. And yet, there is a concerted effort to find a way to finagle the definition of the term "authoritarian" via social science in such a way that it applies to voters and candidates on the right but not to those on the left or elsewhere. I've written about this before and it's coming up again. Social scientists have framed authoritarianism to a particular type of appeal to government power so that it seems to apply only to certain types of conservatives, and thus we end up with analysis like this at Vox:
This positioned the GOP as the party of traditional values and social structures — a role that it has maintained ever since. That promise to stave off social change and, if necessary, to impose order happened to speak powerfully to voters with authoritarian inclinations.
Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress — in other words, as the party of social change, a position that not only fails to attract but actively repels change-averse authoritarians.
Only by describing authoritarianism as "being averse to change" is it possible to ignore the significant amount of authoritarianism by the left or among Democrats. Apparently using the law to violently force change is not authoritarianism? Vox, recall, hosted Ezra Klein's argument for authoritarian "Yes Means Yes" laws where the government tells you what to you must do in order to make sure sex between two adults is consensual. He made no bones about his appeal to the power of authority. He said that the goal of such laws was to "create a world where men are afraid" of being prosecuted. And it's impossible to ignore the current college environment where student activists are attempting to deny their peers of the First Amendment right of free speech when they promote disliked ideas and the Fourth Amendment right of due process for sexual misconduct allegations.
And it's ironic, given that Trump does not to appear to be much of a fan of the Bill of Rights himself. Frankly he's terrible. The problem is not that just that Trump and his voters are awful on civil liberties, but also the number of people who don't realize that they are awful as well and are trying to reframe the debate to cast themselves as heroes. Why should a Trump supporter allow themselves to be designated the villain in this scenario? Robby Soave has pointed out how backlash against the PC movement has helped give rise to Trump for this exact reason. Yes it's hypocritical. But remember, Trump supporters see this as a defensive reaction to the power displayed by other factions. Watch a clip of protesters being ejected or facing violence at a Trump rally. Then watch fired University of Missouri professor Melissa Click trying to forcibly eject journalists from a college protest.
4. "No really, don't pull this 'blue versus red' crap on [them]." Nobody can really say for certain what Donald Trump was actually thinking when he had New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie introduce him at his victory speech/press conference Super Tuesday night and then stand behind him, trying hard (and failing) to not look utterly defeated and broken.
It may not have been Trump's direct aim to humiliate the governor—Trump, as crude as he is, does typically show a certain grace in victory. But given the subsequent social media response and mocking of Christie, Trump might as well have just had Christie's head removed, glued to a plaque, and hung on the wall like a trophy.
Peter Suderman noted how the spectacle of Christie falling in behind Trump demonstrated the governor abandoning all his principles in the pursuit of a relationship to power. Christie's positions on issues are absolutely nothing like Trump's. They are not even compatible. And yet there he is. And some are utterly furious with Christie over it.
Let's consider the possibility that Christie's "defection"—scare quotes here because nobody can rightfully claim the authority to declare what the GOP is supposed to be—completely reinforces Trump's approach to this race and a significant reason why Trump's followers rally behind him. You say Trump is a con man who buys and sells politicians? His response is, "I sure do, and look at what it gets me. Don't you want to be part of this?" Trump is corrupt. His response is that everybody involved in politics is corrupt—and he is good at navigating that system. He is not there to "fix" the system. He is not there to "break" the system, though the Republican Party may end up breaking as a consequence. Rather, actually similar to most politicians, he's promising to make it work for the behalf of a particular constituency that supports him. The difference is he's not even pretending it's about principles or the creation of policy. It is the pure representation of application of naked political power. It's fascism—because he's not interested in following the political process to get his plans implemented the legally recognized way.
Pointing out that Trump was obviously a supporter of Democrats in the past means utterly nothing when this campaign is all about populist appeals to authority and outcomes over processes. What the Christie cameo Super Tuesday showed is that affiliation is no longer all that meaningful. Why should Trump voters care about electoral processes and identification if they think they're being screwed over by everybody else?
Furthermore, it's a reminder that political parties are not identities. While many may associate the Republican Party with conservatism and the Democratic Party with liberalism, that's an identity organically grown from the desires of the people who belong to it. It can, and will, and does, change and evolve. The Republican Party is whatever the most numerous and powerful members determine it to be. The Democratic Party may soon be facing a turn toward full-blown democratic socialism rather than liberalism. We'll have to see. Jesse Walker analyzed the evolutions and possible realignments of the parties here.
5. "Respect that voters determine their own political priorities." Ron Bailey researched and noted in the wake of Super Tuesday that living in an economically distressed community is a good indicator of Trump support. His supporters tend to be poorer and less educated, often without a college degree.
Consider the fight over "income inequality." The left thinks they own this issue. The problem is overstated, but the fact is, the biggest indicator that you're one of the people who are on the bad side of the income shifting is that you have less than a college education. The Pew Institute looked through the demographics of who was benefitting and who was getting hurt by the current levels of income inequality. The worst were those who were just high school graduates or less. Racial and gender demographics didn't matter as much. Blacks, women and Asians were actually doing better, as were whites and men. The gap that did exist was almost entirely due to education level.
So if these folks are Trump's constituency, their embrace of Trump's terrible concepts of trade makes sense. It's not that they're correct on trade. They're absolutely not. Free trade helps everybody in the long run. Americans benefit greatly from trade with China with cheap goods. A lower-class American still has access to the kinds of goods and services the poor of the past could only dream about.
But! Those of us who support free trade are also very familiar with the capitalist cronyism and corruption that attempts to capture and redirect market forces not just in the United States, but in other countries (like China and Mexico, both of whom Trump hits a lot in his speeches). Trump gets attacked as one of these crony capitalists, and it's absolutely true.
Trump's constituency is made up of people who believe that they are the ones who have been hurt the most by this system. One might think, then, that Trump would be seen as the enemy here. Trump is "winning" by going completely mercenary with this approach: He is offering to use his knowledge and ability to manipulate this system to benefit those voters. He is going to negotiate to bring jobs back to the United States. He is going to do so many amazing things you just won't believe it! That's the way he talks. He doesn't provide details, because these are just the opening offers, right? Once he has power, he'll hash it out. Taxes, spending, whatever. Everything is negotiable. He'll make sure you get the best deal, if you're a Trump supporter.
There's no concept of a win-win scenario within Trump's perception of trade, and therefore what he's proposing is anathema to free marketers. But the problem is that his supporters do not see the possibility of a win-win scenario in the way Washington currently operates. They just see everybody except them "getting rich" off the government. Trump is going to be the crony capitalist who serves them. He's a con artist; he's their con artist.
They don't believe the current system of patronage is going to end, because why would they? Does anybody actually believe that Bernie Sanders can successfully "fight Wall Street" (even if they think this is an admirable pursuit and not something that presents dire consequences)? Every politician under the sun promises to "take back Washington" and stop "the bastards," whoever those might be. But the bastards are still there. Rather, this is about gaming the system for the Trump voters' own benefit. It's counting cards. It's about stacking the deck for themselves rather than other people. Of course, that's right up the alley of a guy who has built casinos.
That is why the obsession with "winning." And it's absolutely vital to understanding the authoritarian draw of Trump. It's as defensive as the man himself, but it didn't happen in some vacuum. Actually engaging Trump voters requires getting past the authoritarianism and nativism to truly understand what sort of outcome could please them without destroying the country's foundations, assuming they'll actually listen after all this time.