The Republican billionaire’s deliberate provocations are seducing those who are dissatisfied with the system and some of the middle class.
In the space of a week, Donald Trump called for the United States’ borders to be closed to Muslims and to “remove” jihadi families. The previous week, he made fun of a journalist’s physical handicap and demanded that all American Muslims be registered. The list of the New York billionaire’s blunders is endless and reactions to it are familiar. On the one hand, there is an outcry among the press, commentators and many politicians, cries of racism and even fascism. On the other hand, Trump’s ever growing band of supporters cheers him on.
Criticized across the globe, the idea of temporarily banning Muslims from American territory seems to have strengthened the rise of Trump among the conservative candidates vying for the White House. And for good reason: According to a survey by Washington Post-ABC, 59 percent of Republican voters are in favor of this measure. As a result, Trump could receive 38 percent of the Republican vote, or even a record breaking 41 percent, according to a study by Monmouth University in New Jersey, which is nearly three times the number of his closest contender, Ted Cruz (14 percent).
In the eyes of his supporters, Trump embodies “real-talk,” independent of the lobbies and political correctness that gags his opponents. But real talk does not necessarily preclude honesty, which the property magnate cheerfully goes along with. The most recent example to date is Monday evening at a meeting in Las Vegas on the subject of the Paris attacks. “From what I hear, a lot of other people are going to die, as they are seriously injured,” he said.* When he does not indulge in dishonesty, the surveys’ favorite candidate cultivates indecency. Still on the subject of the Bataclan attacks: “If I were there, if somebody were there, if we had some firepower in the opposite direction, those people would have been gone,” he said.
Fascinated by his outspokenness, Trump’s supporters share his mistrust of the political elite. “Those who support Republican political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina aren’t know-nothings; they’re flat-out tired of career politicians — of what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the voracious desire for office,’” explains Eddie Zippwewe, professor of political science at Georgia Military College in the U.S. state of Georgia. According to a New York Times-CBS survey published on Tuesday, 93 percent of Trump’s supporters state that they are angry or dissatisfied with the “system” in place in Washington, a number which cannot be found with any other candidate.
Rejection of the elite is not enough to explain the continuing “Trump phenomenon,” which feeds on other elements: anxiety of a white middle class suffering at the hands of globalization, nostalgia for an all-powerful America and the loss of markers when faced with the multi-ethnic transformation of society. All of this is in an international context which stirs up feelings of insecurity. Then there is the search for scapegoats: illegal immigrants – whom Trump wants to deport – and Muslims. “It would be a mistake to assume that Trump’s supporters are drawn to him simply because of his personality or because, like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, he is a political outsider,” analyzed John B. Judis in October in the conservative magazine National Journal. “What has truly sustained Trump thus far is that he does, in fact, articulate a coherent set of ideological positions, even if those positions are not exactly conservative or liberal,” Judis said.
Left Out in the Cold
According to Judis, Trump’s supporters belong to a category created in the ’70s by the sociologist Donald Warren: the “MARS,” or Middle American Radicals. Neither totally left-wing nor totally right-wing, MARS are part of the white middle class that considers itself increasingly left out in the cold, whose salaries have not increased since the credit crunch in 2008 in spite of the recovery.
With few qualifications, either workers or employers, these voters feel “squeezed from both above and below,” writes Judis. Above them is the elite, who are worried about their own interests, and below them are the poorest people — often belonging to ethnic minorities — who benefit from the welfare state. While ultraconservative on immigration, Trump’s supporters are much less so on the fiscal or economic front. This is why the businessman is promising to get tougher with China, Japan or Mexico, to “win the trade war again,”* and is vilifying the very rich investment fund owners who get out of paying income taxes. Likewise, Trump commits to protecting Social Security and Medicare, on which his Republican opponents want to reduce spending.
Impossible to categorize politically, Trump cajoles those who have been marginalized. If his misdeeds repulse the majority of Americans, they do not affect the belief of those who are loyal to him. The latter group will undoubtedly not be enough to send “The Donald” to the White House, but thanks to them, the billionaire can expect to poison the Republican campaign right up until the end.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, these quotes could not be independently verified.