Morning in America?

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A Sunnier Theory of Trumpism

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump continues to draw about a quarter of Republican support in opinion polls because of a combination of two things: name recognition and news-media attention at a time when most voters aren't paying attention to the presidential campaign.

Since everyone is talking about the Real Meaning of Trump's surge, however (and see Dan Drezner's takedown yesterday of the view that Trump and Bernie Sanders are manifestations of a populist “silent majority”), I might as well add one additional theory.

Maybe it means the U.S. is in pretty good shape. 

After all, we are years into economic recovery, even though the recession was deep, and the rebound has been a lot weaker than previous recoveries. Unemployment is down to a manageable number, and job growth is normal. Inflation isn't a problem. Casualties from foreign conflicts keep falling. There have been eight U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq so far this year, compared with 58 at the end of last year and more than 450 in 2011.

Yes, many problems remain, some of them scary. Yet it's hard to argue that the troubles facing the U.S. going into the 2016 elections are particularly unsettling. 

So perhaps Trumpism is simply a reaction to the lack of urgency many people feel about the immediate importance of politics to their lives. When things are more or less OK, that's when it's OK to humor (or be entertained by) a candidacy like Trump's.

To push this further, I could even note that Trump is the perfect Republican antidote to what Paul Krugman describes as Barack Obama's failure to fail. Trump mostly dispenses with supporting details when he asserts that the U.S. is constantly losing to Mexico, China and on and on. It's a good way to avoid having to seriously reconcile the Republican claim that Obama has been a disaster when the facts show that more nuance is required.  

You may not buy my theory that the Trump phenomenon is a sign of the underlying health of the republic. But it's as least as consistent with the available evidence as the claim that his success so far is a symptom of what's wrong with America.

  1. Republican Party actions matter, too. Normally, even with all the media attention, most voters would reject a candidate with Trump's lack of conventional experience and his flouting of acceptable norms of behavior. But for decades the Republicans have encouraged resentment as a campaign theme and discredited the media and other elite gatekeepers. They have even attacked their own party "establishment" as a source of evil, thereby reducing Republican resistance to an outside candidate who bashes the party.  

  2. This isn't to say that Obama’s record can't be criticized. There are strong conservative cases to be made against it on foreign and economic policy, and in other areas. But a fair critique of, say, Obamacare would have to mention the law's successes as well as its weaknesses. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net