Why Republicans Are Suckers for Trumpism

This is becoming a habit.

The circus is in town.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Catch of the Day goes to my View colleague Megan McArdle for her essay on voters' desire for a government of cartoon heroes, and the hard reality that government is slow, difficult and frustrating even when we get our way.

But in a representative democracy, this is what we have. There is no superhero strong enough to overcome the villain. There is actually not even a villain to defeat, only the unslayable amoeboid agglomeration of 300 million citizens' worth of unenlightened self-interest.

She’s writing specifically about Trumpism and the impulse to seek easy solutions to difficult problems. But she’s absolutely correct that it’s a broadly-shared impulse in democracies, and hardly exclusive to conservatives. After all, at least some of Barack Obama's support in 2008 was tied to notions that he was new, different and might somehow break the old ways and reconfigure politics. It's probably no accident that the first tier of Democratic presidential contenders in 2008 -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama -- had a lot less experience than also-rans Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson.

Still, it’s one thing to believe in the magic of Clinton, Edwards or Obama -- or even of Howard Dean, who attracted a loyal following in 2004. Each of those candidates had a fair amount of relevant government experience. It’s another thing entirely to believe in Donald Trump -- or Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. (Or Herman Cain or Steve Forbes.) Republican voters really are distinct in this way. They're repeatedly easier marks for people who have no business getting anywhere near the Oval Office.

Why is that? In part because Republican voters have been educated by their opinion leaders that magical solutions are worth pursuing: Defeat the Soviet Union by exposing traitors in government! Cut taxes to raise revenues! Build a wall to solve immigration! Democratic politicians, on the whole, have been less likely to go down that path, or to demonize a group of outsiders as the source of all troubles. 1  

Inexperience may also appeal to conservatives for other reasons: If you want less government, you may be less inclined to respect government experience. If that's the assumption, however, it’s mistaken; even “severe” conservatives still want some effective government. Managing government, big or small, requires the political skills honed by talented, experienced politicians.

Some of the conservative fascination with unready candidates may stem from a misunderstanding of Ronald Reagan, the only president conservatives truly seem to like. Because Reagan came to politics from the movies (and, perhaps, because his relationship to facts was notoriously odd), he was constantly mocked by Democrats as an amateur. This seems to have led Republicans to prize amateurism.

But Reagan was a two-term governor and a long-time conservative leader before he reached the White House. Whatever his rhetoric, he was a politician, and a good one. His successes in office were tied to his political skills, not his purported amateurism. 2

Finally, there is the ugly part of the equation: A Republican tradition of demagoguery stretching from Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. In their own ways, each has taught Republican voters to ignore experts, trust in easy answers and believe that the normal frustrations of politics (and geopolitics) are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers. Likewise, each made the case to Republican voters that the news media is a den of biased liars. (The lesson is so ingrained that Trump was able to use the charge even against the conservative Fox News.) And, of course, they succeeded in convincing many Republican voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause. 

Did all that create Trump? Not really. Trump’s polling success is mainly a function of name recognition and massive media coverage during a period in which most voters aren’t yet genuinely engaged in the electoral process. But it has made Trump more likely by reinforcing the desire for superheroes instead of suppressing it. As a result, Republican candidates have big incentives for irresponsible leadership. Trump has just followed such incentives to their logical conclusion.

Nice catch, Megan!

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

  1. Leaving aside George Wallace and other Dixiecrats, who have no influence at all on today's Democratic voters. These are tendencies, not absolutes; there are plenty of very responsible conservative Republicans, and it's easy to think of cases where liberal Democrats have been irresponsible. For example: Democrats demonized Japan on trade in the 1980s. In general, however, the messages to voters are quite different.

  2. It's as if Democrats reacted to Republican criticisms of Obama by seeking out current community organizers who actually had no government experience to be their next nominee. Or if Democrats had decided after Bill Clinton that out-of-control appetites must have been the Big Dog's secret strength. 

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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