A national Rorschach test.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Getty Images

What Trump Supporters Get Right

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Theories of the rise of Donald Trump too often rely on the anger, bigotry and general backwardness of his supporters. This grounding isn't much questioned, even by commentators who think they're questioning it. The inferiority of those people (formerly known as we the people) is widely taken for granted.

This points to the real driver of Trump's success: the armor-plated complacency of the politicians, commentators and other political professionals he's running against.

To many liberals and more than a few conservatives, support for Trump proves your unfitness for civilized society. Articles that purport to offer a somewhat deeper analysis -- promising, for instance, to blame the country's elites for Trump's success -- often wind their way back to the same premise. Blame the elites for failing to respond sympathetically to the understandable rage of desperate losers; or for manipulating their bigotry to gain political advantage; or for failing to do what elites in democracies are supposed to do, which is shield a correctly constituted government of laws from the rabble.

I don't doubt there are plenty of angry stupid bigots in the U.S., much as you'd find anywhere else. And as a loudmouth insurgent, Trump presumably gets more than his fair share of support from that part of the electorate. Still. Polls currently give Trump 40 percent or more of the vote in much of the country. It's far from impossible that he might win in November. Are the vicious brainless masses really as numerous as that?

It seems unlikely. If all those declared supporters (together with the people who don't like him but tell you confidentially, "Well, he does have a point") are as worthless and benighted as the political establishment appears to believe, then the case for democracy would seem to need rethinking, Trump or no Trump. Alternatively, one could ask a better question: why so many decent, reasoning, responsible people -- citizens deserving of respect, if democratic self-government means anything -- are saying they'll vote for this outrageous man.

The Trump supporters I know aren't bigots or fools. They're protesting, in part, against the condescension of the country's self-appointed upper orders. Economic stress is certainly a factor, though I wonder if too much is made of this; the Trump supporters I know are getting by, and the last thing they are is sorry for themselves.

What seems most important is that they think they've little to lose in smacking down politics as usual. They're tired of being ignored and want that understood. Washington is broken, incapable of action and apparently content to stay that way, so why not declare, in unmistakable terms, that enough is enough?

I only wish it were harder to quarrel with their assessment. National politics in the U.S. has all but collapsed to a gusher of money, a source of rotating employment and a platform for ideological self-affirmation -- a forum for graft and posturing and endless impotent argument but seldom for solving problems. Even before things got this bad, would-be presidents often promised to shake up Washington. Trump is different, as his critics point out: He might actually do it.

As Trump kept on winning, the stunned incomprehension of Republican leaders and thinkers was especially eloquent. Evidently they lacked the faintest notion of what many of their own supporters actually think. In one way, you can sympathize: In no sense is Trump a conservative, and he might just as well be a Democrat as a Republican. Many of his policy ideas, such as they are, put him to the left of Hillary Clinton. So what were those Republican voters thinking? Consider what's spent on polling, focus groups and market research -- had nobody thought to ask? Apparently, the party's leaders neither knew nor cared.

It isn't just presidential politics. Congress too is widely viewed with disdain. Asked whether they approve or disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, fewer than 20 percent say approve. The number keeps on sinking, and rarely any longer arouses comment. It's as though the public's verdict is of no concern. Congress to voters: "We hear you and we don't care."

Enter Trump. Disenchantment with politics as usual might have bred mere disengagement -- why bother to vote? -- but the risk of more serious consequences was always there. Many voters like the idea of an anti-politician, which is what Trump claims to be. In fact, that's almost the whole of his pitch. Things have got to the point where it may be enough. 

Today the U.S. is riven by two kinds of political divide. In addition to the familiar left-right kind, with Sanders at one end and Ted Cruz at the other, there's a divide between people who live for politics and people who are sick of politics. Civic as opposed to ideological polarization, call it. On both axes, the moderate middle has been hollowed out.

Liberals and conservatives who make a living from politics, or love it as an end in itself, pronounce tirelessly on liberty and social justice and the deep constitutional principles at stake in federal bathroom policy. The rest of the country doesn't care about this permanent war of ideas, and worries more about holes in the road, what's going on in the schools, depleted retirement savings, and the latest hike in health-insurance deductibles.

The two divides are linked. Ideological polarization has shut Washington down, separating it from the concerns of many if not most citizens and rendering it useless in their eyes. That's driven new extremes of civic polarization, with the politically engaged talking exclusively to and past each other, leaving the disenchanted to seethe in silence about their smaller concerns. The result is Trump.

I could never vote for the man. He isn't a would-be dictator and even if he were the Constitution would stop him. But he has some unusually bad ideas, and in foreign policy he'd have more freedom of action. He seems totally uninformed, intellectually unanchored and completely unpredictable. Who knows what he might do, or try to? It's a frightening prospect. The view that you can safely vote for Trump because things really couldn't be any worse is just wrong. He's the man to prove they could be.

Believing otherwise, however, doesn't make his supporters idiots or racists. As to whether politics as usual has failed the country and something needs to change, I'd definitely start paying attention to those people. On that important point, they're absolutely right.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net