Five Things I’ve Come to Understand About the Trump Phenomenon

Has there ever been a more spectacular misreading of the political climate by people like, uh, me, who laughed merrily when Donald Trump announced for the Republican presidential race last year?


He of course had no chance to draw more than a smattering of support from the far fringes of the voting public, but his entry at least ensured that we would enjoy some ongoing buffoonery from America’s most unabashed and ridiculous celebrity.

We could look to him to provide a kind of comic ballast for the sheer awfulness of Ted Cruz, the blandness of Jeb Bush, the snarls of Carly Fiorina, and the varied, almost-never-acknowledged flaws that every candidate brings, with all due bravado, to the table of electoral politics.

All of which leads me to realize yet again that I’m a lot less insightful than I’d like to be. (The one consolation is I have a lot of company in the Trump Under-Estimator Corps.)


On this morning of Super Tuesday, Trump remains the decisive front runner in the race, with most of the smart money coming down on him as the eventual nominee (80 percent odds in the latest betting markets report, vs. 17 percent for Rubio and 5 percent for Cruz; figures total more than 100 percent for technical reasons I do not understand).

And beyond winning the nomination, could the previously unimaginable possibly happen, with President Donald Trump reigning atop the world as its most powerful person come next January?

Don’t ask me; I’m obviously unqualified and too dim by half to predict anything at all about this most remarkable political season.



But here are a few things I have come to realize (I think…).

1. Sure, a good deal of Trump’s support comes from racist, xenophobic, uneducated yahoos, but it would be yet another mistake to think that’s the beginning and end of it. Many other decent, reasonably intelligent and fully functional people (Chris Christie doesn’t qualify) support Trump because…he’s right about some things. (Oh, it was painful typing that, but it’s true.)

Such as, you ask?


2. He’s right that the system doesn’t work anymore, that it seems almost irretrievably broken and gridlocked, with partisan warfare masking a deeper truth: both parties are bought off and generally do the bidding of corporations and their lobbyists. (Bernie Sanders says the same thing, and he’s right, too, but this post is only tangentially about him.)


3. Yeah, Trump’s a Republican and supposed conservative, but his primary allegiance is to dealmaking, as he continually reminds us. And dealmakers don’t do ideology or cultural/political/religious fervor—they do deals.

This is why mainstream, true-blue conservatives are aghast at what they see as his highjacking of their movement; he’s not at all one of them. Trump’s conservative Republicanism is a front, the exoskeleton that allows him to hook up with the prevailing two-party system that is necessary to win the presidency. Though I suspect he is not even 10 percent as smart as he’s always claiming to be, he’s at least smart enough to know that independent candidacies win nothing but a few headlines in U.S. politics (and a rare Senate seat in Vermont).

On multiple issues in the past, Trump has tended toward laissez faire libertarianism or liberal orthodoxy, supporting abortion rights, gay rights, a progressive income tax, restrained foreign intervention, and affirmative action. Bill and Hillary came to his wedding, for crying out loud! (I’m pretty sure he didn’t invite Ted or Carly.)


4. Trump’s “dealmaking” is, in truth, the kind of flexibility that I and everyone I know (including Barack Obama when he assumed the presidency) want in our politicians. It’s what democracy is all about as envisioned by our Founders.

In a complex and pluralist society, nobody ever gets everything they want; that happens only in oligarchies and theocracies. (Or “democracies” actually run by lobbyists; which is where we have descended in the U.S.)

Exhibit No. 1 in that argument: Medicare, the largest purchaser of health care services in the country, is prohibited by law from competing for prescription drug prices in the marketplace. That’s not even socialism, it’s communism, and the drug companies, supposed kings of the “free” market, are the sole beneficiaries.

In a democracy, compromise is the coin of the realm. It’s Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan, sharing a drink and splitting the difference on taxes in a late night gabfest. Trump understands this, and so does Obama. Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell & Co. hate the very idea, which is why Trump scares the bejeezus out of them. His conservatism is mostly a sham, an expediency, and they know it. He’ll sell their cherished, unbending, jihadist principles out in a heartbeat if it helps him cut a deal.


5. I have come to realize it is almost impossible to under-estimate the degree of despair much of the voting public feels with our system, and how a good part of that public yearns to just dump the whole rotten carcass overboard and start again. It is almost the stuff of revolutions and civil wars, with the irony being that the despair is shared in common on both the left and the right.

This is where the Bernistas and Trumpistas actually meet: the system is corrupt, and it needs a reboot.

Enough shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders, resigned to eking out a piece of justice here, a sliver of workable immigration policy there, a shard of tax fairness over yonder.

Incrementalism? Bah!

It is in many ways dismaying but not surprising that Trump backers don’t care about his inconsistencies, his faux religiosity (is there anything more transparent than his pretensions of being a true blue Christian?), and the fact he’s nowhere near as truly conservative as many of them are. What appeals to many of them is his call of a pox on the entire house of how our politics happens today. No matter that many of his positions are xenophobic, his claims hyperbolic, and his moods and mannerisms adolescent at best, mired in locker room insults questioning the manhood and intelligence of his opponents.

Yes, his yahoo element of supporters love his xenophobia and thinly veiled racism, but that doesn’t explain the depth and endurance of his support nor the passions that fuel it.

In his indictment of our current politics, his decrying of the “disaster” (seemingly his favorite word) of the puffed up interventionism that led to the Iraq War, his vow to take on his “friends” the corporate lobbyists (“I know these people; I make deals with them all the time”), Trump is speaking to a deep discontent with the status quo, and that, at least, is shared widely, all across the political spectrum.

Add up the two most prominent spokespeople for that discontent, Trump and Bernie, and you’ve got a very significant—and increasingly vocal—part of the electorate shouting loudly and yearning to have their voices projected into the prevailing political winds:

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Trump and Sanders caricatures by Donkey Hotey, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Photo of Trump “signing the pledge” not to wage an independent candidacy by Michael Vadon, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

12 comments to Five Things I’ve Come to Understand About the Trump Phenomenon

  • Angela  says:

    Thank you, Andrew! The Trump candidacy and the prospect of a Trump presidency are still unbelievably crazed and crazy but, like all clear-eyed writing, this dissection makes me feel a little less crazy. Who among us has not felt this frustration with our political systems and machines? You have done an excellent job of cutting through my dismayed reaction to this campaign and laying it all out there.

    I long profoundly for a candidate with Trump’s outrageous audacity and energy to be paired with a social conscience and real vision. Could some of those famous deals be made on our behalf, to protect our planet, our children, our elderly? Too much to ask in the 2016 field of dreams?? And, once we stop gaping from the sidelines in disbelief, is our individual and collective role and responsibility, even opportunity, here?

  • David Moriah  says:

    Brilliant analysis, my friend. You’ve calmly and objectively cut through the (understandably) hysterical outrage that many of us feel about Trump to identify several attributes and positions of the man that are actually attractive, without going over the edge and justifying support for his candidacy. Quite a feat! You are especially correct that we NEED dealmakers and not ideologues – the Reagan/O’Neill image is perfect. This is what the current crop of Reagan worshipers don’t understand about Reagan. Much as I abhorred Reagan’s policies, I believe if he were to come alive today he would be appalled at the crazed antics of the GOP in shutting down the government for spite and refusing to consider a duly nominated Supreme Court candidate.

    I think you have given those of us committed to blocking a Trump take-over some food for thought. It’s not enough to rant and rave about his bigotry and mean-spiritedness. To actually reach his supporters we need to acknowledge the places where he is correct, and do our best to co-opt him by advocating for those positions ourselves. Perhaps by doing so we can peel off some of his supporters before the inevitable disaster occurs.

  • Alan Proulx  says:

    Thanks Andrew- My own theory is that when Trump met with the Clintons before joining the cascade of every available Republican declaring themselves as the most likely to be elected president, Bill talked Trump into running for the Big Job.

    Bill, being smart, wanted another stint in the WestWing, thought that Trump could at least mess up the 16 other candidates. (See, I told you Bill was smart!)

    Now that The Donald is leading, the rest of the field (of three) could split the delegates with no one getting 51%. The leaders of the elephant herd can choose a not-Trump for their Candidate, and Trump will run as an independent and take his 30-40% with him, allowing Hillary to win. (Told you Bill is smart.)

    Don’t hold your breath, but I also predicted Obama would take Iowa in 2008.

    Alan P.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Thanks, Angela and David. Believe me, I’m just trying to hang on here, coming late, I fear, to an understanding not only of how someone like Trump could rise to the position he is in, but also how someone like me could miss so much of what it is about. Sobering!

    Alan, that’s a pretty complex web for Bill to have woven, and if he were that smart, how come he didn’t see the Obama Train with that great big headlight barreling down on him and Hillary back in ’08? Poor Hillary—from Obama the Eloquent to Bernie the Rumpled. As it should be, I suppose: no one should be able to waltz to the nomination, however much Jeb Bush and his backers figured on doing just that. Interesting times!

  • Mary Graves  says:

    Oh my gosh. Yes. It is so embarrassing to be in a country where people vote for him.
    An article in the Press Democrat Sunday written by I think David Brooks of the New York Times describes Trump as a cancer growing separate from the whole political process. The 2 parties have their differences and we learn from one another and both stretch and grow as we work out our differences, but it is OUR political process with Democrats and Republicans hashing out the issues. Then comes Trump with his personal put-downs that rob us of our discussions. He attacks not only Democrats and Republicans but interferes with our political process.

    I think he will implode ever since he pretended not to know about white supremacy. That exposed him, and I hope Kasich can jump to the top.
    I’m just sayin…
    Namaste, Mary

  • Al  says:

    Thanks Andrew, provocative thoughts as always. I see the appeal of Trump and Sanders sharing something else in common, a voice for the have-nots. There are more and more people who are feeling left behind in our society. And especially our disenfranchised youth who see increasingly less opportunity than prior generations. Trump represents for many an opportunity to take back our country. Something is slipping away and more and more people feel it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, it’s just irony upon irony, Al: the have-nots, dispossesseds & left-behinds piling onto a billionaire’s bandwagon, who wouldn’t recognize or empathize with them if they fell in front of him on the sidewalk. It reflects the supply-siders’ major argument: however disproven all trickle-down theories are, the poor tend not to resent how the economic deck continues to be stacked toward the rich, because they aspire to be like them…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Right on, Andrew. As mentioned by others, you have brilliantly cut through the hysteria to provide a clear-eyed analysis of the craziness of 2016. Interestingly, in my view, the Republican dilemma in 2016 is similar in many ways to what they faced in 1952. They had not held the White House for 20 years at that time, because they could not defeat FDR. They were outraged at the communist leanings of the New Deal; and then they failed to beat Truman in ’48 because they couldn’t unify around a candidate who could win. They needed an “outsider” to go in and clean up the mess in Washington, and to bring back Americanism. There was no Donald Trump (has there ever been?); but there was WWII hero General Dwight Eisenhower. Nobody knew if “Ike” was a Republican or a Democrat, so the Repubs went out and got him. They figured he could get elected and also get things done because he was not scarred by any previous political wrangling and was a respected war hero. To really get at the “cleaning up the mess” they pulled in Communist hit man Richard Nixon so there would be no confusion about making America pure. Ike could protect us internationally and his VP would purge us internally of the dark side of liberal politics. Nice strategy. So, anyway, we have no Eisenhower and the Republicans are once again distraught over too many years without the White House. Though not a war hero, Trump is the anti-PC, anti-establishment hero; and he doesn’t need a Nixon. He’ll just build a freaking wall, keep Muslims out of America, and do deals with China and Putin to assure that we get back to Americanism. Note that Romney stumped an attack on Trump today. Bad move, Republicans. Having an establishment guy bash Trump only serves to strengthen the passion for him. Democracy is very messy business, and the process must be allowed to play itself out. One last thought: It is possible that we all get too worked up about the presidency and its importance given the broken and dysfunctional state of Congress. Can ANY president overcome the tribal factions of our Congress?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I will say that democracy’s historic messiness is something of a comfort in these days of trial, Jay, thanks for the reminder! (Where have you gone, Alexander Hamilton?!) And Romney’s attempted take-down of Trump as a “fraud” was riven with farce, given it was coming from a moderate politician who engineered a highly successful government-run health care program in Massachusetts that served as the basic model for Obamacare, which he then bitterly denounced in his campaign in kowtowing to his party’s radicals. Talk about fraud…And then there’s John McCain, who gave us…Sarah Palin, and is now appealing to the moderates in his party to take it back. (And those moderates are where, exactly—in John Kasich and his 4% support?) How many ways can one spell “cynical” and “karma” as the party’s historically moderate wing now pays the piper, in the form of Trump and Cruz, for the years of pulling in votes by genuflecting to its radical right wing?

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Kasich viewed as moderate speaks volumes; as does Rubio in role of acceptable candidate for mainstream. Yikes!!!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    In the spirit of conversation about this most interesting topic, I have returned to read the comments others have posted, and have a few comments and a question. Mary, if the leaders of he Republican Party try to circumvent the will of those supporting Trump they, in effect, would be stepping outside the process and perhaps damage the integrity of the political process. Also, if Trump has not imploded after taking on the Pope, discrediting John McCain’s captivity, and declaring he could pull a gun on someone in Manhattan and not lose a single vote, then it is hard to imagine what would now trigger an implosion. And a question for Al: I am curious on your thoughts about from whom we would take our country back?

  • Al  says:

    Good question, Jay. Like most of us, I’m trying to figure out how in the world someone like Trump can enjoy so much popularity. I must be missing something. I imagine Trump supporters want their jobs back from Mexicans and their peace of mind back from Muslims. They want someone to do something to overcome Washington gridlock and they don’t think anyone from Washington can do it. They want someone who can speak his mind who is not beholden to special interests. This is where Trump’s appeal intersects with Sanders’. Supporters of both want their country back from politicians who have not been bought. But it’s the same problem that occurs with regime change in revolution – the alternative is often significantly worse.

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