Everyday we are seemingly subjected to the punditry wrongly declaring that Donald Trump’s candidacy has peaked. Surely, he couldn’t withstand his “Mexican rapist” remarks…well, his poll numbers went up. Then, he attacked John McCain, implying POWs couldn’t be war heroes. Surely, that would turn off the GOP electorate…well, his poll numbers went up. Finally on Friday, Mr. Trump made remarks about Megyn Kelly that were widely interpreted to imply she was hormonal during the debate. Surely, attacking a beloved Fox host would send voters packing. Well, based on the early polling data, his numbers remain robust with 3 surveys showing him maintaining his national lead while 1 survey shows him taking an outright lead in Iowa.
Trump’s resiliency in the polls begs the question as to why he has support in the first place and why his supporters are unyielding in their support despite the constant controversies in which he entangles himself. Trump’s rise can be ascribed to two primary factors: the rise of identity politics and collapse of American manufacturing.
Since 1984 as the electorate has grown increasingly polarized, political parties have focused their efforts on increasing the turnout of their base rather than persuading the shrinking number of independents. This trend has accelerated since the 2004 election when the Bush campaign made same-sex marriage an issue to drive up the evangelical vote. Similarly, during election years, the Democrats bring out their trifecta of the war on women, race card, and immigration reform to boost interest among the core elements of their base (single women, African-Americans, and Hispanics).
This is not to say that these groups do not have legitimate grievances; they do. However, our political parties use these issues to appeal specifically to certain group identities, even if they never fix the problems. Consider some of the cities where African-American poverty and crime are most endemic: Chicago, Baltimore, Camden, Oakland, and St. Louis. What do these cities have in common?
They are all run and controlled by the Democrats. Yet, the media never asks when African-Americans will abandon the Democratic party because the Republicans have done a horrible job of reaching out to the Black community (though some like Rand Paul and John Kasich are slowly making inroads). Given a history of tailored campaign pledges, the Democrats have built unparalleled credibility amongst African-Americans that will take years of work to chip away at even if Democratic policies continually fail those most in need. Years of identity politics and tailored pledged have given the party “the benefit of the doubt,” and that benefit has grown quite substantial.
We are seeing a similar phenomenon in the Trump campaign. One “identity” that the political parties have spent little time appealing to is working class white Americans. Fact is, the past 20 years have been hard for working class whites because the manufacturing sector has collapsed, shedding 5 million jobs. It is all but impossible to argue that any of Clinton, Bush, or Obama have helped the manufacturing sector in a meaningful way.
The collapse in manufacturing has especially impacted working class white Americans. While there is a case to be made globalization made manufacturing losses inevitable, it isn’t surprising these voters (and their friends and family) have grown increasingly disenchanted with the political system. Since 1996, white support for the Democrat Presidential nominee has fallen from 49% of the two-party vote to 40% in 2012. At the same time, the GOP establishment has done little to win the trust of these voters. Bush’s economic policies did not particularly help them, and the party has struggled to explain how tax cuts for top earnings will help the working class. GOP candidates attend Koch fundraisers while opposing minimum wage cuts; simply put, it easy to caricature the GOP as the party of the rich. Working class whites are a demographic without any reason to be loyal to party orthodoxy.
Enter Donald Trump. His attacks on China and Mexico, while dubious at best from a factual perspective, tap into the anger of a working class that sees a political class pointing to the benefits of free trade and stronger headline employment numbers while it continues to lag behind in the so-called recovery. With his protectionist rhetoric and an ability to shun the donor class that is perceived to have conflicting interests, Trump has been able to tap into this anger and earn the trust if not the admiration of working class whites.
With manufacturing essentially being in secular decline for 20 years, it is no wonder this group of Americans feel completely disenfranchised and ignored by the political system, leading them to look elsewhere for a standard-bearer. The connection with Trump is an emotional one: “he’s looking out for us” rather than a policy-specific one. This connection is similar to the one African-Americans feel towards Democrats. It is tough to break, and it takes more than a few silly remarks (or even decades of failed policies…) to break, particularly when no one else is making a compelling case you should support them instead.
Now at some point, will Trump’s support dissipate? In all likelihood, yes. Given his limited record, eventually, voters will look for some policy substance and consider the decorum desired in a President. It is unclear that Trump can pass these tests. Nonetheless, his rise and staying power offers a critical lesson for all the other candidates. A large part of the American electorate feels disenfranchised by a political system that has left them behind, in large part because the manufacturing backbone of this country has materially weakened. A candidate able to break out of our standard identity politics by offering a clear, substantive, unifying, and uplifting message to these and all voters could add a powerful base of support and build a decisive majority in the 2016 election.