People are scratching their heads wondering how Donald Trump is still dominating the Republican primary race. Theories abound—a surprising number of which are astute, but incomplete. Arguably, the best takes on the causes of Trump-ism have come from Nicco Mele and Norm Ornstein, but most analysts have sought to push exclusive or simplistic theories.
The truth is, there is no one explanation for Trump’s staying power, be it stagnant wages (which can be blamed on immigration, automation, and globalization), white fears of a minority-majority nation (see why immigration is such an easy target?), or any of the other catch-all ideas that have been put forward.
In reality, what we are witnessing is the culmination of numerous cultural and technological shifts, many of which have nothing to do with policy or ideology. In fact, I would argue that Trump’s success could not possibly come about by virtue of merely one or two causes. This is the product of numerous trends, including fears about the rise of the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, political correctness run amok, a GOP establishment that has largely ignored the concerns of the base, and an inept president in the White House.
This phenomenon is bipartisan, as is evidenced by the rise of Bernie Sanders, but it is much less disruptive on the Left. Republicans have been disproportionately hit for a variety of reasons—including the fact that these trends are coming to a head at the very moment the GOP is in the wilderness.
So how’d we wind up with frontrunner Trump? Since everyone has been talking about the frustration being felt by white working-class voters, as well as a sense that America “no longer wins,” as Trump says, I thought it would be helpful to also catalog some of the less talked about trends that have contributed to Trump-ism:
1. The rise of alternative media. Donald Trump doesn’t seem particularly tech savvy—not like, say, the Howard Dean campaign of 2004—but many of the trends driving enthusiasm for him are the product of a new media world that lacks consensus and gatekeepers.
The rise of talk radio, 24-hour cable news, and blogs are a positive development for those of us who lamented the mainstream media filter, but, as David Foster Wallace observed, they also create “a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.” When we only had three TV channels, there was a consensus and a shared culture. Today, we have traded that in for individualism, atomization, and anomie.
The most recent development in this decades-long trend is that the media has now become so small-d democratic that chances are you can find an outlet that will never challenge your thinking, as if it was tailored just for you and your biases. Fox News isn’t conservative enough for you? Then check out Breitbart. Is Mother Jones too moderate for your tastes? Try Jacobin. If there’s an audience, there’s now a media organization that caters to it—either online or on TV. And if all else fails, you can just curate a Facebook or Twitter feed to provide you with all the news and opinions you’re willing to hear.
In the old days, media gatekeepers were respected and they could have snuffed out a candidate like Trump. Just a few years ago, it’d be impossible to imagine him or any Republican candidate surviving the spat he had with Fox News this cycle. And forget about the mainstream media stopping Trump’s rise, seeing how it is now hated by much of the country.
A candidate like Trump can now fully sidestep the gatekeepers. He is able to tap into alternative and social media platforms to talk directly to the voters, and it doesn’t cost him a dime. What is more, he can introduce and drive narratives and ideas that, heretofore, were considered off-limits or “illegitimate.” Again, some of this sounds wonderful in theory, and in a way, it is. But tech utopians always learn that every new medium carries with it a double-edged sword.
2. The decline of belief in institutions. Earlier, I talked about how journalists are no longer trusted or respected (once upon a time, Walter Cronkite was revered), but the truth is that this decline in respect has impacted almost every institution, ranging from marriage to the church to the federal government and our financial system. In the old days, people used to join a church forever, stay married forever, and be loyal to a political party (in sickness and in health). Today, we are a free-agent nation.
In some ways, this is good. Maybe your party doesn’t deserve your loyalty? Clearly, there is a dichotomy between which policies conservative elites believe are proper versus the kinds of policies the conservative base wants to implement. This helps candidates like Trump, who can exploit cynicism by convincing voters that no one has their backs. Hatred of the other party feeds into partisan loyalty, but the belief that one has been sold out by his own party feeds into the exact kind of “outsider” ethos a nontraditional candidate like Trump would want to foster.
And so, Trump gets to have it both ways. He can launch his candidacy because the Republican Party is too morally and statutorily weak to keep him from running, and then he gets to turn around and make their weakness and impotence a rationale for his winning.
3. But we have also quit respecting authority, and this creates specific problems for political parties. In the old days, if the media didn’t squelch a Trump bid, some political boss in a smoke-filled backroom might have. Today, thanks to reforms that make things more transparent and democratic, political leaders are relatively impotent. Who needs to be loyal to them when outside groups can fund a candidate, and when anyone with an Internet connection can use a social networking platform to raise money by attacking the party bosses?
4. The decline of values like humility and self-sacrifice and respect for expertise and elders. We used to respect authority because we had to, but we also did it because communitarian values were instilled in us. Today, we live in a much more selfish culture that says you should take whatever you can. Why bide your time waiting to run for office when you can run for president 15 minutes after arriving in the U.S. Senate, like Ted Cruz and Barack Obama? Why behave appropriately, in the best interest of your party and country, when bluster and demagoguery will get you more buzz and money?
Donald Trump, who has never been elected to anything and gets his foreign policy from “the shows,” could not flourish in a traditional paradigm where one had to have elected experience or be a high-ranking military officer in order to be taken seriously for president. Today, Trump’s lack of experience is a feature, not a bug. In a world where star quarterbacks go straight from college to starting as quarterback for an NFL team (rather than holding someone’s clipboard for a few seasons), it was only a matter of time before this trend hit politics. Culture, after all, is upstream.
5. Lastly, our modern culture reveres celebrity and newness. Trump is a celebrity, and it would be hard to discount the impact that this has had—his instantly universal name recognition, his ability to turn out huge crowds, etc. Will he be followed by President Oprah or President Clooney? How would either be any less absurd than President Trump, a prospect many of us are now taking seriously?
We also tend to revere what is new and fresh, while experience and expertise are now detriments. Consider this: Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the guys who won the last two Iowa caucuses, are actually doing terribly this time around, while Ted Cruz, who was sworn into elected office for the first time three years ago this month, is a top-tier candidate. This makes little sense, when you consider that Huck and Santo are presumably more knowledgeable and better campaigners today. But they’re stale. In the old days, the best way to win the nomination was to be the guy who ran and lost the last time. Now we want to believe in magic, and they have already demonstrated they can’t close the deal. So we write them off.
Interestingly, nearly all of these trends reflect a culture that is anything but conservative. What is more, at least some of them (the lack of humility, the lack of respect for experience, etc.) are the product of real cultural degradation. The problem with democracy is that you ultimately get what you deserve. Here’s hoping we swerve.