One interpretation of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's historic rise as a political figure is that he represents the antithesis of President Barack Obama, both ideologically and temperamentally. This is a theory that has gained support from the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
As former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana wrote recently in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced “no drama Obama,” voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences."
CNN's John McWhorter details different aspects of this argument, stating that Trump's main base of support, generally middle-aged or older working class white males, feel they are not getting a fair shake under the first black president. His main supporter base is also angry at the economic realities that have played out during Obama's two terms: declining standards of living in a post-industrial economy, coddling of large banks and corporate executives and a perceived lack of action on illegal immigration.
These are all important points, but they do not tell the whole story of what has led regular Republican voters to overwhelmingly support Trump over arguably more reliable 'conservative' candidates like Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
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There are five main reasons why Donald Trump is as popular as he is, and why the U.S. has actually been primed for such a candidate for some time now: A 'rigged' economy in favor of the wealthiest Americans, the idea that government should be run like a business, political polarization on both sides, the growth of social media since 2008 and abundant free media coverage.
On economic grounds, Trump's supporters are largely against new free trade agreements and against illegal immigration. They've been left out of the "rising tide that lifts all boats" heralded decades ago by Ronald Reagan, and have been subject to the forces of inequality and economic insecurity.
For years, the Republican Party could characterize such concerns as fringe, left-wing nonsense, but the chickens have finally come home to roost for folks like House Speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
A 2014 study from Princeton University found that the U.S. is largely an oligarchy where important decisions on public policy are dominated by large business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, according to BBC News. Politicians like Ryan and McConnell have shown no inclination that they intend to deviate from this pattern, which is where Trump comes in.
By lambasting "loser" politicians and "stupid" leaders whose main crime is their stupidity and objection to "winning," Trump is filling the role of the businessman, the man-on-horseback, who has come to save the government from itself. This is yet another trope originating from the Reagan era, with its hostility to federal bureaucracies, regulatory agencies which 'stifle growth' and the federal government in general.
In practice, such as in Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, this really means a pressure to cut costs and lower quality services for citizens. Failed ideology or not, the widespread perception about Trump's business expertise coming in to fix the District of Columbia is one that has been pushed long before Trump, by Ross Perot and Herman Cain, to give two examples, and will likely continue to hold sway if Trump loses.
Trump needs to be separated from candidates like Perot and Cain though, because unlike them he is also a celebrity. A celebrity with at least $3 billion who formerly headed a reality TV show watched by millions of Americans every week.
Does this qualify him to be president? Absolutely not, but we should understand that the growth of celebrities in public life and the often entertainment-centered nature of mainstream news networks has created a political atmosphere which is absolutely ripe for someone like Trump. If he did not get into this race, another brash, 'politically incorrect' billionaire celebrity may have done so and we would be saying the exact same thing.
As for political polarization: it's no secret that the Democrats and Republicans in Congress have not gotten along well since President Barack Obama's election in 2008. But what is more understated regarding this issue is the revolt that has been going on inside the Republican Party since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, which has unseated incumbents like Eric Cantor and has forced others, like John Boehner, to resign completely.
What about the current Speaker, Paul Ryan? As The Atlantic's Norm Ornstein points out, Paul Ryan was almost immediately attacked by members of the congressional Republicans' "Freedom Caucus" for not being radical enough. This is despite the fact that Ryan is quite possibly the most conservative Speaker in American history.
Conservative infighting about the strict morality of the GOP's ideology between Tea Partiers and 'establishment' Republicans seemed to fail to understand what a large part of the GOP's constituency supported: stricter immigration controls, no more free trade agreements and more cuts in spending at the federal level.
It should not be very surprising, therefore, to have an outsider candidate like Trump come in and promise voters disillusioned with the GOP that these policies will happen under a Trump presidency, regardless of what congressional Republicans think or believe.
McWhorter points out another key aspect of the 'Trump Train,' which his opponents, except for Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the Democratic side, have almost completely failed to master: The Internet and social media. By staying savvy with contemporary technology and outreach methods, candidates like Trump and Sanders have upended the traditional campaign model. Facebook and Twitter have undoubtedly changed perceptions in the younger generations about how possible it is to run a competitive campaign using new technologies.
Finally, as Mathew Ingram of Fortune highlights, media executives bear a lot of the blame for the sheer amount of news coverage afforded to Trump, which has undoubtedly translated into support.
"The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us," Les Moonves, a CBS network executive said of Trump's rise. "Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
It's ironic that folks like Moonves and CNN's Jeff Zucker would heap so much coverage on a candidate whose supporters largely despise any and all members of the media. Just look at what happened to Breitbart's Michelle Fields last week.
Their attraction to The Donald is purely for the money, but one might ask: what would happen to press freedom if Donald Trump becomes president, given his many comments about his hatred for the media and desire to "broaden the libel laws"? This is something which Moonves and Zucker should probably be thinking about, and probably are not thinking about.
Trump's rise, in short, is due to several interrelated factors that have been brewing over the course of many years, sometimes decades. While some of it has occurred during the Obama Administration, other factors, particularly harsh economic conditions, hatred of government and the growth of social media, would have happened without Obama's help. Trump is therefore a unique phenomenon in American history, the culmination of several decades-long trends and perhaps heralding the beginning of new ones.