It’s been a wild political ride. The GOP presidential candidate has had many highs, lows and eye-popping moments. He’s inspired some people and disgusted others. His mouth moves at the speed of a Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train). He burns political bridges with little thought to the potential consequences. He attacks his political rivals on the left and right with surprisingly equal gusto.
Yet, Trump’s unorthodox political style has won over millions of Americans. This has caused everyone from experts to the apathetic to scratch their heads as they try to understand his political rise.
There are several theories.
The political climate worked to his benefit, based on frustration with President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda and foreign policy blunders. Trump tapped into an audience tired with “politics as usual” and elite rule, who relished a straight-talking candidate telling it like it is (or the way he/she believes it is). Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic on May 13 that Trump has benefited from the twin issues of “economic anxiety and racial resentment.” The GOP may have to accept some blame, since the groups of voters they have started to ignore or push aside (i.e., Reagan Democrats, Middle America, the disenfranchised) helped mobilized Trump’s campaign.
I believe another plausible theory about the Trump phenomenon can be found in the massive modern rejection of a seminal political science book.
For decades, [popup url=”http://amzn.to/2dNbPrh” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]The American Voter[/popup] (1960), by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes, served as a model of political behaviour. The four academics wrote that the “behaviour of the American voter as presidential elector can be described as a response to psychological forces.” In particular, “the political behaviour of Americans is that their partisan preferences show great stability between elections.”
Their data showed “partisanship is passed from one generation to the next.” In political households, “The political views of the parents were more frequently and intensely cognized by the children than in the inactive homes,” whereas, “Those with no clear political orientation, tend strongly toward non-partisan positions themselves.”
An additional component of Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes’s study was independent voters.
“Independents tend as a group to be somewhat less involved in politics,” they concluded. This group had a “somewhat poorer knowledge of the issues, their image of the candidates is fainter, their interest in the campaign is less, their concern over the outcome is relatively slight, and their choice between competing candidates … seems much less to spring from discoverable evaluations of the elements of national politics.”
Aspects of The American Voter, including partisan identification, have gradually modified or disappeared over the past 50 years. Still, this book helped define a generation of voters – and established a time-held theory that your parents’ political party was, more often than not, your political party.
Trump’s campaign, however, has been the equivalent of Brutus stabbing Julius Caesar in the political back.
He rejects political labels and often speaks in generalities, making it difficult to pinpoint his ideological underpinnings. He also walks a different line than many U.S. conservatives on free trade deals (ranging from indifference to dislike), foreign policy (opposition to the war in Iraq for the most part, slight praise for Russian Premier Vladimir Putin) and support for gay marriage.
His political campaign has, therefore, attracted millions of non-Republicans. This includes independents, who, unlike the time period when The American Voter was written, are now highly engaged in the political process. In contrast, Trump’s style has frustrated droves of active Republicans and conservatives, and thrown the whole debate about party identification and partisanship out the window.
Trump may not reach the White House. Yet, he’s rewritten the traditional political playbook, and changed the modern rules of the game for Republicans and Democrats who wish to acquire voter support. That’s pretty impressive, if nothing else.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.