People wonder why Donald Trump is so popular. It’s definitely not about ideology. I agree with the pundits who say the 2016 election is not about ideology. How could it be? None of the candidates appear to have a discernable one, with the possible exception of Ted Cruz (who, while strong on specific points, does not articulate it clearly) and Bernie Sanders (whose ideology will not interest Republicans).
One thing keeps standing out when I hear people who praise Donald Trump: “He’s beholden to nobody.” Even in an age of anti-capitalism, surprising numbers of people (some even Democrats) are not bothered by his billionaire status. Not because they think wealth or capitalism is good; two terms of President Obama could not have happened in a society where most are pro-capitalist. It’s more that Trump is perceived as independent of what has become a corrupt Washington DC establishment, one where politicians in both parties routinely trade policies and votes for power and donations.
Look at Trump’s refusal to take part in the upcoming Fox News debate on terms other than his own. People like it when Trump says of Fox News (or any other media outlet), “[They] can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else.” This sort of independence makes people trust that he’ll go his own way as President, as well. Go which way? That’s less clear. What’s striking is that it does not seem to matter—not even to most Republicans, based on polls, at least.
That’s the point where some people start to argue over whether Trump is a phony, or not. Some will say he really is beholden to the usual political interests. Case in point: His acceptance of ethanol subsidies, a form of corporate welfare which could not exist in a truly free market, and Trump knows it. Is Trump a phony conservative? There’s really no settling this argument. Normally, you judge a candidate by his ideas and his adherence (or lack thereof) to his ideas while in office. Trump is purely attitudinal, not ideological. He’s mostly reactive, not proactive. And he has not been in office, which is precisely part of his appeal.
Yet the psychological point remains: So long as Trump is perceived by large numbers of people not to be beholden to special or media interests—since he can afford to fund every penny of his campaign by himself—then he’s considered refreshing, different and valuable.
I understand the motivation for this appeal. But dig a little deeper. Why do we have corrupt, beholden politicians in the first place? The honest answer is obvious. Politicians are beholden to the people they represent. People vote for various special interests; otherwise, those special interests would have no power. Ethanol subsidies are only part of it. Social Security and Medicare are the biggest interests of all. People chose to bring these programs into existence, and the great majority choose to keep them there. When the rare politician from either side points out that they’re going broke, the mass response is always, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Just fix it.” Trump actually aligns himself with precisely this sort of populism. In his two most recent books, he makes it clear that a central purpose of government is to provide a social safety net (i.e., a welfare state) and to keep Medicare and Social Security going. Why? Because they’re popular. How? Somehow.
Blunt and brash as he is, there’s one thing Donald Trump will never say that the late comedian George Carlin did: “Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.”
On this point, Carlin was closer to the truth than anyone running today.
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