Five Myths About Trump
Why We Keep Underestimating Him
This was the month that Donald Trump boshed aside his competitors for the Republican nomination to install his considerable arse in the party’s driving seat. Barring a court ruling, he will be the main challenger to Joe Biden come November. He’s currently leading Biden in national polls; the consensus is that he has at least a 50% shot of returning to the White House.
Huh? What? How? Lots of people are already acting like this is normal, but it’s important to be astonished. If, on January 7th, you’d asked any political observer whether it was likely or even possible that Trump would be where he is today, they would have laughed you out of the room. His brand had already been damaged by the election loss he refused to accept, but his involvement in a riot at the Capitol seemed definitive and terminal. I don’t recall any experts saying, ‘He’ll be back’, and why would they have done? There was surely no coming back from a failed insurrection. Well, look who’s here.
I am interested in how we - that is, liberals or centrists or whatever - misunderstand Trump’s enduring appeal. We keep getting it wrong. Badly wrong. Few commentators believed he would win in 2016. When he did, it was said that his chaotic, divisive governing style would condemn him to electoral oblivion in 2020. But although he lost, his vote held up quite well. In the year after January 6th he was portrayed as a sorry figure from the past, playing to his gallery of ghouls at the golf club. Yet in 2024, here he is, this orange zombie, unkillable by events - and here we are, wondering once again how he does it. We appear to be very slow learners.
Contempt is the enemy of judgement. When you despise someone it becomes very hard to even think about, let alone understand, why others like them. There is also something about Trump’s political style which acts like a cyberattack on our analytical faculties. He kicks up such a sandstorm of outrage, hysteria and anger that it’s easy to lose sight of more conventional reasons for his resilience.
What follows are five myths that I think are distorting our view of the Trump phenomenon.
Myth #1: Trump Is a Culture Warrior
Myth #2: Trump Is a Chaos Agent
Myth #3: Trump Is a Hawk
Myth #4: Trump Is a White Supremacist
Myth #5: Trump Is a Shaman
Myth #1: Trump Is a Culture Warrior.
Like other myths identified here, this one has some truth to it. Yes, he takes deliberately crude stances on social issues and throws nail bombs at opponents and critics. Yes, to many of his supporters he’s an avenging hero sent to rain down hell on politicians, journalists and bureaucrats. But his appeal is not all about vibes.
One of the less appreciated factors in Trump’s victory over Nikki Haley in New Hampshire is that he ran on policy, while she ran on culture. His TV ads focused relentlessly on two issues: immigration and social security. On the former, he attacked Haley from the right, on the latter, from the left. At his rallies, he hit on those issues too, before embarking on the garish riffs that win him media attention.
Haley’s ads, by contrast, were about the kind of meta-narrative stuff pundits enjoy: exhaustion with the Trump-Biden style of politics, generational change. The reporter Ryan Lizza described the experience of watching the evening news in New Hampshire, during the campaign, like this: “Three positive Haley ads in which you learn she’s a fresh face but almost nothing about her policy positions followed by two Trump attack ads that are purely about her policy positions.”
Similarly, in 2016, if you looked beyond the shit-show you would have seen Trump making a series of big policy promises: to grow the economy, to reduce immigration (and build the wall), to pull out of trade agreements, to appoint conservative judges. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton ran on the slogan “I’m With Her”.
During Trump’s presidency, jobs grew, wages outpaced inflation, stocks boomed, inflation stayed low. Legal immigration was slashed and if Trump didn’t make the same impact on illegal immigration, his supporters took his erection of the wall as a sign he was doing something about it (under Biden, it has surged). He pulled out of the TPP and adopted a much more aggressive stance towards China. We know how he changed the make-up of the Supreme Court. Trump told his voters what he would deliver, and for the most part, he delivered it.
It’s worth discussing immigration specifically. In the US and UK, I often see it classified as a ‘culture war’ issue, along with the implication that it’s somehow undignified to take it seriously. That’s crazy. First, because culture does matter, at least for any nation that regards itself as more than a legal jurisdiction. Second, immigration has material impacts, some of them negative, and saying so shouldn’t be a partisan or ideological move. Third: most voters, wherever they are, regard control or oversight of who is coming in and out the country as one of the most important functions of government.
An increase in global migration from poorer countries to richer ones is one of the central geopolitical facts of the age. Neither left or right can shut their eyes and wish it away. Even liberals who view mass immigration as desirable ought to be able to acknowledge its costs and the need for limits and controls. But they find it painfully hard to do so, at least to do so authentically. In the US, this blind spot has allowed the right to take the centre ground.
Illegal immigration is highly unpopular even with registered Democrats and Biden supporters. The Americans most under threat from mass immigration tend to be working class and/or black - groups which have been trending away from the party that is meant to represent them. Trump has been able to win voters over simply by treating illegal immigration as a problem to be solved.
In short, Trump’s opponents get so mesmerised by his theatrics that they take their eye off his policies. His voters don’t.