There is a comforting and popular explanation for Trump’s rise: He is the product of an extraordinary period of economic pain, demographic anxiety, and elite backlash. This argument holds that the condition of the country — or at least the condition of Trump’s supporters — is catastrophic, and Trump’s rise is a response to the suffering.
This is reassuring; it makes Trump into a kind of political natural disaster, a hurricane that relied on a rare alignment of winds and rains and warmth, a combination that occurs once in lifetime and can be forgotten once it’s been survived.
But there is nothing in polls of national attitudes, or indicators of economic health, that reveals this moment as uniquely fertile for the rise of a strongman. In 1992, when Pat Buchanan ran for president on a Trump-like platform, unemployment was higher, consumer confidence was lower, and Americans reported themselves more dissatisfied with the state of the country. But Buchanan lost handily.
And as we have learned more about Trump’s supporters, and have come to understand more about the year in which he rose, these explanations have grown more and more strained.
The belief that Trump is a predictable reaction to acute economic duress crumbled before the finding that his primary voters had a median household income of $72,000 — well above both the national average and that of Clinton supporters.
The idea that Trumpism arose as a response to a stalled economy collapsed as America experienced its longest sustained run of private sector job growth, and the highest single-year jump in median incomes, in modern history.
The idea that Trump was a reaction to failed trade deals and heavy competition from immigrants slammed into data showing support for him showed no relationship to lost manufacturing jobs and was strongest in areas without immigrant labor.
The idea that Trump is a reaction to historic disgust with American elites is at war with President Barack Obama’s approval ratings, which have risen above 50 percent and now match Ronald Reagan’s at this point in his presidency.
The reality is that the patterns of Trumpism, the trends of the US economy, and the polls measuring the American mood have stubbornly refused to fit the comforting theory that this is an extraordinary candidacy that could only emerge in an extraordinary moment. Indeed, if this were a period as thick with economic pain and anti-establishment sentiment as the pundits pretend, Trump’s victory would likely be assured.
Once you appreciate that fact, the lesson of Trumpism becomes much scarier: We are more vulnerable than we thought to reactionary strongmen. It can happen here.
Ezra Klein, “Donald Trump’s success reveals a frightening weakness in American democracy”, Vox (7 November 2016) [http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13532178/donald-trump-american-democracy-weakness]