I’m weird… I know that. If you read my blog entries over the past couple decades it’s pretty clear that I’m so far left of center that I barely even show up on the political chart. And I know that! There’s never going to be a president in my lifetime that matches my politics. At least not until you people wise up enough to elect me… (for the good of country). But you’re not that smart; you don’t realize that I’m here to save you. I get it.
But, I love election season! Like I really really really love it! I love it like I love the Superbowl. Even when my team isn’t in it, I’m glued to the TV watching nonetheless. I remember watching the coverage back in 2000, and when things started getting close, Tim Russert broke out the whiteboard and started excitedly showing all the unlikely scenarios where Bush and Gore could end up tied for president. It was fascinating. And when it actually happened, I was glued to the screen for days watching it play out. “Look those people in Florida are counting! Isn’t that awesome!!!! I hope this goes on forever!”
I’m weird… I get it.
So, obviously I’m fascinated by the Republican debates (and can’t wait for the Democratic ones to start next month). But, what I find most interesting is the delusional manner in which the rest of the world is watching the debates and not understanding what’s going on. Twice now, Donald Trump has stood in the middle of that stage and acted like —well, Donald Trump— and twice now, news analysts, late night talk show hosts, and the majority of the people who come across any of my social media feeds are amazed at how he can possibly go up there and be Donald Trump and continue to do as well as he’s doing. Some deride the American public for being stupid. Some think that it’s a fluke. Some think it’s a joke. Some blame flaws in polling methodology from 60 years ago being used to measure election cycles in 2015. But the reason he’s actually doing so well is entirely clear to me. Probably because I’m so far off the board that I can see it for what it is, where as the rest of America is trying to look at the big picture from the inside.
Donald Trump is Barack Obama! In fact, he’s better at being Obama than Obama is!
Not politically, of course. That doesn’t matter. Not really. That’s not why he’s doing so well. It’s a matter of political alternatives. It’s a matter of image. The reason Obama started becoming so successful back in 2007 was that he appealed to a demographic that was previously not really considered politically. Everyone pretty much agrees that Obama got elected on the strength of the millennials. Both John McCain, in the general election, and Hilary Clinton in the primaries tried to attack him with the basic premise that he wasn’t experienced enough in politics to be a president. This backfired, because one of the things that Obama’s most fervent supporters LIKED was that he wasn’t like other politicians. When Hilary (and Biden and Edwards, etc) were attempting to shore up the Democratic base, Obama was talking to kids on the internet who were used to not being paid attention to. And it turns out there were a LOT of them.
I’ve joked before that the key to me becoming president was that I’d run as an independent under a platform that unites all the people in the country who feel forgotten about by the other two parties. Stoners. Sex Workers. Hipsters. The Working Class. Atheists. Fans of Manimal! There are 235million people of voting age in the US. Just over half of them (129million) actually voted in the last presidential election, roughly split pretty equally between Obama and Romney (51% to 47%). If I could energize the half of the country who is of the general “Fuck you all” opinion, I could win by a landslide.
In a way, that’s what Obama did and that’s totally what Trump is doing right now. Fundamentally, a two party system is based around the idea that no one really has the politician they want. They’re just getting the guy who is “good enough.” Maybe you’re a huge Bill Richardson fan, but you know that when he doesn’t get the nomination, you’re just going to vote for whatever Democrat does. This is why everyone always moves towards the base. You want to shore up the money in the party because you expect that everyone else will fall in line. The base has enough hegemony within the party to make the rest of the party fall in-line out of fear that “the other guys” will win. But the base is almost by definition a minority in both parties — an insanely powerful minority, but a minority nonetheless. If someone like Obama comes around that gather enough support outside of the base, then the base doesn’t really stand a chance. They have to fall in line. Think about it. 8 years ago, around this time, Hilary Clinton was assumed to not only be the democratic frontrunner, but the predestined president. But Obama got so much grassroots support that by the time the primary came along the Democratic base was begging her to drop out so as not to split the party in two even though she had enough super delegate support that it was possible for her to steal the nomination right up til the last moment. (And of course, this is precisely why the DNC has super delegates. They exist so that in a situation like that, someone like Hilary can get the nomination. But everyone was afraid to pull the trigger.)
That’s where Trump is right now (minus the super delegates, which the RNC doesn’t have). There are 16 people currently running for the Republican nomination, and honestly 15 of them I can’t really tell apart. I know one of them is a woman. I know one of them is fat. I know one of them is black. One of them is Indian. One of them is Hispanic and one claims to be hispanic but looks a lot like a white guy. And one guy is in favor of weed. Sure, I’m a crazy super-left winger, But the problem is, for the most part the Republicans can’t tell them apart either. Trump is polling at 30%, Carson is at 20% The entire rest of the field is between .5 and 8%, most of them around 3% and that’s with a 4% margin of error. They’re all exactly the same!
This is almost by design. That’s the whole point of political parties. If you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to be able to say “Ok, I don’t want the Democrats to win, I like this guy here who is anti-Obamacare, anti-gay marriage, pro-life, pro-gun, and for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. But if I can’t have him, I’ll totally take this guy who is anti-Obamacare, anti-gay marriage, pro-life, pro-gun and for replacing the income tax with a flat tax.” The entire point is to find the guy who is “most average.” If all of the other candidates but one dropped out of the race, Trump would likely be crushed by whoever stayed in a heartbeat. But they’re not going to. And since the 70% majority can’t decide between the 15 talking heads who are identical, they split the party and the 30% plurality is having a field day behind Trump.
But what makes him so interesting is the way in which people can’t believe WHY he is so popular. If you watch debate coverage and compare it with the internet, it looks like the consensus is that the most recent one was won by Carly Fiorina. And in doing so she surged in the polls by… well… not at all. It had no effect (actually she dropped from 4.5% to 3.3%, but since there’s a 4% margin, that’s statistically identical). I think the most telling moment of the debate was when she addressed Trump over the sexist remarks that he’d made about her appearance: “Do you want a face like that to be president?” And she did a great job of dressing him down and saying that his remarks were offensive to women everywhere. His response: “I think she’s a very attractive woman.” There are two ways to read this. Either, he was sincerely trying to apologize for his remarks, or he was being sarcastic. Either way, he certainly was displaying the same sexism that she was accusing him of in the first place. Most people I know who have commented on it seem to be astounded by his ignorance.
He’s not ignorant. He just doesn’t care. Donald Trump doesn’t want your vote!
Fiorina played exactly the card Trump would have expected her to play. She used this as an opportunity to guarantee herself the Republican feminist vote. Trump wasn’t looking for that. He knows he can’t win it anyway. And he doesn’t need it. Besides, the feminist vote, or moreover, the “women’s” vote (as though they were a single unified voting demographic) was already something that was hotly contested. It was something that everyone was already fighting over. Instead, Trump is using my plan. He’s going after the unrepresented plurality. People that no one is thinking about. Only instead of picking poor, weed-using, atheist, hipster, striper Manimal fans, he picked a different demographic. DudeBros!
I have a student in my freshman writing class; to protect his privacy, I’m just going to call him “Chip.” He’d make a good Chip. I know nothing about his personal life outside of the classroom, but if you looked at him, your first thought would be “yeah…. he’s a DudeBro!” I don’t mean that as an insult. He’s a good kid and a good student. But total DudeBro. A couple weeks ago, I had the class rhetorically analyzing political speeches and he revealed that he was a Donald Trump supporter. During the course of the conversation I began to realize that Chip is a “proud Republican” (his words, not mine… but talking with him, it seems like the main reason is probably simply because his parents are) but he certainly doesn’t seem to match up with the social conservative stereotype. For instance, he doesn’t seem particularly religious, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with gay marriage, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in immigration one way or the other. A couple of his classmates were Trump supporters as well, but Chip was clearly the most devoted to him. I let him try to explain what he liked about him and he said “I like that he’s not politically correct. He speaks his mind!”
A lot has been made of Trump’s unfiltered honesty. When you ask a Trump fan what they like about him they all say “he’s not afraid to speak his mind.” Of course, that’s also the complaint. Every one of his critics says “yes, but when he speaks his mind, you realize that he’s an asshole.” But that’s ok, because DudeBros don’t care if you’re an asshole. Some of them even welcome it. Even for the non-DudeBros, it can be refreshing. When people complain about Trump’s lack of filter, it’s because he’s usually saying something that they find offensive (and this happens a lot). Humans make this general assumption that offense is universal. “He’s being offensive, so everyone is probably as offended as I am.” That’s not true. It turns out that a lot of people don’t actually care, and some of them really like what he has to say.
But there’s something more. For all the talk about Trump being a loudmouth, he also knows when to shut up. It doesn’t *seem* like he does, because when he is speaking, he is often saying something that a lot of us don’t like. But he actually knows how to choose his moment. When Florina attacked him he didn’t actually engage. Yes, she tore him apart for two minutes and impressed a lot of people who weren’t going to vote for him anyway. But his response was simple “I think she’s a very attractive woman.” Just enough of a jab to make the DudeBros happy, and understated enough to make people on the fence with him possibly think “wow, what a class act, he said something nice after that hysterical bitch just yelled at him!”
If you pay attention, you’ll see that he never really debates issues. If you’re a Democrat or one of the 50% of Republicans who hate him, that’s infuriating. He knows he’s the star of the show. If he can make the issue about him, so that someone like Fiorina (or at other points in the debate, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Ben Carson and Chris Christie) attacks him, he does. And he’s masterful at it. This lowers the other politician to attempting to counter bully against him and the message is always, “the most important issue in the Republican party is Trump!”
But what’s far more interesting is when he CAN’T make the issue about him, he has a very clear move. He shuts the fuck up. No one ever seems to notice when he’s not speaking, but he actually does it a lot. And very strategically. The best case came with the Planned Parenthood portion of the debate. Trump said nothing the entire time. This left the other 10 people on stage to argue back and forth about how they would be better at defunding Planned Parenthood than anyone else. “When I was governor, I defunded Planned Parenthood in my state. Can anyone else say that?” “Hey, I also defunded Planned Parenthood when I was governor, and I defunded it so much harder than you did!” “I’ve never been a governor, but if I become president you’ll see me defund Planned Parenthood so hard your toes will curl.” “Yeah, well, I’m gonna defund it so hard that his pulsing manroot will penetrate her blossoming flower and make her cry out with… oh wait, I mean… yeah, I’m totally going to defund it hard!” “Yeah, well, Planned Parenthood will steal your baby and sell it for spare parts to terrorists in Iran, so I will defund it even harder!” (and thus Carly Fiorina lost any ground with independent feminists that she might have gained with her earlier Trump attack)
The problem is, DudeBros don’t give a shit about defunding Planned Parenthood! And I’m willing to bet a lot of other Republicans don’t either. Though looking at the debate, or what happened in the House of Representatives yesterday, you certainly wouldn’t know it. So that entire exchange just underscores the message that 10 of the people on stage are virtual clones of each other, and the one guy who stands out is the guy who didn’t really address the issue at all.
And that’s the real brilliance of Trump. He understands his place in the political landscape. In a two party system, at least up until this point, in order to get the nomination, you had to try to be all things to all people. Trump knows he can’t. And in a field this crowded, he doesn’t have to be. It really doesn’t matter what he says, all he has to do is set himself apart from the pack enough to be seen as an alternative for people who are fed up with the status quo. For a person like Chip, who considers himself a Republican, but doesn’t actually line up with the issues that the 14 identical clones constantly carry on about, Trump is the closest thing to a Brewster’s Millions vote for “None of the Above” that he has. And that’s refreshing. Add those to the people whose biggest issue is that they really do want to build a wall across the southern border, and you have a pretty strong base — a base that has traditionally been ignored.
I’ve made it clear many times that I’m not a fan of the two-party system. Trump has found a way of exposing the real problem with it. He’s not really a Republican (and he’s certainly not a Democrat either). He’s a fringe group. He’s the DudeBro candidate. But unlike the Ralph Naders and the H. Ross Perots of years past, he’s running in the primary anyway. If he only had to compete with one other candidate, or even two others, it wouldn’t matter. But with 14 others, many of whom are basically indistinguishable from each other, being “the alternative” becomes very powerful.
DudeBros have votes too. And there’s a fuck of a lot of them!