Time To Take Trump Seriously?
The buffoonish billionaire is tapping into something real.
The buffoonish billionaire is tapping into something real.
Dave Weigel explains “Why Donald Trump makes sense to many voters — even some Democrats.”
A few hours before Donald Trump’s plane landed, 20 minutes south of where he would speak, people gathered outside the Flint Assembly Plant to take a peek into the past. Some of them were retired, reuniting with friends. All of them remembered how there used to be more to the place.
“I worked at Plant 36,” said Jerry Hubbard, who retired in 2001, after outlasting his part of the vast “Buick City” complex that was dismantled as the auto jobs left. “It’s all gone. It’s all limestone. You can’t rape a place like that. General Motors jobs made this place.”
Only one presidential candidate seemed to care: Donald Trump. “A lot of what he says hits a chord with me,” said Hubbard. “Immigration and jobs going to China — this area’s really suffered from that. I just like somebody that stands up for what he speaks about.”
Trump’s rise and persistence as a presidential candidate has been credited to name recognition, to voter anger and to a specific contempt for the Republican Party establishment. But he is also the candidate talking most directly about the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.
In the Democratic race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has adopted a similar theme, but Trump’s appeal here captured something that went beyond policy: a brew of impossible nostalgia coupled with a pledge to destroy other countries, most notably China, in negotiations. On Twitter, “Make America Great Again” is a goofy, meme-ready slogan, best displayed on ironic hats. There are places, such as Michigan, where it makes real sense.
Like the setup, the evidence presented is completely anecdotal. But it strikes me as rather persuasive.
[Gerald Woodruff, 65,] a sometimes Republican, was impressed by Trump. “I watched the debate,” he said. “Fox singled him out in that opening question. They said they asked hard questions of all the candidates, but they went after him because he’s touching a nerve. If Republicans can capitalize on that, they’ll do pretty good.”
What nerve was he touching, exactly?
“I think it’s wrong for an American business to move their business out of the United States to keep from paying taxes, but keep us as a marketplace,” Woodruff answered.
Nearly 3,000 people came to see Trump in Birch Run. Some of them had been there for the worst times. “I remember my dad in the late 1970s,” said Holly Gaul, 58. “He was a journeyman electrician. With the things at the time that were going on with GM, he knew his profession was going to be gone. And it was.”
There were jobs, sure, but not the kind people could live on. “Women my age are taking the McDonald’s jobs that the high school kids used to get,” Gaul said. “I’ve been waiting for a stronger president, somebody that I could look up to and respect again. He could stand up to those other countries. It’s wrong when they can build furniture in China and ship it here cheaper than it costs us to build it here.”
“Back when our economy took a dump, I had to go to Afghanistan,” said Bob Parsons, 51. “I had to work there as a product relations manager, just to build our retirement back up. There were no jobs in Michigan to be had. They’re not fair to what’s coming over, as far as the trade goes. For example, 100,000 cars come over here; 5,000 go over there. I like what he says: If they don’t let us send them there, we don’t take their stuff.”
Parsons’s wife, Brenda, who’d been nodding her head, interjected to explain why she trusted Trump.
“He’s a businessman,” she said. “Being a businessman, he knows the ways around. I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask. I think he’d just do it.”
Bob Parsons explained that Trump could ignore lobbyists. It was lobbyists, hungry to sell out America for a buck, who weakened the trade deals, he said.
“You wouldn’t believe how many young kids I met in Afghanistan who have their degrees but can’t find jobs at home,” he said. “I compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. He lets people know what he’s going to do, not what to ask for.”
When he hit the stage, Trump delivered. He went after China. He played out one of his favorite scenarios, in which he works the Oval Office phones, ignoring the president of Ford – and his lobbyists – and wages tax war on his company for shipping jobs to Mexico.
“Ford is building a $2.5 billion plant in Mexico,” he said.
“I’ll actually give them a good idea. Why don’t we just let the illegals drive the cars and trucks right into our country?”
“I would say, the deal is not going to be approved, I won’t allow it. I want that plant in the United States, preferably here. So then I only have one question: Do they move the plant to the United States the same day or a day later?”
The crowd burst into fresh applause.
One woman could be heard shouting: “Detroit!”
Now, the notion that the president of the United States has anything like this sort of power—or, indeed, that we’d want him to—is absurd. Trump’s entire candidacy displays a stunning ignorance of how American politics works. But the notion that someone who isn’t a “politician” but a “businessman” who “knows how to get things done” naturally resonates with people like this. And there are a lot of them.
I can’t imagine that Trump’s act won’t wear thin at some point. But, to the extent that he’s this cycle’s Ross Perot, it behooves other candidates to pay attention. Not simply because he might mount an independent run and skew the outcome of the election but because he’s pointing to legitimate grievances among voters that deserve real attention.
Republicans seemed to run everything outside of Flint. They were the handy reason why President Obama had disappointed people; they were the people elected in 2010 to restructure Michigan’s economy. Gov. Rick Snyder, who became wealthy as a computer company executive, had never sought office before that year. In an interview, he tried to be polite about Trump.
“We have a broken political culture,” he said. “I’m upfront about that.” And despite it, Michigan was marching out of the recession with new manufacturing jobs. The one-industry towns like Flint were diversifying. People understood that they could no longer walk out of high school and start a career, so they were getting trained, he said.
“That could happen in high school, through career training,” Snyder said. “We need to redefine skilled trades as being much broader than what they’ve been. If you’re a welder, you can get a job in any corner of this state.”
Snyder’s calm, optimistic theory of the case is shared by some of the GOP presidential candidates. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, like Snyder, signed a right-to-work bill, which was, among other things, a declaration that organized labor would not build the new economy. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has framed the election as a lunge toward the future, away from longing for jobs that no longer make sense. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s “right to rise” concept assumes more legal immigrants sharing a country with native-born Americans, as does Snyder.
“On average,” Snyder said of immigrants, “they create 2 1/2 jobs for every position they hold.”
That’s less likely to resonate than Trump’s populist appeal to blaming the Other for people’s woes but it has the virtue of being honest. It’ll never make sense to employ the vast middle of the society doing un- or semi-skilled labor that could easily be outsourced to developing world peasants or domestic robots. But it does make sense to figure out how to keep American factories that would be competitive here if not for disparate tax and regulatory burdens. And it’s way past time to restructure a primary and secondary education system designed for the early industrial age and to move past the “everyone needs to go to college” mindset. Certainly, those with the aptitude and desire to pursue the professions, science, and the arts ought have the opportunity to do so. But we need to stop stigmatizing skilled tradesmen and craftsman as a path only for those who can’t hack it in school.
[Dayne Walling, 41,] had grown up in Flint, moved back in 2006 with an armful of degrees, lost a race for mayor in 2007, ran again and won the nonpartisan office in 2009.
“When I was a kid, Flint was already in crisis with the closure of General Motors,” he said over coffee. “My early memories of the community are of one struggling to revive and define itself. Those were the years that really shaped me.”
Chryslers and Pontiacs and T-Birds rolled by as Walling, a Democrat, described how fallacious Trump’s pitch was. Emotional, sure – but pointless.
“There’s a very strong ‘Made in the USA’ movement still in this area,” he said. “You’ll see bumper stickers that say: ‘Want to lose your job? Keep buying foreign.’ People understand that if there aren’t middle-class manufacturing jobs from American manufacturing companies, you end up with cheap foreign imports and low-paying service jobs.”
When his cup was empty, Walling got into his 2006 Chevy Impala, with 145,242 miles on the odometer and a Hillary Clinton sticker on the bumper. He navigated around the nostalgia party, past one old factory site that had been turned into townhouses, and into Buick City. The concrete stretched into the deep horizon, broken up by trees struggling through the cracks. Every once in a while, a small factory with a few hundred, or few dozen, employees jutted out.
“Flint’s plan is to add smaller companies that can take care of our workforce,” Walling said.
Trump’s pitch – the super-president personally yanking jobs back into the United States, into Michigan – is more romantic than any of this. And it’s not completely wrong. Walling’s been waiting for the federal government to create some version of “enterprise zones,” the tax-free areas meant to stimulate business in blighted cities. But nobody’s been saying it. There’s a gap in the politics as people understand them.
In the summer of 2015, it was being filled by Donald Trump.
The gaps exists because neither party is doing a good job of addressing the issue. The GOP is stuck in the 1970s and 1980s, where high taxes and over-regulation were indeed major obstacles to dealing with a globalizing world; except perhaps at the margins, we’ve hit or gone past the point of diminishing returns on those issues. Barack Obama tapped into the concerns quite well in 2008 but hasn’t fundamentally changed the landscape other than on the margins with healthcare. Many even in his own party see him as too tied to Wall Street and big business and Clinton is probably even moreso, which is why Bernie Sanders is resonating so well and many still pine for Elizabeth Warren.
Will Sanders push Clinton into more populist territory? The college subsidy plan unveiled last week seems to be an attempt, although one more likely to appeal to the upper middle class than blue collar voters. And I’m dubious that she’ll ever be able to connect to ordinary Americans in the way her husband did.
Can Bush, Walker, or Rubio step in here? They’re trying to some extent but aren’t resonating, at least yet.
While I still can’t see Trump getting the nomination, he’s likely to stick around for quite some time if someone doesn’t step in and offer a more credible message to the voters that he’s reaching. So far, it’s not clear who that might be.
UPDATE: Maybe Joe Biden?
Trump stands for nothing but himself. Eventually even most idiots will see that.
But the whole point about Trump is that he’s appealing to raw emotion, not logic or reason. How do you counter that with a credible solution? His fans don’t want to hear how something can be done, or why something can’t be done; they only want to hear that he’ll do it, no matter how impossible. He’s going to deport all illegal immigrants. He’s going to build a wall along the border and make Mexico pay for it. He’s going to bring back all the manufacturing jobs to the U.S.–never mind the inconvenient fact that his own clothing line his made in China. He’ll make Russia and China do what he wants.
He’s like Big Daddy promising to fix the broken toy.
The only kind of thinking his fans are engaged in is magical thinking.
Depends on what you call serious. As a true candidate for the Presidency of the United States, no. But at a guy that might finally split the Republican party into a populist and a business wing, yes.To me the interesting factor will be the chance that Trump stays the course and prevents the party finding their candidate other than by a split convention. If he keeps grabbing 30% of the vote, even if he doesn’t get a majority of the conventioneers he might be one of three or four potential candidates. That might lead to an epic battle.
Well, he’s just calling for deportation of all illegals and End of Birthright Citizenship. Can’t wait for that amendment.
Part of the problem is the Republican “deep bench” turned out to be not that deep after all. Jeb Bush not only is up against his family name but is a horrible politician and comes across as someone who is not very bright and has no coherent policy views. Marco Rubio may be young and good looking but has no original ideas of his own – he just repeats GOP and neocon talking points from the 70 s and 80 s. Scott Walker is a slimy little weasel and a Koch brothers sock puppet who couldn’t even carry his own state. Mike Huckabee is well Mike Huckabee, enough said. Carli Fiorina can’t survive in this era of populism – as a CEO she bankrupted one company, nearly bankrupted another and outsourced 30,000 jobs to China.
@CSK: In the 1970’s our towns and communities watched as the textile industry was sold out by one sided deals with foreign countries. Now try to find a t shirt or sweatshirt made in this country. And don’t try to tell me that a US company could not make a good sweatshirt for less than $40 ! We need leaders who will put this country first, not go around making apologies for it !
Look at this: “Illegal charged in unimaginable murder of three in Florida, including a pregnant teen”
The government has ignored this issue for long enough. Only Trump will talk about it.
And: “Illegal immigrants getting free college” “Illegal immigrants issued drivers licences” “Illegal criminals get sanctuary protections”
Trump is addressing concerns that many other candidates, and our “leaders” in Washington are afraid to talk about. The other candidates could have tapped into this and Trump would be no where. He is speaking for the working class people who are fed up: Republicans, Democrats, and independents. A lot of Democrats I talk to are saying “that Trump guy has something! ”
Finally someone gets it. Of course he’s a buffoon. He simply is the vehicle for Americans to express their complete frustration with politics, especially Washington politics.
That said, until voters know more about the issues than who said what on Real Wives of Orange County they will continue to get what they are implicitly asking for.
Since I am never loathe to crow when I’m right, decency requires me to admit when I’m wrong. I thought Trump would have settled down to 15% by now, but the latest Fox News poll has him at 25. So, I was wrong.
Republicans are actually dumber than even I thought they were. The Crazy Caucus – Trump, Carson, Cruz, Huckabee, Jindal and Santorum, clocks in with 55%. The relatively sane crowd scores 39%.
The weakness of Bush (9), Walker (6) and Rubio (4) is really quite amazing. Throw in Kasich (4) and the four of them together score less than Trump by himself.
More than half of your party, James, wants to elect someone you know perfectly well is out of touch with consensual reality. You now belong to the Trump, Cruz, Carson party. Proud?
@michael reynolds: I must admit that I too was wrong about Trump – I thought his star would have faded by now. But as I said above I really didn’t see the Republican field being as weak as it is.
I would not classify Trump as “crazy,” exactly. A quote from a recent Salon think piece:
If you want empirical evidence, you can just look at the polling on partisan affiliation, national satisfaction, confidence in government, and national institutions, etc. Trump may be a buffoon, but he’s able to see and tap into something the political establishment in this country is largely ignorant of. And really, given how incompetently the establishment has run the country over the past few decades it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that people are angry and looking for alternatives, particularly when the upcoming election could well be a Clinton v Bush contest – the two poster-children for the establishment.
Of course it’s absurd, but I’m amazed you think only Trump does this. What candidate over the past several decades has not promised things that are not in the power of the Executive Branch? No, he is not ignorant of how American politics works, particularly in primaries, where candidates use absurd promises as signalling to appeal to primary voters.
I saw a poll that said Trump polls much better with people who did not watch the debate than with people who did. My inference: he may have indeed peaked or at least is unlikely to gain much more support from here on out.
In short (hit post too quick), it’s not time to take Trump seriously (at least not yet), but it’s time to take seriously the deeper problems he’s been able to tap into.
@Tyrell: My friend, please rest your troubled spirit. According to the Commerce Dept folks in the statistics office: “Manufacturing has grown 38% since the end of the recession and the sector accounts for 19% of the rise in real gross domestic product since then. Through May (’14) the sector has added 646,000 jobs and manufacturers are actively recruiting to fill another 243,000 positions.”
The difficulty is that manufacturing is no longer a major source of employment for poorly prepared people. A modern manufacturing plant requires technicians who typically have at least a 2 year degree; it resembles a computer that fills an entire building; it’s wages reflect the fact that the rise of China and the end of the cold war released millions upon millions of workers to compete with us.
It’s not a bad thing that the jobs on the old factory line has changed. Those were terrible boring and mind-deadening jobs in wretched environments. (I have some personal experience with this — have you ever operated a chain-hoist in a metal ‘pickling’ process?). It’s also a great thing for the whole human race that the cold war is over. The Chinese people have been raised from a life that, for many, differed very little from neolithic standards.
Look into the things you’re told before you grow alarmed.
Apart from Trump, I noticed that the rest of your “crazy” list are the biggest of the God-botherers. (Not that these guys aren’t all God-botherers, even the so-called “sane” ones.)
@JohnMcC: You are correct. While much of the blame is attributed outsourcing it is more the result of industrial robots. It takes less than a third of the people to produce an automobile than it did a couple of decades ago. And the robots do a better job and don’t demand fringe benefits. This is a societal issue and no one is talking about how to address it.
That remains to be seen. Trump seems to have a bipartisan, populist appeal based on venting on issues that people actually care about. It’s inconceivable to me that he’ll get the nomination. Cruz is extremely smart but he’s got Fascist tendencies and seemingly no constituency. Carson is brilliant, accomplished, and soft spoken. Like Trump, he appeals to the “it’s time for someone who’s not a politician” instinct. He’s not going to get the nomination, either.
At the end of the process, my strong hunch is that we’ll nominate Bush, Walker, or Kasich. They’re all slightly right of center and potentially electable.
Sure, all candidates of all parties promise the sun and the moon. But most seem to be doing so in an aspirational, “I’ll fight for what I believe in” or “I’ll fight for your interests when no one else will” sense. Trump seems to literally think he can just tell China and Mexico to get in line and they’ll follow.
@Andy: Right. That’s really my point. Trump remains a buffoon. But he’s tapping into something no one else is.
A story in the Thurs WaPo says that Trump has more paid staff working Iowa caucus-goers than any other Repub. So probably the take-away is that Mr Trump is taking his candidacy seriously which is probably more meaningful than whether Chuck Todd takes him seriously.
It is also worth recalling that Mr Perot actually was ahead of Pres GHWBush and Bill Clinton in June of ’92. It was only when he began over-ruling Ed Rollins and firing the advertising staff and exhibiting some paranoia (the Black Panthers were going to assassinate him, the Repubs were investigating him, the CIA was ruining his daughter’s life) that he began to decline.
Update the Perot candidacy to 2015 and consider Mr Trump is not running against a sitting president (so the nomination of a major party is possibly open to him) and you see why my prediction is that he is definitely a major player until the convention unless he finds a way to blow his campaign away.
And as a parting shot: It’s not to be forgotten in the furor about ‘lobbyists’ and their malevolent influence that the Republican Party was inordinately proud of their ‘K-Street Strategy’. So damn all right-wing hypocrites!
The only time Trump speaks to working class people is when he tells them which side of the plate to put the salad fork.
Don’t believe the hype, bud. Trump’s a billionaire. He doesn’t need to be in the White House to build factories. Where are the factories?
Trump has more to do with the Latin America´s caudillo/coronel than with Ross Perot or any kind of American populism. I´ve heard politicians that held power forever in impoverished Brazilian States saying the same thing that Trump does.
American Apparel. They make everything in downtown Los Angeles, they pay their factory workers ~$12 an hour. I can stop by nearly any mall [hah!] in the nation and buy their clothing.
Nowadays I buy most clothing online, but the people I buy from either have their own American factories (they’re the sort of vain people glad to put an extra tag on the clothing saying it was made here by people who like their jobs) or outsource the clothing manufacture to AA before making their own modifications. The downside is that clothing ends up being roughly $5-10 more expensive per item, but morally it feels good.* John Oliver had a great episode recently over this very thing. Watch any morning show and they’re advertising “great-looking clothing” for next to nothing because that clothing was made by wage-slaves for pennies on the dollar.**
* Oh no, I don’t eat nearly as much popcorn as the rest of you for this primary season. Might as well lose the weight!
** There’s room for globalization having spread prosperity by bothering to pay their workers as opposed to the old way of owning slaves, but that is one damn thin line of distinction sometimes.
@CSK: The only kind of thinking his fans are engaged in is magical thinking.
In fairness to them, what do they have left after watching two generations of their country’s political elite show themselves to not just be unwilling but completely uninterested in doing anything about their fears and concerns?
Trump is waiting for the appropriate time to announce his terrific plan, but it is being leaked already…..
TTP (Trumps Terrific Plan): ” I will kill all industrial robots”
Yes, Trump is a buffoon but is he really worse than Romney? (OK, the hair is a separate topic)
Remember Romney’s serious campaign where taxes were going to be cut, defense increased and the budget was going to be balanced? And the middle class wasn’t going to pay a dime more in taxes. Utter B.S. and the press swallowed it hook line and sinker. I don’t remember one interview with Romney where this was discussed in depth.
Yeah, Romney was the serious candidate while Trump is the clown. Sorry but as far as I am concerned other than in style Trump is exactly the same as previous nominees. I think with his money and the weak opposition he’s up against he has a real shot of winning the nomination.
He’ll lose against Hillary just because too many women can’t stand him.
The thing about Trump is that he can say anything he wants and say anything anyone else wants to hear. You know why? Because he’s never been accountable as an elected official. He has never cast a vote and therefore has no voting record. He can talk the talk because he has never walked the walk in governing. The same thing happened with Perot which is why he eventually faded away.
It is funny I apply this thinking in other areas also. If I have an appliance break, if having it serviced is close in price to having it replaced, I will go with the servicing. Why? Because the money goes to the technician here in town who will spend it in the local economy instead of buying an appliance from overseas. It is not the most economic decision making; however, I am comfortable enough that I can afford it. Same goes with items like fair trade coffee and other feel good economic decisions. Sure I spend a little more but why not?
Time to take Trump seriously? Here is a wonderful synopsis from Scott Adams (thanx to Rod Dreher):
“If you’re keeping score, in the last month Trump has bitch-slapped the entire Republican Party, redefined our expectation of politics, focused the national discussion on immigration, proposed the only new idea for handling ISIS, and taken functional control of Fox News. And I don’t think he’s put too much effort into it. Imagine what he could do if he gave up golf.”
As someone once said — read the whole thing. (Can’t make the link work. Google ‘clown-genius’.)
If you want to understand Trump’s appeal, you’re wasting time reading a reporter like Weigel. You need to turn to the great political minds of the 20th century. For instance, Mencken:
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
And of course Trump’s role model, PT Barnum:
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
It’s great to engage in weepy philoophizing about the great sadness of this slice of the American electorate, but the simplest way of understanding this phenomenon is to acknowledge that the vast majority of Republican primary voters are profoundly stupid. Not just ignorant, although they are, but willfully stupid, deliberately shutting themselves off to anything they don’t want to hear about.
Trump knows that, and he tells them exactly what they want to hear — “I’m going to fix everything for you and you won’t have to do anything, you won’t have to change, you won’t have to sacrifice at all, and you don’t even have to bother to hear an explanation of what I’m going to do. All you’ve got to do is trust me and I’ll handle the rest.”
And he’s exactly what they deserve.
@JohnMcC: Yeah, saw that a couple days ago and forgot about it until I was getting ready for my bias and decisionmaking class for tomorrow. Blogged about it here.
@James Joyner: Saw your post and didn’t know whether to be flattered or to consider the likelihood of a coincidence. Reading your post, you did better than I.
Trump is promising magical unicorns for everyone so of course he’s surging. A large percentage of the American population has no interest in actually learning about the issues. Why bother when they can just get behind the celebrity that’s running for their sport’s team I mean political party’s nomination?
Back when Mike Gravel was running for president in 2008, I remember an interview in which he boldly proclaimed that if elected, and I quote, “I will bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and thereby diffuse the entire confrontation between the Islamic world and the West.” Yes, that’s what he said.
This is what I call a Trumpian type of promise. Not in the exact point of view on this particular topic (Trump’s answer would probably be more along the lines of saying he’ll, ah, encourage the emigration of all the Palestinians), but in the way it takes a complex, intractable problem that has confounded generations of past presidents and claims it’ll just magically disappear under his presidency through sheer force of will. It’s the mark of a truly unserious candidate because it suggests someone who isn’t worrying he’ll one day be held to his promise. Of course “mainstream” candidates do make promises they’re unlikely to be able to keep (witness Jeb’s 4% growth pledge), but Trumpian promises seem based on the idea that you don’t have to even attempt to sound plausible, that all that matters is whether you have the moxie to make the claim, and to that end making those in the mainstream sputter in disbelief is an absolute plus.
So, in short they are small F fascists c. 1924 or so. Or American style Poujadists.
Not a surprising appeal given socio-economic destabilisation of a certain class.
@Kylopod: it’s the Tinker Bell approach to politics…let’s just claim things will happen, and by golly, they magically WILL happen!
The most pathetic part of this equation is that the certain class that you speak of has been screwed over by the policies of the very candidates they are now supporting…
Keep telling yourself that James. They may be electable, but it isn’t because the are “slightly right of center”. The fact that you can say that with a straight face tells me your BS detector is WAY out of calibration.
@Kylopod: Exactly. That´s why I think of Berlusconi or the Latin American caudillo/coronel when I listen Trump. That´s cheap right wing demagoguery, not populism.
@Andre Kenji de Sousa: Is there really a difference?
The ability of right-wing (or left-wing) shills to nip over and place themselves at the head of the parade is a distressing commonplace in history.
It’s not exactly equal populist appeal here, James. Does anyone really think that Trump has an equal populist appeal among both Republicans and Democrats?
Ask yourself this – if Trump was on the ballot as a Third Party candidate which party would benefit?
@grumpy realist: Yes. I don´t think that “voter anger” has anything to do with Trump. In this sense, he is different from Ralph Nader or even Pat Buchanan.
That assumes that future pollees (and voters) will be better informed. What makes you think that?