Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

Since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the Republican Party has played to the grievances of angry white men (and some women), in effect creating a ready audience for a hot-headed and quick-witted showman like Donald Trump, a classic case of reaping what is sown, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

It is really not too hard to figure out Donald Trump. The man is having fun.

What we have witnessed so far is a demonstration of how a billionaire megalomaniac and narcissist has fun: having secured a national stage, he runs around and says whatever he pleases, even if it is blatantly obnoxious. If he gets positive feedback, he does it all the louder. If he gets negative feedback, he turns into a bully, which he also sees as fun.

If his alliance with Fox “News” doesn’t work out, maybe he will buy his own network. If the Republican Party spurns him, he will no doubt start his own political party. He can afford it and, again, it’s a lot of fun. By the way, while Trump is having fun many of the rest of us don’t find him funny at all. Indeed, it’s a serious question whether Mr. Trump’s good time will, in the end, encourage him to become a dangerous demagogue.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

If explaining Donald Trump isn’t all that difficult, explaining why millions of people applaud him is more of a challenge. And it is, after all, millions. There are roughly 219 million Americans who are qualified to vote, but only approximately 146 million are registered to do so. Of those registered, 29 percent are signed up as Republicans, or about 42 million people. According to a Aug. 4 CBS poll, Trump has a favorable rating among 24 percent of that number, or about 10 million people. We can assume that this is a low number, given it only counts presently registered Republicans and not independents.

There is a lot of speculation over why these people like Trump. Here are the typical reasons given:

,“Trump has found support from Republican voters looking for a successful businessman to jumpstart an economic renaissance.” This sort of sentiment is seconded by the opinion that, because he is a rich businessman, he must know how to “generate jobs.” Of course, this is an illusion. Most businesspeople operate within economic pockets and know little about “the economy” as a whole. Many of them get rich not by creating jobs but by eliminating them through mergers and downsizing operations.

,He is not a Washington insider, he has never worked in Washington or been “stained by political life.” This is a very questionable asset. Government is a bureaucratic system with well-established rules. The notion that Mr. Trump can come into such a system and “revolutionize” it without causing chaos is fantasy.


,Trump “is a fighter” and “people want a fighter.” He tells it like it is and has no time for “political correctness,” of which most people are allegedly “deathly tired.” In other words, there is a subset of the population who don’t like minority groups or their demand for respect. They don’t like feminists and their concerns about women’s rights. They don’t like immigrants and the notion that the government should treat them like human beings. Trump has become their champion because he says what they believe, which, of course, passes for an assumed truth: all of this “political correctness” is an anti-American attack on traditional values.

Many of these Trump supporters are oblivious to the fact that they themselves are descended from both legal and illegal immigrants who had to fight the prejudiced sentiments of people just like them to become accepted citizens. That presents an almost laughable picture, except their sentiments are also very scary.

The Permanently Disaffected

These sentiments are really the surface emanations of a crowd phenomenon that has deeper meaning and persistent historical roots. In all societies, one finds the chronically disaffected, frustrated and resentful. Their numbers may go up or down according to economic and social circumstances, but they never go to zero.

In the U.S., this statistically permanent set of disaffected citizens seems to find itself most comfortable amidst the ultra-conservative right, with its hatred of “big” government and its resentment of just about any taxation. All of this is melded to national chauvinism and exceptionalism. Of late this minority has become quasi-organized in what is known as the Tea Party movement.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 2014 suggested that 11 percent of voting-age Americans are “strong supporters” of the Tea Party movement. If we use the 219 million figure given above, that comes to 24 million Americans. There is certainly an overlap here with the 10 million avid followers of Donald Trump.

What this means is that Trump, in his narcissistic pursuit of recognition, has tapped into a subgroup of the population that includes the permanently dissatisfied. He can rally them and perhaps bring them together into a bigger movement of, say, 20 to 25 percent of the population. But he can never satisfy that element’s essentially nihilistic grumbling.

In other words, Trump is playing with fire and at some point he will have to wake up to just what sort of monster he has by the tail. Then he will have to decide: is he just out for fun or does he want to go the route of the demagogue?

The American people are not immune to demagoguery. In fact Fox “News,” on the air 24/7, has made a lot of money showcasing demagogues of one sort or another. Bill O’Reilly might be the most well known of the lot.

These people have had their predecessors, particularly during the Great Depression, such as Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit-based Catholic priest who ended up supporting fascist principles. His radio broadcasts had tens of millions of listeners. And then there is Joe McCarthy, etc.

Donald Trump certainly has the qualifications to join the long list of history’s demagogues: good speech-making abilities, no problem with playing fast and loose with the facts, and an affinity for the crowd, which energizes him. For him it also seems to be a lot of fun. For the rest of us it is just another aspect of living under the old curse of interesting times.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

  1. Evangelista
    August 18, 2015 at 22:45

    But,…but,…What if The Donald got elected President and then did an OAF? An “Obama About-Face”?

    If you remember, Obama talked sensible in his campaigning, and then reversed to something Right of the right wingtip of the Bushy Neo-Cons. If Trump did the same, but starting from outrageous and reversing to sensible…

    For example, being a businessman, Trump could see the basic economic good sense of building an impermeable Border wall for the U.S. on the South bank of the Panama Canal, where the wall could e short and backed by an already gated moat…

  2. Bird Yates
    August 18, 2015 at 09:27

    I have a completely different take on Trump, one which draws from the complex workings of deep and dark politics. The way I see it, the people who pull Jeb’s strings have formed an alliance with Trump, in which Trump agreed to enter the race and act as obnoxious and belligerent as possible, thus making the way, later on, for Jeb to stroll in on his painted white horse to calm the Republican masses with his calm and reasonable seeming personality. Without Trump to provide an extreme contrast, people would be less willing to vote for yet another Bush. However, with Trump behaving as scripted, Republicans will look to Bush as the rescue remedy.

    As to polls which APPEAR to consistently evidence that Trump is in the lead, I believe there’s a possibility that these are fixed. If I were a dark operator running this deceptive show, I’d make sure those polls were fixed to strike terror in the hearts of non-extreme Republicans.

    You heard it here first. And probably last.

  3. bobzz
    August 17, 2015 at 23:07

    When the frustrated working class begins moving en masse toward the very people that will end up eating them alive, we are in real trouble. Chinese proverb: the fish that has been landed on the bank starts flipping and flopping immediately trying to get back to the river. He has no idea where the next flip or flop will take him, but his growing discomfort makes him do something even if it is wrong. This is the American public today.

  4. Gerald Perdue
    August 17, 2015 at 19:14

    This quote from George Wallace might explain some of Trump’s attraction.

    “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*****s, and they stomped the floor.”
    — George Wallace, after winning Alabama’s governor’s office in 1962.

    What do you all think?

  5. Ziv Amitai
    August 17, 2015 at 19:07

    Remember the Obama infatuation for change?Lets back up 4 years. Here comes a senator from Illinois outta nowhere… with this refreshing message of change….who is going to take this country in this “New” direction! So……here we are….an American population who finally realize we`re being run by people who are not our elected representatives ….who have an opportunity to elect this Dynamic Dude who PROMISES change.( I admit….I had the guys posters in my yard). As an electorate …..WE thought we could make a change.We had HOPE that we could change the course of a deceitful congress. We could VOTE for this black man who could turn the “status quo” on who runs this country.But look what happens.
    This man of hope gets elected (some how)……makes all these promises…..has all us hard working dedicated Americans feeling a sense of Victory ….and whats the first thing he does as president? Chooses Rahm Emmanuel as his adviser!! Which at that point….I realize we`ve all been bamboozled in the most glaringly flagrant,bold,disgustingly way. I realize immediately this guy isn`t for the citizens who had so much hope for change….but it was a dog and pony show to make us all ….as Americans….feel like we had the “Power” to make necessary changes in the leadership of this country! His Allegiance wasn`t us….he was a subordinate to that little “reign of terror” country that the rest of our so called elected officials are subordinate to.
    The so called electorial process has become a complete joke. If intelligent people on this site are ACTUALLY debating who is a better “candidate”…your all idiots …..go pour yourself another drink!
    The 5th column is always three steps ahead.
    They will throw a candidate out there that pulls on our “heart strings”. Look at this Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. right now. People are flocking to his message. Problem is…..we haven`t figured out yet that we`re all just being played!!
    Can we make a difference as an alternatively informed population? No Way! They won`t let it happen.

  6. Bob Loblaw
    August 17, 2015 at 15:51

    Hillary had my confidence 8 years ago. Since then, her dithering, distracting, and that godawful cackle have me terrified that some GOP goon, or worse da-Trump is a shoo in for the 2016 White house.

    Donald could be caught red handed, pants down on TMZ with a dead African lion and he would gain votes while Hillary pretends her former glory will carry her through.

    • Ethan Allen
      August 17, 2015 at 17:03

      U.S. citizens need to vote out all CONservatives in both state and federal government, regardless of political party affiliation; and more than 50% of eligible voters need to vote!
      Trump is nothing but a carnival act, playing to the willfully ignorant.
      As Usual,

      • Theodora Crawford
        August 25, 2015 at 20:27

        And shame on the media for giving him all the hyped up attention. The man is a travesty of what’s important! But the gold ;old uneducated american public doesn’t have a clue!

  7. F. G. Sanford
    August 17, 2015 at 14:52

    There are all kinds of analyses floating around about the Trump phenomenon: He’s the ‘id’ of the Republican party, he’s a classic narcissist by the the DSM-IV clinical definition, he’s a megalomaniac, he’s a closet racist and a misogynist, etc. etc. etc. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan. But what does that say about a nation that lets him get this far? I could go through a whole list of things wrong with the other candidates on that stage, but let’s just look at just a few. Take Chris Christie, governor of the most corruption riddled, organized crime infested and income tax evading state in The Union. He proudly boasted, “We took on the teachers unions”, and nobody objected. I can’t help but think of my third grade teacher – a prim and proper little old lady with blue hair – and wonder how much courage THAT took. Then, of course, there’s Jeb and his known associations with drug cartel kingpins and shady banks. Hypocrite, professional sniper and most famous for her “Santa Claus is a white guy” remark, faux journalist Megyn Kelly didn’t DARE touch those issues. Mike Huckabee wants a ten year old rape victim to be denied an abortion, but don’t dare call him a misogynist! A recent Deena Stryker piece noted the polarization of the American public not according to right and left, but according to fascism and socialism. (Deena deserves more credit than she gets.) Most Americans wouldn’t recognize Deena’s apt comparison to Mussolini, but it rings true. Trump, regardless of the various diagnostic criteria you choose to apply, has ONE THING everybody else on that stage lacks. Whether it’s instinct, a cultivated skill or simple intuition, Trump understands…POWER. Mussolini may not have said it first, but the phrase has been attributed to him. “E meglio commandare che fottere”. Trump, like it or not, is a real contender. As Daniel Hopsicker points out, there are very few players at that level, and they all know each other. It would be a mistake to write off Trump as an “outsider”. He’s the best “front man” they could ever find, and they don’t even have to pay him to do it.

  8. August 17, 2015 at 14:31

    Four years ago this week Rick Perry was polling 29% and leading the GOP pack.

  9. Zachary Smith
    August 17, 2015 at 14:18

    Donald Trump certainly has the qualifications to join the long list of history’s demagogues: good speech-making abilities, no problem with playing fast and loose with the facts, and an affinity for the crowd, which energizes him.

    I’m going to concede every point here, and add that I see Trump as a dreadful person in most every way.

    That said, how is he any worse than the rest of the Republican field? In fact, consider this attack on the man at the National Review site.


    If even half of that is true, I’d much rather see Trump in the White House than any other of the Republican dingleberries.

    Is he a stalking horse for Hillary? If he ran as a “third party” candidate, he might very well put that dreadful woman in the White House. No doubt his future compensation for this would be something to behold. Trump has a rap sheet of legendary proportions, but for some odd reason nobody is making any fuss about it. Is that some sort of an indicator, and if so, of what?

    As I see things now, the only Republicans Hillary could beat in a fair contest would be the likes of Walker or Huckabee. Ok, Cruz. Only people this bad could make Hillary look good by comparison, IMO.

  10. Joe Tedesky
    August 17, 2015 at 13:00

    If you like Donald Trump then leave your TV on day and night. Man, this guy sure knows how to lure the press. Isn’t it exciting? Trump isn’t no Hollywood actor like Ronny, but hey Reality TV is the new normal. America loves it’s Celebrities, and I like my next door neighbor, but I won’t want my neighbor to be president. Then again, I would have the Secret Service to keep an eye on my house when I’m away. Maybe, I will vote for my neighbor. For real my neighbor already told me, he’s voting for Trump.

    Yesterday a Republican pollster on FOX said that ‘the Donald’ with his 25% in the party race would work out to only 8% in the General Election. This repub-hack didn’t mention that Jeb’s new low in the party is now 9%. This would mean that W’s little brother would be at around 2.88% in the General Election. Why even run?

    Trump’s second biggest asset, other than his being a celebrity, is he can play to a ill informed American public. The American Main Stream Corporate Media is slowly, but surely killing this once great nation. It pains me to call this country once great, but between the wars and the surveillance states overreaching powers, what else describes it best. I hope it’s only a temporary phase, but with the choices the electorate has to put a reasonably good person into the presidency….well? BTW, the senate and house representative races are so Gerrymandered it probably doesn’t matter, any more.

    I would rather have a Trump over a Bush. If Trump goes all the way I truly believe he could beat Hillary. On the subject of Hillary, how can she be 15 points ahead of Bernie Sanders? Where’s the Democratic Union Socialist? Oh yeah their not there anymore…whoops, my bad. Actually if it has to be a celebrity I’m writing in Oprah, and Phil Donhue as her VP! Now that’s a winning ticket.

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