Donald Trump continues to do well in the polls because people agree with what he says. This sounds obvious, but a lot of the experts in the political and pundit classes keep wondering the same thing: “How can Trump be popular when he’s so obviously nuts?”
Some blame reality television, hyper-partisanship, partisan media, and a celebrity obsessed culture. All of those things may be true. But it is also true that:
- Mr. Trump is not the first popular national figure to say what some see as outrageous, and
- He is not the first politician to gain support for bold claims that he would simply fix things and politics be damned.
In support of the first claim, I offer Archie Bunker.
Norman Lear created the Archie Bunker character on “All in the Family” in part to highlight the absurdity of bigotry (for those too young to remember, this was hugely popular and groundbreaking TV show that ran from 1971 – 1979). Lear hoped that Archie Bunker would help move America to be more tolerant through political satire – the assumption was that no one could continue to think that racial and ethnic minorities were inferior because Bunker was so clearly wrong. Research on the program found that for many that was the case, a lot of viewers watched the show and said “see, I told you, people like that are wrong.” Research also found that a lot of viewers liked Bunker because he was “telling it like it is.” For a lot of fans of the show, there was finally a character on television who said what they were thinking. A study published in the Journal of Communication in 1974 found “All in the Family may reinforce rather than reduce racial and ethnic prejudice.” Bunker, like Trump, was outrageous to many – especially those in the political and pundit classes – and, like Trump, for many he was finally saying what they thought.
As for the second claim, I believe that for most Americans, most of the time politics is like a toilet – they just want it to work.
Trump’s popularity, in part, comes from the idea that he wants to bypass politics to solve problems. In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that most people think “much political conflict is actually contrived,” and want politicians who get under the hood and fix things (to steal from Ross Perot).
If your toilet is broken you don’t want three plumbers arguing over the relative worth of various types of hardware. Like government, you don’t care how, you just want your toilet to work. Just as most Americans probably didn’t agree with Ross Perot’s proposals to raise the gas tax, most Americans probably don’t agree with many of Trump’s proposals (to the extent they can identify them).
But proposals are not the point. Political scientists know that most voters don’t make decisions based on issues; instead, we choose a candidate because:
- We Identify with the Candidate
- We See Evidence of Empathy
- The Candidate Reinforces a Worldview With Which We Agree
- Out of Partisan Habit
That Trump’s policy ideas don’t seem to make much sense to those who think about policies doesn’t much matter, because most people don’t think about policy any more than they think about toilets.