Last week, viewers got a snapshot look at the Trump voter, thanks to the best TV show available to give political junkies their fix. It’s “With All Due Respect” on Bloomberg Politics hosted by the veteran campaign reporter team Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
Heilemann moderated a focus group of rock-ribbed New Hampshire Republicans who are backing Trump. Demographically they were diverse—young and old, unemployed, self-employed, retired, male and female. Their remarks were of interest for two reasons. First, they showed how much their image of Trump diverges from the facts of his life. Second, they showed how they view the state of the union.
These granite state Republicans liked Trump for not being a waffling, phony, self-serving career politician. They thought Trump, unlike the pols, ”tells it like it is.” His brashness, bluntness, combativeness appealed to them. Here was a candidate more in the mold of Limbaugh or O’Reilly than the usual pol. They also liked that he was rich and his own man, so he wouldn’t be bought and paid for by rich donors.
Despite the chasm separating a New York billionaire from these regular folks far from the centers of power, they believed Trump to be one of them. When pressed on the implausibility of this notion they seemed to suggest it was a matter of style. He was more like the opinionated guy at the bar next to them than a remote, silver-spoon patrician like Romney. One man, apparently a small businessman, said Trump, like him, had worked his way up without any help and had also succeeded. Trump knew what that was like.
Clearly these fans have bought into the Trump myth. In fact, Trump is not much like them. He went to an elite prep school to which his wealthy parents were donors, yet still managed to get thrown out for character flaws. Then he was sent to a military school to force him to shape up. He often boasts of how smart he was and of his Wharton degree, normally shorthand for the prestigious MBA. In fact, he spent two years at Fordham before transferring for the last two undergraduate years to Penn’s Wharton where he majored in economics and anthropology.
Similarly, he often alleges he built his empire like a latter day Horatio Alger hero, but in fact his father was the self-made multi-millionaire who gave the scion his first assignment when he was still in college: to try to improve management of an underperforming property the father had invested $5.7 million in. This is not a rags-to-riches resume. In the lovely phrase of Jim Hightower, describing George H. W. Bush, Trump “was born on third and thinks he hit a triple.”
The focus group fans also seemed surprised to learn that Trump’s record contains a lot more Democratic than Republican talking points. Not long ago he was an outspoken advocate for a single-payer health care system far more sweeping than Obamacare, he has contributed money to the campaigns of the Clintons and many other Democrats and has presided over multiple bankruptcies that had the effect of stiffing the creditors while enriching the deadbeat.
This is just the sort of Wall Street, crony capitalism usually anathema to Main Street Republicans, and not the kind of management the national budget requires. These voters, who called Trump “classy,“ his favorite word, also seemed willing to overlook his rather vulgar self-promotion and collection of trophy wives, not the usual image-builder for a candidate of the family-values party.
So is Trump’s appeal based on willful blindness to his actual career and character or on something else? One couldn’t help feeling that this group of average conservative Americans were for Trump because they had lost faith in their party and were prepared to seek a savior no matter how farfetched.
They more or less admitted that the party kept nominating Washington pols beholden to Wall Street who made Reaganesque promises to bring back the good old days – economically, culturally and demographically — -but never made good. Why? Because they were part of the problem, not part of the solution.
They say they’ll fix immigration, close the borders, quit giving handouts to takers, but they don’t do it. They say they will shrink government, cut taxes, create jobs and favor the middle-class, but they don’t. So if you can’t trust Republican pols, why not a rich TV celebrity? They like Trump because he is channeling the angry Republican id. He’s not afraid to say he likes heroes who kill our enemies, not who get captured by them. He says immigrants are drug mule, rapist criminals. He says he will take on and beat Putin, the Chinese, and the terrorists. He says his opponents are weak, stupid, incompetent, and corrupt.
If Trump were as admirable as he says and these voters believe him to be, if the problems these voters believe beset the nation were as simplistic, as black and white as talk radio and Trump claim, utopia would be just around the corner. Hard times and changing times always produce a crop of demagogues willing to exploit the disruptions.
Unfortunately the Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, Ross Perot, Trump Galahad is never what he claims to be, and the dragons he promises to slay turn out to be deep-seated, intractable problems not easily addressed. I fear these angry, disillusioned voters, desperate to believe, will find that all that glitters about Trump is not gold, and that TV celebrity and the ability to stick a brand name on overpriced real estate may not be useful preparation for combatting Islamic terror, climate change, nuclear proliferation, globalization, or an historic and disruptive economic transition.