Truth, Taxes, and Teflon Trump
November 9, 2016: the day that Americans of diverse ideological stripes awoke grappling a momentous, mind-bending question: how did this possibly happen? Donald Trump’s improbable ascent from celebrity businessman to Leader of the Free World is a truly an American political unicorn, an unprecedented event that tarnished the reputation of venerated opinion polling firms and ripped pages out of respected political science textbooks.
In one curious respect, Trump’s election is a direct refutation of the Median Voter Theorem, a mainstay of introductory political science classes: Trump is perhaps the first successful modern presidential candidate to blatantly eschew appealing to ideological moderates. And while Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric enraged and alienated much of the populace, it was startlingly effective at spurring his conservative base to the polls.
Against all odds, Trump managed to unite a fractured Republican party, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, his unwavering Republican support has persisted throughout his tumultuous administration. As shown in the figure below, an analysis of Gallup presidential approval ratings shows that President Trump has remained comparably popular within his own party to both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and, remarkably, has experienced significantly less volatility in intra-party support than his predecessors. The data indicates that Trump has a relatively similar average weekly value of own-party approval (around 85%) as Obama and Bush, with a lower standard deviation, indicating less week-to-week fluctuation in approval.
The steadfastness of Trump’s Republican support is confounding for a number of reasons. First, Trump has weathered near-weekly scandals that would have instantly tanked any contemporary politician, some of which have no clear partisan valence (examples include his insulting Republican war heroes or bragging about sexual assault). Furthermore, he has endured explosive, highly publicized exposés assailing personal, non-ideological leadership shortcomings, including his competency, temperament, and dearth of policy expertise. Finally, Trump’s Republican backing has persisted despite his pointed attacks on the bedrocks of conservative orthodoxy, including free trade and hawkish foreign policy.
It’s tempting to chock up Trump’s impenetrable Republican support to his weaponization of explicit racial rhetoric, a seemingly unparalleled political tactic that might appease an overwhelmingly-white party desperate to combat the perceived specter of “political correctness”. And this explanation might hold some validity: Trump’s bizarre brand of paleoconservatism certainly animated social conservatives, some of whom might have cashed Trump a carte-blanche in return for a bully pulpit espousing extreme social conservatism. However, as Republican shadowmaster Lee Atwater graphically noted, racialized rhetoric is hardly foreign to the right, and it has been a bulwark of the Post-Southern Strategy Republican party. Any Republican could easily grasp the dog-whistle racial undertones of Reagan’s “welfare queen” archetype or Nixon’s vocal opposition to “forced busing” of schoolchildren and respond accordingly.
Furthermore, an “explicit racial rhetoric” hypothesis is insufficient in justifying Trump’s continued and resolute support from diverse Republican constituencies. Fiscal conservatives (the Gary Cohns of the world) could be unnerved by such radical appeals, and might also recognize the severe economic detriment of nativist policy. Additionally, it’s unclear what appeal racialized provocation holds to embattled white working classes voters. A prevailing post-2016 talking point was that Trump cashed in on the economic anxiety of the Rust Belt to convert “Obama-Trump” voters threatened by the ills of American manufacturing downturn. It seems improbable that Trump managed to flip traditionally blue, union stronghold states like Pennsylvania and Michigan on racial incitement alone, especially since many “Obama-Trump” voters supported a black, socially progressive candidate four years earlier.
Trump’s explicit racial appeals might account for some sustained right-wing enthusiasm, yet they are inadequate in explaining his unwavering intra-party support. In actuality, Trump has managed to capture and solidify immutable Republican backing not by staking coherent ideological positions, but instead by concocting infectious yet ambiguous narratives that intersect with various tenets of mainstream conservative ideology.
The “elite-outsider” dichotomy is the fundamental undergirding of Trumpian thought. On paper, the narrative is simple: the “elites”, as Trump defines them, congregate in cloistered, entrenched circles of entitlement and connive to bleed hard-working Americans dry. Awkwardly, such a narrative places Trump, a baron of shameless and ostentatious excess, on unstable footing. To justify his role in the narrative, Trump advanced a far-fetched yet persistent myth of personal aggrandizement: that he, an outsider of humble beginnings, employed preternatural business acumen, tireless work ethic, and cunning ingenuity to infiltrate and upend the exclusionary world of the elites.
Trump’s elite-outsider narrative is not only facially incoherent, but it should also unsettle conservatives. In many respects, it is more Pol Pot or Hugo Chavez-esque than red-blooded right-wing. However, the malleability of the narrative yields it commanding credence in Republican circles.
To Trump, the elites are not the “fat cats on Wall Street”, but the journalists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and political class that abhor “Real America”. To social conservatives, this justifies an unleashed assault on the politically correct liberal social order. Fiscal conservatives manage to escape Trump’s ire and wield the narrative to promote deregulation, while simultaneously brushing aside rising academic and political scrutiny of economic inequality and laissez-faire capitalism. Most importantly, the economically anxious working class can take solace in bemoaning entrenched power, and they can fashion Trump as an “outsider” Messiah sent to “drain the swamp” and return America to the “forgotten man”.
The elite-outsider narrative not only solidifies diverse conservative support but also comes packaged with a crucial counter-narrative: the elites are aghast at Trump’s disruption of their entrenched power, and, therefore, any criticism of Trump is an extensive elite conspiracy to preserve their entitlement.
The counter-narrative explains why attacks on Trump’s callousness, incompetence, and policy ignorance fall flat in conservative circles: Trump’s unconventional approach is a willful rejection of conventional elite practice, and any perceived Trumpian missteps are concerted efforts in a calculated strategy of disruption. Trump is effectively immunized against criticism, as any opposition is little more than guileful elite Machiavellianism.
Yet on October 2nd, The New York Times released an extensive investigation of Trump’s tax history. The implications of this investigation are shocking, damning, and readily apparent. The bootstrap mythology of Trump’s real estate ascent is patently fanciful. Trump accrued his massive fortune through coddled nepotism, mind-boggling inheritance, and insidious financial crime. Even as Donald repeatedly shipwrecked the family business, Fred Trump employed his boundless resources and knack for quasi-legal tax evasion to keep his precious son afloat. In essence, Donald Trump’s self-made, outsider persona couldn’t be further from the truth: he truly is one of the entrenched, privileged elites he so gleefully demonizes.
For progressives, and even never-Trump Republicans, it’s a shame this exposé didn’t arrive two years ago. Trump wielded his self-attributed outsider status to demolish his opponents in the political gentry; however, it seems improbable that he could have survived if “Lyin Ted” or “Corrupt Hillary” devised a devastating takedown for the Teflon candidate: “Daddy’s Boy”.
Trump’s elite-outsider narrative would have crumbled if the fraudulency of his outsider status was exposed. In retrospect, the current president could have been little more than a footnote in American politics, sharing a dubious yet humbling perch next to George Wallace and Huey Long in middle-school history textbooks.
But the damage has already been done. The Times piece came too little, too late, and it will surely be brushed off by Republicans as a coastal elite hit-job. Trump’s narrative-concocting will persist, and his blind acceptance and lionization in conservative circles will carry on. Against all odds, Teflon Trump has once again prevailed.