This has certainly been a strange presidential election season. Everyone is talking about how the old rules just don’t seem to apply. Debates, especially the Republican ones, are full of rudeness and name-calling. No one exemplifies the strangeness of this year better than the rise of businessman Donald Trump. No one has received more press this election season than Trump.

Most people that I have spoken with are surprised that Trump has gone this far. Everyone expected him to get some publicity and then leave the race. Few expected him to get this deep into the primaries, much less get the nomination. Yet there are obviously many people attending his rallies and voting for him. You may be one.

If you are a Trump fan, it is obvious to you why he has been so successful. If you are like many of us — finding him entertaining at best but in no way someone we would want to be our President, then you are left puzzled by his success. Pundits in the media have stepped in to offer explanations. I’ve been contemplating it as well. Here, I want to explore the question of “why Trump?” — first by running through some of the explanations generally offered as well as a few less well known. Then in an upcoming article, I want to add some additional thoughts looking at the question through an “evolutionary” perspective.

Trump is the “Outsider”

When one supports the so-called outsider, it is typically seen as a protest against the current regime. It’s a vote “for” anyone who is perceived to be not part of the current establishment. The majority of us would probably agree that our federal government has not been working well. Most of us have an opinion as to why – and our opinion is probably tied to our overall political beliefs. Democrats blame Republicans and vice versa.

Yet, it’s interesting that even though the “blame” should include Congress, most incumbent representatives and senators generally get reelected. Wanting an outsider often only applies to the change in the President. And, although we have a long history of supporting outsiders, only rarely do they get elected.

Trump has never held political office, so he certainly is the one to perceive as the true “outsider” if that is important to you. Of course, the downside of outsiders is that oftentimes they don’t have the knowledge or savvy to work the political systems to actually get anything done. We think that an outsider is going to “shake things up”, but more often they get stymied by the actual process.

Reasons Often Given by Trump Supporters

There are a number of typical reasons Trump voters state for why they are supporting him. They say that he is authentic and doesn’t talk to us like regular politicians. They believe he is telling the truth. They like that he is funding his own campaign and not taking contributions from others. They point out how he talks tough and appears to be strong and doesn’t back down. They frequently point to his being a successful businessman. This may be “why” people believe they are supporting him, yet as John Oliver recently exposed in a most humorous way—-the odd thing is that none of this is really true! (But, of course, they believe it is and as it’s often stated “perception is frequently your reality”.)

Voters, of course, also say they are supporting him because they agree with his political opinions. I am sure many do. If you are a Trump fan, no doubt you can cite some of his policies that resonate with you. Yet both conservatives and liberals are frequently appalled by many of his beliefs. Ted Cruz says Trump is not a true conservative.  Trump shrugs and goes on. Many call him a racist – for example see here or here or here or here. Yet he continues to provide evidence that he doesn’t care.

Yet those who agree with Trump’s policies tend to ignore that there have been many times when Trump has not had a policy to enunciate. Early on this was the subject of many comedians (“I’m going to come up with a policy and it’s going to be great!”), but now his Republican opponents have been pointing it out.

And furthermore, when he has had an opinion, there are plenty of cases where Donald has changed his mind (see here for a report on 20 times he has altered his thoughts on something in since last June), so if you agree with him now, you might not be agreeing with future Donald. Note that I am not against changing opinions and evolving on an issue as you get new information or the situation changes…..for that, I actually agree with his ability to be flexible. It’s just that there are so many cases of his changing that you have to start and wonder about his core principles or lack thereof.

Pundits: Other Reasons Suggested

There must be some other attraction for Trump beyond his being an outsider or the reasons most voters generally give. There are many theories offered by pundits.

Maybe America is more racist that we generally believe? Yes, there is a large part of the country that is racist but most of us think we have made great progress on this issue. Maybe we are not as enlightened as we would like to believe according to this Huffington Post blogger.

Maybe we are so disappointed over the Obama Presidency after we had such high hopes that our reaction has simply turned us mean? That’s the gist of this writer for England’s The Spectator.

Maybe it is just evidence of the moral decline of America? That’s the argument….”moral rot” is the term used….by this writer for The American Interest.

Maybe many are voting for Trump because they have a silent ingrained attraction to “successful bullies”? This is the potential psychological explanation offered up here in this Science of Us article.

Maybe it is just the natural historical outcome of the changes within the Republican party and conservatism in general in America? This Washington Post article says that there has been an ongoing tension between the Republican’s “long-dominant establishment wing and various embodiments of an anti-establishment, conservative insurgency seeking to upend the status quo” that goes back at least to the time of Barry Goldwater. It also points out that many longtime Democrats have switched parties in the past couple of decades feeling like they could no longer support the Democrat’s liberal positions on many cultural and racial issues. All of this has led to a Republican party that pits one wing against another (moderates vs. conservatives; business interests vs. evangelical interests; mainstream vs. populist). Some see Trump being the recipient of a pent up level of frustration among many in this party that feel they are no longer being heard. This makes sense.

Other Possibilities at Play in Trump Support?

Next time, I will offer a few of my thoughts on Trump’s popularity, linking this phenomenon to aspects of our evolution, psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy and the theory of Spiral Dynamics. In the meantime, I would like to hear from you. So what do you think is the reason for Trump’s support?

Mark Gilbert


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Photo credit: Michael Vadon via / CC BY-SA