Trump: Rich and Relatable
Trump’s success has been a multifaceted surprise, but one of the more perplexing aspects has been the ability of a man with such a flashy and non-traditional personality to appeal to working-class whites. Historically, rich candidates have trouble connecting with the common man, as the careers of Mitt Romney and Steve Forbes amply demonstrate. Successful rich candidates have tended to direct attention away from their wealth, often playing dress-up as a backwoodsmen and engaging in just-folks routines. Trump, in contrast, flaunts his wealth with reckless abandon, punctuating almost every sentence with, “I am very rich.” And yet, white voters in the lower middle class adore him.
The reason for this break with precedent is that Trump's lifestyle is defiantly non-elitist: it reflects how a lot of lower-class people imagine they would behave if they became billionaires. Joe the Plumber doesn’t fantasize about attending fundraisers for the opera, summering in the Hamptons, or even buying impeccably tailored suits; rather, he dreams of limousines, helicopters, beautiful women, and gold-plated everything. Trump’s supporters forgive his lifestyle, because they believe that if they had his kind of money they would behave the same way. In truth, any attempt to not appear nouveau riche would be suspect.
Because Trump’s voters relate to him on a gut level, they are willing to overlook his policy indiscretions. Sure, Trump in the past has supported liberal policies and even invited the Clintons to his wedding, but he gets a pass because he successfully frames this behavior as the necessary evil that comes with deal-making among America’s movers and shakers. Rather than exhibiting any kind of disloyalty to the conservative voters who back him today, Trump was making the Clintons and their ilk dance to his tune and serve his ends -- it is all those liberals in New York he wined and dined over the years who were the rubes and suckers.
People were primed to believe this argument because the conservative media has been hammering away for years on the theme of how effete and elitist liberals are. The dirty little secret has always been that the conservative establishment in the Acela corridor has always fancied itself part of the intelligentsia as well. By day they rant and rail about the liberal snobs gallivanting around DC, but at night they attend Georgetown cocktail parties -- and on weekends they go foxhunting in Middleburg. William F. Buckley Jr. famously said that “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University,” notably omitting mention of his own Yale education. Republican elites have been playing this game for a long time. With the rise of the Tea Party, however, they began to lose control of the brush that had been so useful in tarring their liberal colleagues.
By pegging liberals as elitists for decades, the conservative establishment not only succeeded in making the word liberal toxic, but “elite” as well. Tea Partiers took this to its logical conclusion in 2010, launching a crusade against elites at large. Republicans and Democrats became equal opportunity targets if they could be pegged as part of the establishment. Some politicians even rode the wave to victory, but most were stopped short by lack of money and name recognition. Trump has neither of those problems. This means that the establishment can’t deploy the tools that it historically has used to ensure that one of their favored candidates is the presidential nominee. Trump doesn’t need money or publicity. Ironically, rather than needing the establishment’s support, he benefits from their disapprobation. Their criticisms actually reinforce his bona fides with the GOP base.
At first voters were suspicious of Trump and his “all brass and class” lifestyle, and his poll numbers reflected this. Before his statement that illegal immigrants are rapists, he polled at under five percent. But after the establishment attacked him in the weeks following his remarks, Trump's numbers climbed to fifteen percent among Republicans. This is salient, but the blow up surrounding his criticism of John McCain’s war record is particularly revealing.
One might be tempted to believe that the Republican base was attracted to Trump’s blunt rhetoric about undocumented immigrants, and that condemnation from the elites had little to do with his success. But the John McCain incident was a strictly intraparty affair, with the sharpest criticism coming from the GOP establishment. Once again the same dynamic that surrounded his attack on immigrants revealed itself. Before insulting McCain, Trump polled at fifteen percent; after the establishment condemned him, his numbers rose to 24 percent. The GOP establishment clearly thought that they had a silver bullet when Trump attacked John McCain. (A war hero!) Much ink was spilled gleefully bidding Trump farewell. But while the Republican base reveres veterans, John McCain today is more strongly associated with his ties to the Republican establishment than with his military history – the same elite establishment that the base no longer trusts.
The fact that Trump was willing to call McCain out and then refused to back down in the face of broadsides from the establishment press was proof positive that this rich real-estate mogul was with the base where it counted. Every attack from the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove went on to prove that Donald Trump is actually not an elitist. If he was, these guys would be supporting him. These elites are the ones whose conservative credentials are in question, not Trump’s. After all, it is they, not Trump, who have stood by and let America fall into the hands of Obama.
Trump, despite being from New York and having a record of embracing “New York values,” does not act like an uptown elite. He may be rich, but he is not sophisticated. By a weird twist, this actually makes him more relatable to the GOP base: first, because he lives the life they fantasize about when they dream of hitting it big, and second, because the odium that the elites reserve for Trump demonstrates that he is not part of the establishment. If Trump is not part of the establishment, then it follows that he must be part of the anti-establishment. And the base of the Republican Party is in a very anti-establishment mood.
Robert Nelson is a political commentator living in Nicaragua. His work has previously been published in Salon. He has worked as analyst at the Democratic polling firm Hart Research Associates.