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Trump’s Dominance Draws on More Than Angry Middle Class

Hapless GOP leaders in Washington helped fuel mogul's rise

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus allowed cable networks to turn GOP debates into a ratings-driven Trump-fest. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus allowed cable networks to turn GOP debates into a ratings-driven Trump-fest. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“The recession has left the great American middle class feeling betrayed and sobered and vulnerable. Fear and anger are eating like acids at the electorate.” Time, March 2, 1992 After pitchfork populist Pat Buchanan almost upended incumbent president George H.W. Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Time responded with a cover drawing of an enraged man in a striped dress shirt who represented, “THE ANGRY VOTER.”  

Familiar laments were highlighted in the cover story by Lance Morrow: “The conviction runs deep that Americans’ lives are getting worse and worse, and will never again get better again — that the American Dream is over.”  

The point in unearthing this dog-eared copy of Time is to demonstrate that everything old is new again.  

The same facile theories about the rise of Donald Trump (stagnant middle-class incomes, the erosion of hope for the future, the loss of blue-collar factory jobs) were trotted out nearly a quarter century ago to explain a political year shaped by Buchanan and later by the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot.  

None of this is to deny that the 2008 economic collapse has left many Americans reeling and — to quote Barack Obama’s first inaugural address — unable to “pick ourselves up [and] dust ourselves off.” Nor am I air-brushing away the sad reality that free trade has victims as well as victors.  

But to offer the beleaguered middle class as a single-factor explanation for Trump’s dominance of the primaries is like a history student claiming that a “rising middle-class” caused everything from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution.  

My guess is that there are as many reasons behind Trump’s apparent triumph as there were guilty suspects in Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Here are a few still tentative theories:  

Eighty Percent of Life Is Showing Up: That Woody Allen quote is a reminder that every movement needs a charismatic messenger. Since Buchanan flamed out in the 1996 primaries and Perot faded into irrelevancy, there hasn’t been a major candidate peddling Trump’s heady brew of protectionism combined with armed-to-the-teeth isolationism.  

Nothing To Fear but Fear Itself: It baffles me why America seems more frightened today than during the years directly following 9/11. Of course, the Paris attacks were wrenching, but so were the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings. Somehow the Fort Hood shootings (2009) did not set off the same level of anti-Muslim panic as last year’s San Bernardino, California, tragedy.  

This climate of fear feeds Trump’s only-I-can-keep-you-safe authoritarian appeal. So does the wildly mistaken notion that all of Latin America is pouring across the southern border in an era of tighter controls and record deportations.  

To the Guillotine with Royalism: Nothing better symbolized a “rigged” political system to the voters than the widespread 2015 expectation of another Bush vs. Clinton election. It ran against the grain to create a political environment where anyone could grow up to be president if you picked the right father or later married the right husband.  

The Jeb obsession by the Republican moneyed class also meant that there was too little money left over for most other legitimate GOP candidates. And some of Hillary Clinton’s weakness in the Democratic primaries may stem from the same type of voter anger at being handed a fait accompli.  

The “Dishonest Media”: Trump is right as usual — it’s the media’s fault. No candidate in history, including Obama in 2008, has ever gotten the free media attention that has been lavished on Trump by news organizations desperate for ratings and clicks.  

And the shamelessness by the cable networks never ends. On Tuesday night when Clinton all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination, her victory was treated as an asterisk as the world halted for the Trump victory statement and press conference.  

Organizing a One-Car Funeral: Not since the final days of the Roman Republic has there been a more hapless leadership class than Republicans in Washington. With the exception of Mitt Romney, no senior Republican figure has had the courage to consistently take on Trump by name.  

Mitch McConnell deserves a trophy as the worst political strategist since Aaron Burr. McConnell’s scorched-earth opposition to ever working with Obama fed the pro-Trump story line that insiders in Washington can’t get anything done. Throw in the Senate majority leader’s championing of Citizen United, which powers Trump’s denunciations of super PACs.  

The Reince Priebus Show: The GOP chairman is McConnell’s runner-up in the tactical brilliance sweepstakes. By allowing the cable networks to turn the debates sanctioned by the Republican National Committee into a ratings-driven Trump-fest, Priebus encouraged the GOP race to degenerate into an insult-driven mud bath.  

In a classic effort to refight the last war, the RNC encouraged winner-take-all primaries beginning on March 15 so that the GOP would quickly unite around a consensus candidate. Instead, they created a “rigged” system under which Trump is racing toward the nomination with only about 40 percent of the primary votes.  

Even now — after Trump won more half the votes in six straight GOP primaries — it remains stunning how quickly the Republican establishment’s Maginot Line has collapsed. Nothing more dramatically symbolizes the end of the traditional GOP than Trump’s victory over John Kasich in Greenwich, Connecticut, the ancestral home of the Bush family.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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