Making sense out of Donald Trump


Peter Wielhouwer

Dr. Peter Wielhouwer

Olga Bonfiglio
College of Arts and Sciences staff writer

Many Americans today are scratching their heads over the popularity of Donald Trump, New York billionaire real estate magnate turned presidential candidate.

However, his supporters seem to be very clear about his appeal. Typically, they believe that he says what many people think about issues like trade, jobs, immigration, torture and multiculturalism that they have not heard in a long while. Some political analysts also believe Trump’s bravado appeals to authoritarian types of people. He appears to know what he’s doing and saying even though he is long on style and short on specifics.

Trump is a largely non-ideological Republican who has made donations to candidates of both parties. He is motivated less by social issues than by political pragmatism and economic populism, said Peter Wielhouwer, associate professor of political science and a specialist in elections and campaigns.

“What this means is that he can say what he wants—and he usually does,” said Wielhouwer. “On top of that, he is the master of the sound bite. He uses short words and then repeats them over and over again. This appeals to his supporters who are angry and frustrated over business-as-usual obstruction politics and their own economic disenfranchisement. Most of his supporters are non-college educated people whose income and personal finances have fallen behind. This sets up an environment for a candidate like Trump to come in.”

As the heat of the primary season increases, the frenzy over Trump’s success is likewise steaming up as “establishment” Republicans fret over where they went wrong, what they should do and how they can defeat Trump.

Before Super Tuesday, several Republican leaders like Senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump. Recently, 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney made some scathing remarks that Trump was a phony, a fraud, a misogynist and a bully who threatens America's future.

And yet, some GOP leaders are warming up to him, including Paul Ryan after Super Saturday, because they believe a Trump nomination might help them with donors and supporters for their own campaigns.

Meanwhile, Trump is definitely attracting people to him in significant numbers as droves of them—including new voters—show up at his rallies and more importantly, the state primaries and caucuses. For example, in both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries entrance and exit polls showed that pluralities voted for Trump. It is unclear since then what the first-time voter choices are, but Trump’s supporters in many states tend to be younger and with less than college education (though there are some exceptions).

“He evokes emotions and provides simple solutions to complex problems,” said Wielhouwer. “For example, according to Donald Trump, if you have an immigration problem, you build a wall. If you have a problem with Muslims coming into the country, you keep them all out. If you have a health care problem, you eliminate the boundary lines between the states.”

These easy and simple solutions provide bumper sticker messages that are not only digestible and memorable, but they ultimately allow Trump to dominate the media who scurry after him to find out the latest outrageous thing he has said. 

“Trump is a master media manipulator and he knows how to get attention and coverage. He evokes strong emotions, which attracts media attention, which ultimately gets people to watch him—even those who don’t support him. In short, he makes news, which is good for the mass media because this ultimately attracts TV advertisers. 

“The anger and frustration of Trump’s supporters goes deeper than not liking President Obama,” said Wielhouwer. “Many of Trump’s supporters believe in the principles of less government, less cronyism and restoration of American pride and strength. They are not as concerned about social inequality as economic inequality. They feel they have been left behind and that the American Dream is elusive for them and their children. They can't go to Bernie Sanders, another outside-the-establishment candidate, because he believes in big government programs, higher taxes, and more regulations. So they stick with Trump. 

The teflon-coated candidate even survives criticism for his personal life and the contradictions that go with it. For example, Trump has been married three times, twice to immigrant Slavic women. Ivana Zelnickova and Trump married in 1977 and had three children before they divorced in 1991. Trump married his second wife, Marla Maples, a runner-up for “Miss Georgia” in 1993, and they had one child before they divorced in 1999. The current Mrs. Trump is Melania Knauss-Trump who is also of Slavic background. The couple has one child.

About one-third to one-half of the Republican base is evangelical Christian, said Wielhouwer. They care about abortion, the sacredness of the family and tend to oppose expanding gay rights. Like all voters, they care about economic issues and support Republican positions on national security. In contrast to national media reports, Wielhouwer suggests that Trump support among Evangelicals is not that high.

“Consistently across the states, we see that Trump support in this group is either below or just at the rate seen for Republicans in general. For example, among Michigan primary voters, 38 percent of white born-again or evangelicals voted for Trump, compared with 37 percent of Republicans not in this group. But among voters who believe shared religious beliefs matter for candidate support, Ted Cruz had much higher support. And this is typical.”

As for Trump’s alleged racism, he evaded questions about his rejection of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan just before Super Tuesday on March 1.

“The white supremacist element in America is getting smaller,” said Wielhouwer, “so its influence on national elections has been waning even though this group still manages to get a lot of media attention. And Trump is clearly tapping into these groups’ support with his nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.” 

Some critics say the Trump phenomenon looks like an upheaval of GOP establishment politics and may even be sounding the death knell for the Republican Party itself.

“I would not make sweeping generations of that broad a scale,” said Wielhouwer, “but the Republican leadership clearly is unsure about how to deal with the conflict it appears to be having with its base.”

The credibility of our political parties depends on their predictability, he continued. The Republicans are the party of small government, for example, but they have helped grow it. The party says it encourages the small business owner’s success, however, large corporations and rich business owners appear to have benefitted the most from the party’s policies and general direction.

“There’s a disconnect between what the GOP says it stands for and what it does in Congress,” said Wielhouwer. “This creates uncertainty in the voters, and it’s hard for them to connect to the ‘establishment.’ This opens the door for Trump.”

This same sort of disarray happened to the Democrats in the 1980s, and did not shake itself out until Bill Clinton came along as a “new Democrat” in 1992.

“The party was really fractured in 1988 and in 1992, that showed itself with a wide range of candidates,” said Wielhouwer. “Clinton emerged as a non-establishment candidate who didn’t fit the liberal stereotype of the party. He appealed to the base and to moderates. It will take some time before Republicans can figure out who they are and what they can do.”

One area that unifies Republican is anger directed at President Obama.

“Many loathe him, but they also generally oppose Democratic positions on principle,” said Wielhouwer. “Much of Republican opposition to Obama is not about racism, though there are some racist subgroups in the party. Much of the opposition is mainly ideological.”

“In fact, the Republicans have been hating Hillary Clinton much longer than Barack Obama has been on the political scene, and they are likely to be highly motivated to vote against her. Hate has long been known as a strong motivating force in politics. 

Some Democrats are ambivalent about Hillary, too. Her trustworthiness is at issue even though she is probably the most experienced and most qualified among all the candidates. For example, in the Michigan Democratic primary 40 percent of Democrats said that Hillary Clinton is not honest or trustworthy.

“Those e-mails make her look terrible,” said Wielhouwer. “If she is charged with a crime and continues to run under a cloud of indictment, that could be very bad for her. Democratic Party leaders avoid talking about this possibility, but it looks like the FBI and the Department of Justice are not simply letting the issue die. Neither will the GOP.”

Wielhouwer also speculated that even if Clinton is indicted before the November election, it is unlikely there will be a trial any time soon.

Third party candidacies have been mentioned, especially in the context of Republican elite’s opposition to Trump.

“Third parties, however, have virtually no chance of winning,” said Wielhouwer, “because of the way we are set up constitutionally. Such a run by a Republican third party candidate would almost certainly split the party’s vote and guarantee a Democratic presidency. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, had expressed some interest in running as a third party candidate, but decided against it in early March for precisely this reason.”

Last December, Trump insinuated that he might run as a third party candidate but he continues to deny that possibility, especially now that he is earning a respectable number of delegates.

On the left, the Green Party candidate for president, Jill Stein, might be an alternative for some disaffected Democrats, however, a vote for her also has the potential to “chip away at the edges” of a potential Democratic win, said Wielhouwer.

If a President Trump is elected, Wielhouwer can’t begin to predict what his presidency would look like because Trump’s sound bites don’t provide enough clues about what he would do in office. However, Wielhouwer is concerned, as are many Americans, that Trump might win.

“According to what Trump has said, it doesn’t appear he is committed to individuals’ religious freedoms or to rights of political expression,” he said. “He threatens those who criticize him and has expressed a willingness to change libel laws, which tend to limit First Amendment expressive liberties. Neither does he seem to know much about the Constitution. That’s very concerning about a serious contender for the Oval Office.”

One more final, ironic note. Despite all of the political haranguing and the people’s disappointment and anger over obstruction and gridlock, some quiet negotiations have been taking place between President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan with regard to the earned income tax. Maybe they provide an example of how compromise could work and shine a little light on how government could solve problems for its electorate.