Support for Donald Trump exists not despite the crazy, irresponsible things he advocates, but because of them. The voters who support him in the hope that he is as crazy as he sounds are not, themselves, necessarily crazy for doing so. This despite what the early breadth of Trump’s support may portend about the polarizing politics developing in the U.S.
The political environment that produced Trump, and the broad support for Trump (at least for this stage of the campaign), has been long in the making. For decades a broad segment of Republican voters supported Republican candidates for Congress and for President who promised to hold the line on domestic growth of the national government, if not actually reduce it. But the national government kept growing.
Some of these politicians felt it their responsibility to compromise. The first George Bush to this day defends his decision to raise taxes despite the line he drew in the sand in the 1988 election—“Read my lips. No new taxes”—as the most responsible action to take at the time.
As disturbing for many Republican voters is the sense that for decades now Republicans would run as conservatives at home, but compromise in Washington. And compromise in Washington meant agreeing to grow the national government just a bit slower than the Democrats proposed. Indeed, Washington commentators praise as “problem solvers” Republican legislators who turn their backs on promises made back home to limit the size and growth of government.
Much of the political dynamics in Washington can be likened to a game of chicken. In this game, two young men face their cars to each other, driving toward the other at high speed. The one who swerves first to avoid crashing headlong into the other car is the “chicken,” the loser.
Many of us would consider the boy who swerves first to have made the “reasonable” decision not to imperil himself and the other boy. But in this game the reasonable decision to swerve also means the losing decision. Unlike the face-saving stakes at risk in a game of chicken on an abandoned highway, in politics, the stakes are a lot higher. Getting a reputation for being a “problem solver”—for swerving—means that the other side habitually gets its way. Bigger government. More regulation.
There are a couple of ways to get out of an outcome in which one side routinely swerves out of the way of the other side. One is to come up with a commitment mechanism. In the context of the traditional game of chicken, this might entail something like tying down the steering wheel, jamming the accelerator down with a broom stick, and jumping in the backseat. When the other driver sees that you do not have control of your car yet it is careening toward him, his choice is between crashing and swerving.
An example of this type of commitment mechanism is the 1985 budget-reduction statute, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings: If discretionary appropriations exceeded the previously approved budget threshold, then cuts would be made automatically.
For different reasons, both legal and political, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings did not achieve its goals as a commitment mechanism: Many Republicans who promised home constituencies they would not “swerve” in Washington, nonetheless continued to swerve.
A second way to change the routine winner in a game of chicken is to replace the habitually swerving driver with a driver who can convince the other driver that he is crazy enough not to swerve no matter what the other driver does.
This is where Trump comes in. His craziness, his flamboyance and off-the-cuff manner, all feed into the perception—the desire—that here is a person who just might be crazy enough not to swerve no matter what and, as a result, implement the policies his supporters want.
Trump’s supporters, however, need not be crazy or angry to think that electing a crazy guy is the best way to achieve their policy goals. Indeed, his supporters reflect frustration at the consistent dynamic of post-WWII U.S. domestic politics, that Republicans are “problem solvers” only if they swerve and defer to Democratic preferences in Washington. If mainstream Republicans cannot, or are unwilling, to change the game, then, the thought is, perhaps the crazy guy is the only guy who can credibly face down the juggernaut of bigger and bigger government in Washington’s game of chicken.
This is also the impetus behind Ben Carson’s and Ted Cruz’s candidacies. For Carson, his very lack of mastering policy details, his seeming disdain to do so, serves the same purpose as does Trump’s flamboyance and craziness, credibly signaling the sincerity of his commitment to his positions. That is, it signals his unwillingness to swerve. So, too, Ted Cruz has deliberately developed a reputation of taking extreme positions in the Senate and not backing down. That may have earned Cruz the contempt of his colleagues, but he aimed at creating a reputation that he will not swerve in the Washington game of chicken. Each of the three has chosen his actions to signal that he will not swerve and that, therefore, he is a Washington game changer.
Of course, it is not yet clear that so many Republican voters despair of commitment mechanisms like a Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, or something like a renewed “Contract for America.” Only if voters think other mechanisms won't succeed in changing Washington politics do Trump or Carson or Cruz have much of a chance to secure the GOP nomination.
But the continuing support for Trump (as well as Carson and Cruz) does serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine. Their support is a sign of the frustration and desperation of a broad swath of the Republican electorate. Trump isn’t a serious candidate for the position of president. But many of his supporters are serious, and establishment politicians ignore the signs at peril of exacerbating an increasingly polarized polity, a significant number of whom think that electing a kook is the sanest way to realize the change they desire.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.