Eleven percent of New Hampshire's conservatives favor crony capitalist, eminent domain abuser, supporter of single-payer health care, and all-around-buffoon, Donald Trump for president. But they don't really. A fraction of the Republican electorate is having some weird fun with the conventions and hypocrisies of our politics. Other conservatives and candidates should resist the temptation to look down on people who say they support Trump. And part of not looking down on these Trump supporters (who are not really Trump supporters), requires understanding Trump correctly .
While there have been many articles critical of Trump, National Review's Jack Fowler probably got closest to explaining his appeal. While Trump might share something of the business background of a Ross Perot and the populist aggressiveness of George Wallace, his appeal is not that of either man. No one believes that Trump will get all of the smart people of the country working together to transcend politics and solve the nations' problems, as Perot claimed he would do. No one believes that Trump will put the country's pointy-headed elites in their place. As a New York real estate developer and Democratic donor, Trump is one of those elites.
Trump is a different kind of demagogue. He is the political version of a villainous comedian. His appeal is similar to that of the disingenuous and megalomaniacal managers that dominated New York pro wrestling in the 1970s. Trump's appeal is closer to that of “Captain” Lou Albano than Ted Cruz and closer to that of “Classy” Freddie Blassie than Scott Walker.
These wrestling managers portrayed villains, but there were plenty of fans who enjoyed the performances and even cheered them. In a “sport” where everyone was playing a character, the managers embraced the absurdity and the phoniness. Trump is doing the same thing with the sport of politics. Where the good guy wrestlers often pretended to be humble, the managers bragged and declaimed with zeal. This surreal boasting can be seen in Trump's promise that “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” No one believes it, but they don't have to believe it. It is a parody of political promises.
Another aspect of the manager's character was the fast-talking dishonesty. They were always trying to put one over on the audience, but (and this was crucial) the errors of logic and fact were so glaring that even the most dimwitted viewers could pick up on it after a moment. Trump has his flaws, but he surely knows the answer to the question, “When did we beat Japan at anything?” So do all of Trump's supporters. Calling him on his error is playing his game.
Trump's appeal is not that he is beyond politics. It is that he is a grotesque image of everything people already hate about politics. He is Obama promising you can keep you health care plan, Romney inventing Obamacare before he opposed it, Marco Rubio flip-flopping on immigration, and Hillary Clinton claiming to be the candidate of the everyday American (the everyday American who gets tens of thousands of dollars to give speeches to groups who want to influence government policy). For some people, supporting an embodiment of cynicism, narcissism, and hypocrisy is their retort to everyone else in politics. As Fredrik deBoer pointed out, the populist right has a streak of performative absurdism.
But it won't last. Liberal journalists don't like to admit it, and Republican presidential candidates are loathe to believe it, but the people who show up for Republican presidential nominating contests are pretty responsible. They had many lousy choices in the 2012 cycle and they settled on the best of the bunch (Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum).
On the other hand, poll respondents during the silly season in the months prior to the first nominating contests make Republican voters come across as unserious. That is because they are not voters (yet) and they are not serious (yet). This is how you get polls in which Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Donald Trump end up in the top-tier.
The worst thing any political actor can do during the silly season is to take these unserious poll responses seriously. Poll respondents will be looking for real answers and plausible candidates soon enough. It would be a mistake to write off Trump supporters as fools. It would be an even bigger mistake to try to pander to them by saying something idiotic or obnoxious. When it comes voting time, they will be looking for a president, not a clown.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.