staggered 2012

Explaining the Rise of Donald Trump, part 6: So is he going to win?

The sixth and final part of my series on the rise of Donald Trump, derived from lectures I have given as Fulbright Bicentennial Chair at the University of Helsinki. Parts 1-5 can be found here, here, here, here and here.


So, if I’m right, we’ve spent the last 40 or so years building a world in which the line separating fake and real has eroded, in which the difference between celebrity and accomplishment has been obscured, and in which the gap between skills and appearances has collapsed. As a consequence, candidates who “look” good and draw attention for its own sake might well be as electable – or even more electable – than “traditional” candidates.

The obvious question is: Why Not Donald Trump?

Let me suggest three reasons why a Trump presidency is unlikely. Let me then offer two caveats to these arguments. Then, perhaps, we’ll be able to assess if Donald Trump – or someone like him – will be the United States’ next president … or, not.

Personality and ideology: First, it should be noted that Trump is neither a natural politician nor a natural Republican. I am not much for predictions, but this one isn’t so much a prediction as an inevitable conclusion to a well-framed mathematical equation. A thrice-married (twice divorced), multiply-bankrupt germophobe who doesn’t like to shake people’s hands is not going to enjoy the one-on-one politics of the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. For that matter, for all his birtherism and anti-gay marriage blatherings, Donald Trump is neither the kind of social conservative who tends to do well in Republican caucuses in Iowa nor the kind of fiscal conservative who tends to do well in the Republican primaries in New Hampshire. Among other things, in the past he has advocated both national health care and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Thus, as a practical matter Trump isn’t likely to do all that well in either Iowa or New Hampshire (or in South Carolina either, which has its primary the following week). Historically, if you don’t do well in one or the other of those states, your campaign is likely to fail. As a practical matter, then, Trump, despite his current lead in NATIONAL polls, isn’t likely to win the Republican nomination for President once the state-by-state contest begins … and if you can’t win the nomination, you can’t win the presidency.  

The backgrounds of US presidents (so far): A second reason Trump is unlikely to win even his party’s nomination for president, much less the office itself, is that Americans have tended to look for professional politicians when electing people to the Presidency. This seems almost too obvious to bring up: after all, you go to dentists for dental work and plumbers for plumbing work so why wouldn’t you go to politicians for political work? As Albert Einstein noted, politics is harder than physics. Why would you hire, say, a political science professor from Illinois to rewire your house?

If you just look at the question of who has been elected president since the rise of what we in political science refer to as the “modern” presidency – roughly since 1900 or so – you see some interesting patterns:

–for example, all but 3 of the people elected president, from Teddy Roosevelt on, had elected political experience of one kind or another.

–of the three who didn’t – William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower – all had held a significant political office of one kind or another. Eisenhower, after all, was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, hardly an unpolitical job. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce and head of US relief operations in Europe after WWI. And Taft had been both Solicitor General of the United States and Governor General of the Philippines. Indeed, the only person who spent the bulk of his career as a businessperson that the US has ever elected president was Herbert Hoover … and I don’t think anyone really wants Herbert Hoover to serve as a model for the next US president.

–Moreover, most of those who held elected office before becoming President held one or both of two specific offices: Governor, or Vice President. Three people were directly elected from the Senate to the Presidency: Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. No one has ever been elected President from the House of Representatives directly. (Ford wasn’t elected).

The Electoral College and the Structure of American campaigns: Third – and it seems like I have to make this point over and over again every 4 years – US presidents are not elected in popularity contests. As Al Gore’s campaign reminded us in 2000, it is possible to win the most votes in an American presidential election and lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Presidents of the United States are elected in 51 state and district elections, most of which have rules that determine that whoever gets the most votes in their state gets ALL of that state’s Electoral College votes. As it happens, if you add up all the states that have voted Democratic in the last 6 presidential elections – that’s every election since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 – and assume the state will probably vote Democratic again in 2016, that means the Democrats go into the 2016 general election with 242 of the 270 votes they need to win the Presidency. Using the same “last six elections” standard, Republicans, by contrast, control only about 102 Electoral College votes. Now, history is not guaranteed to repeat itself, but just in structural position my guess is you’d rather run as a Democrat than a Republican in 2016. Thus even if Donald Trump were to win the Republican nomination, he is unlikely to be elected President … especially given his particular talent for insulting women and minorities, who make up the significant majority of presidential election year voters.

Put in a more colloquial way, as South Carolina Senator (and recent dropout in the 2016 race for the Republican nomination for president), Lindsay Graham put it in 2012, the Republican Party is “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Taken together, these three factors suggest that Donald Trump has a long row to hoe to become president. He is a classic “silly season” candidate: fun to talk about in the long period before elections start actually happening, but who fade once the professional politics get underway.  

Still, I have to offer two caveats to my otherwise dismissive expectations for the Trump candidacy. The first of these involves money. The second involves American popular frustration with the politics of the moment.

Money: As to money, while there isn’t time to go into it here, American elections are extremely expensive, even for minor races. At the presidential level, the numbers are staggering. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney (and his supporters) and Barack Obama (and his supporters) spent very nearly $1.5 billion on their campaigns … each. By the end of the 2016 campaign, it is reasonable to suppose that each of the two major party candidates and their supporters will spend over $2 billion running for the office.  

Money at this scale is hard to raise. Historically, the difficulty of raising massive amounts of money has acted as an agent of natural selection in American campaigns: those candidates who couldn’t raise money dropped out, often after losing a few elections (like in Iowa and New Hampshire). Meanwhile, the winners of the Iowa and New Hampshire elections were usually well-positioned to raise enough money to compete for the nomination nationwide.

Donald Trump, however, doesn’t really need to raise money. He has it to hand. And he gets lots of free publicity to boot. As a consequence, he may be able to keep going well past what, historically, would have been his expiration date. Under such circumstances, traditional expectations about how campaigns ought to unfold may be dated and inaccurate.

Public frustration: As to American public frustration, it is clear that voters are unsatisfied by the autotuned nonsense churned out by established politicians. The current political stasis in Washington only feeds this impatience and unhappiness since, from the outside, it seems that the position-taking and gamesmanship of politics has overwhelmed the desire to use politics to promote the public good.

Meanwhile, the traditional politicians in the Republican field are desperately trying to autotune their messages to satisfy both donors and voters. After all, established politicians have learned over the years that whatever citizens say, they almost always vote for the polished, autotuned candidate who tells them what they want to hear … even when those same citizens insist that such tuning makes them unhappy, unsatisfied, and prone to hold their noses while they vote.

As a consequence, it is possible – not likely, mind you, just possible – that this is the year the conventional analysts get it wrong and we all get reminded that human beings are more creative than sometimes we give them credit for. If the voters are just angry enough … if the establishment politicians are just tone deaf enough … if the money is just right … well, maybe. Maybe.

This, it seems to me, is the dark side of the crisis of authenticity in American politics. Candidates like Donald Trump seem authentic. They look like leaders unafraid to speak their minds. They appeal to people who don’t like “traditional” politics and seek to shake up the established order.  So they gain support. But as celebrities with no actual political or much other practical preparation, they’d almost certainly be terrible presidents. Which is sort of a problem, since the US gets to only have one president at a time, and they serve for four years … at least.  

So to end where I started: Why Can’t Donald Trump Be President? Well, as it happens, as I said earlier in my talk, I don’t think he can. I think the realities of the campaign process will weed him out, while more established political leaders will find their footing a and grow more effective over time.  

That said, in a world where people distrust government, where we believe that political skills are actually about deception and distortion rather than building good lives for members of the community and where we are accustomed to celebrating people because they are alleged to be worthy of celebration, who knows? In a world where reality TV isn’t real and authentic experiences can be faked, maybe Donald Trump (or someone like him) CAN be president.

I hope none of us have to face that prospect. But, maybe.

In any case, as I draw to a close I take some measure of comfort from something I’ve learned while preparing this lecture: if I don’t like the reality where I came to Helsinki and ended up making a fool of myself in public, hopefully I’ll be able to photoshop myself out of the picture.