Donald Trump, billionaire property developer, casino owner and carnival barker – America’s answer to Julius Malema — has been the clear front runner for the Republican presidential nomination since mid-July. Not only is he well ahead of the pack nationally, polling consistently at around 30% of likely Republican primary voters, he is currently the clear favourite to collect the most nominating delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida when the real voting begins.
The best short answer is supplied by Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal: “The blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate consolidated around one candidate. The party’s white collar wing remains fragmented.”
John Judis, another astute analyst, unpacks the Trump fan base as Middle American Radicals, or MARs, a category first proposed by sociologist Donald Warren in a 1976 monograph, “The Radical Centre: Middle Americans and the Political of Alienation.”
Sam Francis, a conservative polemicist, spoke for MARs in a 1998 essay: “The elite, based in Washington and a few large metropolises, allies with the underclass against Middle Americans, who pay the taxes, do the work, fight the wars, suffer the crime, and endure their own political cultural dispossession as the hands of the elite and its underclass vanguard.”
MARs attacks have been a fairly routine feature of American electoral politics since the late 1960’s. Before Trump came George Wallace, Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot. Populists all, they tend the emerge at times of national distemper, offering a politically incorrect alternative to the orthodoxies of the two main parties.
Wallace, a segregationist governor of Alabama, launched a third party campaign in 1968. National surveys gave him him 20 per cent of vote a month before election day. In the event, he won five states – all southern – and 46 electoral votes. Four years later, he ran as Democrat and won primaries in six states before an assassination attempt knocked him out of the contest.
Patrick Buchanan, columnist, admirer of Sam Francis, and speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, mounted insurgencies against establishment Republicans George Bush (senior)and Bob Dole in 1992 and 1996 respectively, causing both men serious headaches in the early going.
Ross Perot, a businessman with the demeanour of an angry Chihuahua, ran as independent in 1992. A billionaire like Trump, he promised to use the qualities that made him one to turn the country around. In trial heats, he outpolled both the incumbent, Bush, and his likely Democratic opponent Bill Clinton. In the end, his man achievement was to throw the election to Clinton (which may be why the latter, with his wife in mind, encouraged Trump to run this time).
Perot’s supporters were quintessential MARs, Judis argues, quoting research by Stanley Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster in 1992 who went on to advise the ANC in 1994. Perot’s supporters, far more than those of either Bush or Clinton, agreed with the statements “it’s the middle class, not the poor who really get a raw deal today” and that “people who work for a living and don’t make a lot of noise never seem to get a break.”
Trump’s campaign is not simply the ego trip of a latter day Trimalchio. The Donald, as Judis notes, “does, in fact, articulate a coherent set of ideological positions” – positions that have a lot in common with not just those of Wallace, Buchanan and Perot but of a long chain of populists who, coming from either left or right, “saw themselves defending the middle class against its enemies.”
Those enemies include: the Other, whether in the shape of domestic minorities (targeted by Wallace) or “illegal aliens” (Trump promises to deport them en masse); the “Money Power”, as Buchanan liked to call Wall Street; exponents of free trade (the North American Free Trade Agreement, Perot famously warned, would result in a “giant sucking sound” as American jobs disappeared into Mexico); and “stupid” and/or corrupt Washington politicians and bureaucrats.
Trump’s argument that he’s too rich to be bought resonates as does his contention that even the modest immigration reform espoused by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rival for the Republican nomination, would be a “nothing more than a giveaway to corporate patrons who run both parties.”
Will such resonance with MARs take Trump all the way to the Republican nomination? History suggests not. By the time the actual voting begins, the 70 per cent of Republicans who do not support Trump will likely have begun to coalesce around a more establishment figure. My current guess is that it will be Rubio as the latest Bush, Jeb, loses traction.