“When the history of this period is written, the dumb people will say, ‘oh, it was because he was famous, or because he had mesmerizing hair,” Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson said last week on Fox News, explaining the rise of Donald Trump. “No, it’s because he was right on a couple of things ordinary people agreed with him on.”
Count me among the dumb people — at least partly.
From the moment Trump began succeeding in the GOP primary, pundits who failed to predict his rise (see nearly all of them, myself included) have tried to decipher what’s responsible for the real estate billionaire’s ascension to GOP front-runner. Some like Ann Coulter plead that Trump’s success is mostly attributable to his tough immigration position. Others point to his disavowal of Republican orthodoxy on trade. Many more argue it is some combination of his stances on those issues along with this anti-PC persona.
While it’s true Trump voters tend to deviate a little from Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio voters on issues like trade and abortion, it’s less clear Trump’s political positions are mainly what has driven his rise. There is a strong case to be made that Trump’s success is more attributable to his personality and the brand he honed over nearly 40-years in the public eye.
For decades, Trump has pitched himself to the public as the word’s greatest businessman and negotiator. As far back as the 1980s, Trump has been saying that all America’s problems could be solved if America just elected a master negotiator, like himself. Even when Trump had business failures, he conned many people into thinking they were actually tremendous business successes. As a result, Trump cultivated an image among at least part of the public as a guy who can’t help but win — at everything (have you heard about the many, many golf club championships he has won?)
That explains why when Trump flips and flops all over the place on issue after issue, showing that he has as little policy conviction as he does policy understanding, his hardcore voters don’t waver. Many are not really with him because of his stance on a particular issue. They are with him because of the Trump brand. A poll last year showed that Trump does substantially better among those voters who said they were regular viewers of “The Apprentice,” the NBC show where Trump burnished his master businessman persona in prime time, week-after-week, year-after-year, for over a decade.
As I explained in December:
Trump’s ultimate appeal is not issue specific. It can be tailored to any community or cause. It’s a message that is compelling on a visceral level. He promises that he can solve all your problems if you just put your faith in him. He’ll fix the economy, destroy ISIS and make America — and maybe even you personally — rich. And he can do it all easily and at no real cost to — or sacrifice from — you.
Trump put it similarly in a tweet last week, “Wisconsin has suffered a great loss of jobs and trade, but if I win, all of the bad things happening in the U.S. will be rapidly reversed!”
Yes, he will reverse all America’s problems with a snap of his fingers. All you got to do is trust him.
None of this is to say that Trump’s brand and persona are the only factors driving his success. One shouldn’t undersell Trump’s political genius and his uncanny ability to control media cycles (although the last couple weeks haven’t been too kind to Trump). And it is obviously wrong to say that no one supports Trump based on specific issues.
But Trump wasn’t the only Republican contender to pitch a tough immigration policy to the Republican electorate or a more protectionist trade stance (see Santorum, Rick). What’s different about Trump is his larger-than-life persona that helps drive media attention and the unique “I’m the world’s greatest businessman” brand.
That persona and brand have taken him pretty far in the GOP primary. It remains to be seen if it will be enough to actually win him the nomination.