As soon as Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primaries, the media went into an absolute frenzy of disbelief. The Huffington Post perhaps best embodied the mood, using 80-point font to declare “NH GOES RACIST SEXIST XENOPHOBIC” [sic] on its front page immediately after the election was called.
This is not the first time the Huffington Post has dismissed Trump’s candidacy. It had, when he first announced his run, relegated coverage of the campaign to the entertainment section, only to then embarrassedly put him back under the politics section as the campaign took off. But this miscalculation, of course, was by no means limited to the Huffington Post: everyone underestimated Trump.
And by portraying Trump as a bigoted extremist who draws support only from other bigots and who has no chance of winning a general election, the media is at risk of underestimating him once again.
Unlike what many say, Trump’s campaign, despite being hateful, is primarily based on anger. The country is angry with the status quo— that is, establishment politics— and that is precisely what the Trump campaign is riding on. Because while one can talk on and on about how empty and unsubstantive Trump’s platform is, his message— however vacuous— is clearly and distinctly populist and anti-establishment in nature.
However, anti-establishment anger is not particularly ideological and, surprisingly, neither is Trump’s appeal. Among Iowa caucus-goers, for example, Trump’s most favorable trait to voters is that he “tells it like it is”— 66 percent of GOP voters agreed; comparatively, an astoundingly tiny 5 percent of voters thought that he “shared [their] values,” especially considering that Trump finished second with a quarter of the vote— five times that. Trump also performs surprisingly well with moderate and liberal Republicans. In fact, in New Hampshire, he tied with John Kasich— an actually moderate Republican— in those demographics. These numbers simply do not make sense for Trump if the extremism and bigotry that too many seem fixated on is the driving force behind his campaign, because it seems like plenty of people who don’t necessarily agree with his brand of virulent right-wing demagoguery are supporting him nevertheless. This, I think, can ultimately be attributed to his anti-establishment, populist appeal.
Because unlike many political forces, anti-establishment populism is not partisan or ideological. It can appeal across political parties and across ideological lines, and that is why it’s taking the country by such a storm. After all, populism is not limited to just Trump in the GOP— Bernie Sanders is playing a similar role in the Democratic Party. While the two candidates cannot be more different in terms of policy positions and each is clearly ideological and strong in beliefs, the anti-establishment tsunami that is propelling both of them is not. There is a feeling from voters on both sides of the spectrum that the country’s political leadership is composed of an out-of-touch elite that does not care about them nor act in their best interest.
So when Trump comes along, yelling irreverently at the establishment media (which is perceived as part of the political elite, especially among Republican voters) and rejecting the mainstream political discourse that robots like Marco Rubio stick to (and repeats) like scripture, that is refreshing to these disaffected voters.
This is the appeal of Trump— not his policies, but his methods. Again, that is not to say his message isn’t hideous. And are there legitimate bigots in the Trump camp? Absolutely. But the underlying power behind it that has been producing the odd-defying momentum that he enjoys is not bigotry, but anger. And when the Huffington Post snobbishly dismissed Trump and insulted his followers, that only makes this disaffected bunch, who already feel looked-down upon by the political elite, understandably even angrier.
The media is so fixated upon Trump’s bigotry that the underlying reasons behind the anger are almost always missed. As you’ve seen, there’s really nothing particularly special about Trump voters; they are angry for the same reasons that the rest of the country is angry: stagnant wages, poor economy, lack of socioeconomic mobility— issues that are undoubtedly very important to the working-class white voters that form the core of Trump’s support. Granted, virulent nativism is neither a good outlet nor a good solution to these problems, but that’s the thing about angry people: their decisions are not exactly rational. In this case, they just need someone to overturn the establishment’s apple cart, and Trump is their guy.
As it currently stands, the media is unwilling to take the plight of working class Americans seriously rather than distract from issues like income inequality and stagnating wages by making fun of whatever racist hick it could find. And until they do, the volatile politics we see today will at best become the new normal, and at worse morph into something even uglier, as more people become disenchanted and angry with a political system that fails to address their needs.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu