Donald Trump and the conservative psyche: What Republican operatives don't understand about the Donald's transcendent appeal

Trump's disjointed views and lack of substance are irrelevant; he's winning by exploiting voters' primal fears

By Sean Illing

Published February 18, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (AP)
Donald Trump (AP)

The latest Quinnipiac University poll was released Wednesday morning and the results are familiar: Donald Trump has widened his lead among Republican voters nationwide. When the previous Quinnipiac survey was published on Feb. 5, Trump led with 31 percent; Cruz and Rubio were at 22 and 19 percent, respectively. Today, however, Trump has a 2-1 lead among Republicans. He's now at 39 percent (his highest total thus far), followed by Rubio with 19 percent and Cruz with 18 percent. And in South Carolina, Nevada and virtually every Super Tuesday primary state, Trump is the runaway front-runner.

The questions can't be asked enough: Why is Trump's appeal so pervasive? How is he able to dominate the race without articulating a single policy position? Or how can he defy conservative orthodoxy without consequence?

"Identity politics" has become a catch-all term for every form of political tribalism. It's assumed that identity politics is bad politics, something we should avoid at all costs. The problem, however, is that all politics is identity politics. Politics is division by definition; it's about the assertion of identity (and competing values) in the public sphere. There are degrees, of course, but political disputes are always reducible to identity, and to the qualities and beliefs that constitute it.

People rarely have policy positions; instead they have vague feelings about undefined issues. And most political disagreements are about value judgments, not policy concerns or empirical realities. Facts are near-irrelevant in this campaign, for instance, as are specifics and explanations. Even in the case of Rubio, the establishment's darling, reasoned arguments are lacking. The Florida senator has practically spoken in binary code; it's worked because in between the 1's and 0's are gaseous platitudes about America's Americanness, which explain nothing but appeal to traditional Republicans who pine for an America that no longer exists.

What makes Trump unique isn't his shameless sophistry or his crass rhetoric; he simply does what most politicians – especially on the right – have always done, only better and without limits. He knows his supporters – a majority of whom are old and white – don't care about policies (many of them have been voting against their own interests for years anyway), and so he goes straight to their sense of identity. Of course he can't make Mexico pay for a wall, but promising to do so assuages their fears of a country in which white people will, eventually, be a minority. If they cared about their jobs, that rage would be directed at the corporations that shipped them overseas, not the brown people coming here to park cars and pick fruit.

The new Public Policy Polling survey in South Carolina offers an interesting snapshot of Trump supporters:

“70 percent think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital, to only 20 percent who agree with it being taken down. In fact 38 percent of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War to only 24 percent glad the North won and 38 percent who aren't sure. Overall just 36 percent of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious to 30 percent for the South, but Trump's the only one whose supporters actually wish the South had won.”

These numbers are revealing. They're skewed slightly because it's South Carolina, but there's no question this is representative of Trump's broader support base. The word you hear most often from Trumpites is “authentic.” But that refers to a purity of expression as much as anything else. Trump appears honest because he never really says anything. He's a blank slate onto which people can project whatever they want or need to project. He says just enough to dog-whistle, to activate the anxieties of his supporters, and no more.

His pseudo-populism is a menagerie of parochialism, economic nationalism, and muscular isolationism. But none of these are ever defined. In truth, no “ism” sticks to Trump, because that implies an internally coherent philosophy. Trump is pure id – raw, unconscious and instinctual. He connects on an emotional level.

It's been fascinating to watch the conservative intelligentsia fumble in the dark for a solution to Trump. To begin with, the GOP has allowed itself to shape-shift over the course of the last five decades from a political party to a quasi-religious movement. Since Republicans embraced Nixon's “Southern Strategy” in 1968, which exploited racial and cultural resentment, the party has been less Milton Friedman and William Buckley and more Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell.

The GOP now consists mostly of old and angry white people who are rejecting a world they don't like or understand. The nativism and hysteria animating Trump's campaign has been at the center of Republican politics for a long time – Trump is simply capitalizing on it. That he's a self-funded outsider only adds to his credibility. Republicans have exercised the fears of their base for decades and yet they've failed to eradicate any of them. Trump won't make the world any whiter, just as he can't save the middle class from the encroachments of corporate America, but he's different and he pushes all the right buttons and he doesn't give a shit about political correctness – that, apparently, is enough to steal the hearts of Republican primary voters.

But attacking Trump on ideological grounds misses the point. He's an offspring of the Tea Party movement, which still defines the party and, in any case, wasn't about conservatism or even politics in the superficial sense. The Tea Party (which sprang up immediately after Obama's election) was a manifestation of the cultural and religious angst Republicans have cultivated in recent decades – policy was always an afterthought. Their concerns about individual liberty and big government, for example, were conspicuously dormant during George W. Bush's tenure. It wasn't until a black man was elected that all that rage exploded into a political movement.

Republican operatives are mystified that Trump is appealing to so many voters despite his disjointed views. He's supported Democrats in the past and he continues to take contradictory positions (if we can call them that) on abortion and trade and even entitlements, and none if it diminishes his popularity among conservatives. And that's because he's cut right through the ideological props and instead focused on more primitive fears – about Mexicans or Muslims or globalization.

It's too generous to call Trump an ideologue. He's much worse than that. He's a nihilist, and a caricature of self-promotion. But he grasps the conservative psyche and he knows how to whip people into a frenzy. If establishment Republicans think pointing out his ideological heterodoxy will dissuade his supporters, they don't understand what's happening.

Why Trump Is Dominating

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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