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Robert Reich: Why Trump Might Win

Examining the mysteries of the Trump appeal.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released on May 22nd finds Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a statistical tie, with Trump leading Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent among registered voters. That’s an 11 percent swing against Clinton since March.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, also released Sunday, shows Clinton at 46 percent to Trump’s 43 percent. Previously she led 50 percent to 39 percent.

Polls this far before an election don’t tell us much. But in this case they do raise a serious question.

Since he clinched the Republican nomination in May, Trump has been the object of even more unfavorable press than he was before—about his treatment of women, his propensity to lie, his bizarre policy proposals.

Before this came months of news coverage of his bigotry, megalomania, narcissism, xenophobia, refusals to condemn violence at his rallies, refusals to distance himself from white supremacists, and more lies.

So how can Trump be pulling even with Hillary Clinton?

Throughout the Republican primaries, pundits and pollsters repeatedly told us he’d peaked, that his most recent outrageous statement was his downfall, that he was viewed as so unlikeable he didn’t stand a chance of getting the nomination.

But in my travels around the country I’ve found many who support him precisely because of the qualities he’s being criticized for having.

A Latina-American from Laredo, Texas, tells me she and most of her friends are for Trump because he wants to keep Mexicans out. She thinks too many Mexicans have come here illegally, making it harder for those here legally.

A union member from Pittsburgh says he’s for Trump because he’ll be tough on American companies shipping jobs abroad, tough with the Chinese, tough with Muslims. A small businessman in Cincinnati tells me he’s for Trump because “Trump’s not a politician. He’ll give them hell in Washington.”

The former reality TV star who repeatedly told contestants they were “fired!” appears tough and confrontational enough to take on powerful vested interests.

Political analysts have underestimated Trump from the jump because they’ve been looking through the rear-view mirror of politics as it used to be.

Trump’s rise suggests a new kind of politics. You might call it anti-politics.

The old politics pitted right against left, with presidential aspirants moving toward the center once they cinched the nomination.

Anti-politics pits Washington insiders, corporate executives, bankers, and media moguls against a growing number of people who think the game is rigged against them. There’s no center, only hostility and suspicion.

Americans who feel like they’re being screwed are attracted to an authoritarian bully—a strongman who will kick ass. The former reality TV star who repeatedly told contestants they were “fired!” appears tough and confrontational enough to take on powerful vested interests.

The new era of anti-politics Americans are skeptical of well-crafted speeches and detailed policy proposals. They prefer authenticity.

That most Americans don’t particularly like Trump is irrelevant. As one Midwesterner told me a few weeks ago, “He may be a jerk, but he’s our jerk.”

By the same token, in this era of anti-politics, any candidate who appears to be the political establishment is at a strong disadvantage. This may be Hillary Clinton’s biggest handicap.

The old politics featured carefully crafted speeches and policy proposals calculated to appeal to particular constituencies. In this sense, Mrs. Clinton’s proposals and speeches are almost flawless.

But in the new era of anti-politics Americans are skeptical of well-crafted speeches and detailed policy proposals. They prefer authenticity. They want their candidates unscripted and unfiltered.

A mid-level executive in Salt Lake City told me he didn’t agree with Trump on everything but supported him because “the guy is the real thing. He says what he believes, and you know where he stands.”

In the old politics, political parties, labor unions and business groups, and the press mediated between individual candidates and the public—explaining a candidate’s positions, endorsing candidates, organizing and mobilizing voters.

Donald Trump has perfected the art of anti-politics at a time when the public detests politics.

In this era of anti-politics, it’s possible for anyone with enough ego, money, and audacity—in other words, Donald Trump—to do it all himself: declaring himself a candidate; communicating with and mobilizing voters directly through Twitter and other social media; and getting free advertising in mainstream media by being outrageous, politically incorrect, and snide. Official endorsements are irrelevant.

Donald Trump has perfected the art of anti-politics at a time when the public detests politics. Which is why so many experts in how politics used to be played have continuously underestimated his chances.

And why Trump’s demagoguery—channeling the prejudices and fears of Americans who have been losing ground—makes him the most dangerous nominee of a major political party in American history.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.

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