The smart money still says Trump will crash and burn before getting the nomination. But everyone saying this should have to add “however, he’s certainly lasted much longer than we originally predicted.”
Scott Adams places the blame for this surprising perseverance on Trump-specific factors – namely, his brilliance as a persuader and manipulator. The mainstream media reports I’ve seen place it on Republican-specific factors, some combination of the words “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “white”, and “aggrieved entitlement”, followed by “therefore, Trump” – without a good explanation for why not therefore Scott Walker or therefore Rick Santorum.
I would argue it reflects a more general trend. As Exhibit A, I bring before the court Jeremy Corbyn.
In case you’re not following the United Kingdom: Labour, the UK’s major leftist party, is having leadership elections. Jeremy Corbyn is expected to win. In most ways, Corbyn is the diametric opposite of Trump. Trump is on the right, Corbyn is on the far left. Trump is inconsistent in his policy stances to the degree he even has any; Corbyn has strong opinions which he never deviates from even an inch. Trump has never held office; Corbyn has toiled in an unimpressive Parliamentary back bench position for decades. Trump is famously loud and bombastic, Corbyn is famously quiet and reserved, and likes to talk about things like gardening and how more people should be beekeepers.
But their rises to power look weirdly similar. Corbyn spent twenty years on the edges of British politics, mostly a figure of fun for his weird out-of-touch positions. When he announced the intention to run for Labour leader, everyone thought of it as a quixotic attempt to gain some free coverage, like when Dennis Kucinich runs for President. Some of the MPs who signed off on his candidacy request forms said they did it because they figured it wouldn’t matter one way or the other so they might as well make him happy. The media talked about how silly it was that he was even running at all. Then he started gathering momentum. The establishment freaked out and told everyone he was unacceptable and they were not to vote for him under any circumstances. A parade of important figures and personalities went on the news to personally beg voters not to vote for him under any circumstances, ably parodied by the Twitter account @corbynwarnings:
As Prime Minister, Corbyn Would Renationalise Children, Warns MP
— Corbyn Warnings (@CorbynWarnings) August 11, 2015
Corbyn 'Obsessed With Destroying The Moon', Warns MP
— Corbyn Warnings (@CorbynWarnings) August 11, 2015
Antibiotics Not Effective Against Corbyn, Warn Doctors
— Corbyn Warnings (@CorbynWarnings) August 13, 2015
Estimated 100% Of People Who Vote For Corbyn Will Die Within A Century, Warn Scientists
— Corbyn Warnings (@CorbynWarnings) August 12, 2015
Nevertheless, Corbyn seems amply placed to win the election, and British bookmakers give 3:1 odds in his favor. What happened?
Well, for one thing, this is the first year people are allowed to vote directly for the Labour leader. So it might just mean the British Left was really really far left for a long time and nobody noticed before this.
But the analogy with Trump seems a little too good. People like the same things about both of them. They speak their mind. They don’t care what anyone else thinks. And the establishment obviously hates both.
People have always liked outsiders. But now it’s starting to get ridiculous.
Everyone knows that America is getting more ideologically polarized these days. The right is getting rightier. The left is getting leftier. This puts the Establishment in a bind. The winning strategy had always been to play to the fringe for the primary, then veer towards the center for the general election; the fringe would grumble, but if you played it right you could mollify them and be all things to all people. But now the distance from the fringe to the center is much larger, and proportionally harder to cover without an obvious betrayal. A candidate who wants to get elected on the national level, or even on a local level if the local area is ideologically diverse enough, has to make that betrayal.
Worse, once they’re elected they’ve got to deal with reality. If you try to be too liberal (like raising the minimum wage to $15) or too conservative (like building an immigration wall), then businesspeople with a vested interest in the economy continuing to work start yelling at you, and maybe you back down. There’s this archetypal image of the new President-elect walking into the White House on day one and very serious men in suits telling him “Okay, here are the planks of your campaign platform which don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of working and which you are going to drop,” and probably he listens. The clearest example here would be Obama promising to close Guantanamo Bay by 2010, followed by him getting elected and someone asking “Okay, and exactly how are you going solve all of the legal hurdles to doing this?”
The base doesn’t have to worry about reality. If, as people like Robin Hanson suggest, politics is not about carefully selecting policies that most benefit the country so much as about signalling values and ingroup membership, then the base will be interested in enforcing its own particular extremism.
In the past, the center and the fringe were close enough for an uneasy compromise: sure, the base would gripe about “the establishment” and light up at the mention of “an outsider”, but sufficiently canny politicians could still navigate a careful path between their competing demands.
Now that’s becoming harder. The base thinks of the establishment not just as suspicious but as actively hostile; thus the rise of the Tea Party, whose whole purpose was to elect a new kind of conservative who wouldn’t cave in to big government liberals like all the other kinds of conservatives did, and who were a constant thorn in the side of a Republican Party trying to get the most electable people in power so they could do the most electable things.
But now the Tea Party’s actually attained some power, they can’t deny reality any better than their predecessors, and so they keep doing all sorts of crazy things like not shutting down the government over each real or imagined slight. Where do you go from there?
Apparently, you go to Trump.
The most salient feature of Trump – I would say the only salient feature of Trump – is that the establishment hates him. Reince Priebus goes to sleep at night and has nightmares about Trump. The liberal media has important-looking people coming on in suits saying it’s a national embarrassment that anyone could vote for Trump. But in signaling terms, what they’re unintentionally saying is “Moderates hate this guy! He’s too politically incorrect to win over Democrats! Only vote for him if you’re a real Republican.” And Republicans are eating it up. It doesn’t even matter that he’s not that conservative in real life, the media has conducted his campaign for him. Every bad thing the media and the establishment say about him will just make him more popular.
And the same seems true of Jeremy Corbyn.
Warning About Corbyn Only Makes Him Stronger, Warns MP
— Corbyn Warnings (@CorbynWarnings) August 14, 2015
Trace this tendency far enough, and I think it explains why Bernie Sanders is doing better than expected, why Ben Carson has the Republican 2nd place right now, and maybe why Obama won his surprise upset over Hillary in 2008. I predict we are in for a lot more interesting Corbyn-style surprises.