Donald Trump is polling higher than ever in surveys of likely Republican voters, now capturing over 40% of them. His fiery and increasingly extreme populism has marked him out as a remarkably extreme candidate – one in a tradition that stretches back decades.
Demagogic, radical populist presidential candidates are certainly nothing new. In the last 50 years, several political outsiders have crashed into election cycles with serious challenges to established party figures, all whipping up popular rage at the establishment and seriously affecting the US’s electoral balance in one way or another.
In 1968 George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran on a third-party platform to obstruct federal desegregation efforts; he ultimately won several of the southern states. In June 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot actually briefly led the polls against George Bush senior and Bill Clinton. He eventually won 19% of the vote at the general election, although not a single Electoral College vote. And in 1996, Pat Buchanan staged a serious challenge to Bob Dole in the 1996 Republican primaries by winning the New Hampshire primary only to be roundly defeated in the “Super Tuesday” contests later in the year.
So is Trump’s spectacularly disruptive campaign really so exceptional – and if so, why?
That he’s running so strongly for the Republican nomination rather than outside the mainstream hardly makes him an exception. While all three of the aforementioned men led third-party challenges at various points, Wallace and Buchanan began their careers firmly within the two main parties. And if Trump fails to win the nomination he could still run from outside the two-party system as his predecessors did. (He first promised not to, then hedged that promise, and has now made it again.)
But whereas Trump is a political opportunist par excellence, all three of the earlier challengers were defined by their ideological and policy consistency: Wallace was driven by his determination to preserve the segregationist order in the south; Perot was a right-wing technocrat and foreign policy isolationist with a penchant for charts and graphs; and Buchanan’s project was to return the Republican Party to its historic position as a supporter of small government, isolationism, and social conservatism. All three were deeply suspicious of the federal government.
Trump, on the other hand, has for years constantly adapted his policy positions in order to generate maximum publicity, and many of his professed stances imply the expansion of federal authority.
He was a strong supporter of the bailout of the automobile industry in 2009, and his calls for the mass deportation of 10m undocumented Mexican immigrants – not to mention a ban on Muslims entering the US and for the carpet bombing of Islamic State positions in Syria – all imply a draconian increase in federal police and military power.
Similarly, his much-vaunted tax reform plan, supposedly intended to greatly simplify the federal tax code, is by his own admission “revenue neutral” – hardly a policy that will endear him to the evangelical fiscal conservatives who populate much of the Republican base.
This is all testament to the fact that Trump is ultimately a showman. Barack Obama’s 2011 description of him as a “carnival barker” is hardly wide of the mark. By his own admission his starring role on the US version of The Apprentice gave him the sort of national exposure that was crucial in raising his political profile. Trump takes every opportunity to steal the limelight. As a result he has become not just a national figure but also a world figure.
And while Wallace, Perot and Buchanan also understood the value of showmanship, none were in Trump’s league; Perot and Buchanan in particular had little in the way of personal charisma.
Trump’s barnstorming persona isn’t so far removed from Wallace’s. Like Trump, Wallace could play to the crowd, challenge hecklers, and turn personal criticism to his advantage. He also understood the sense of powerlessness that pervaded his predominantly white working-class supporters.
The big difference today is that Trump uses his showmanship across a wide range of issues. In contrast, Wallace was a one-trick-pony, exclusively exploiting the federal government’s position on race.
Trump, does, of course, also have the advantage of being able to exploit technology and the media in ways that disseminate his message far and wide. And crucially, he’s running for election at a time when, controlling for opinion during recessions, more Americans are more disillusioned with the way the country is going than at any time in the last 25 years.
When asked whether the country is going in the right direction or on the wrong track, roughly two thirds of Americans now choose the latter – this in spite of relatively low unemployment, healthy economic growth and a quite remarkable turnaround in federal government finances over the last five years.
Among the most disillusioned are the white working-class, whose real incomes and job security have been steadily eroded over several decades. For the first time since polling began, about as many Americans now call themselves working-class, lower-class or upper-middle-class as call themselves middle-class. The lower economic echelons are growing in size, and the concentration of privilege at the top is intensifying.
The result is a sense of deep insecurity, which Trump is tapping to great effect. Indeed, the more outrageous his comments about Mexicans, Muslims and working women are, the more he is cheered on by his core supporters – 55% of whom are white working-class Americans.
Wallace and Perot also tapped into this constituency, but at that time it was smaller, more geographically concentrated, and neither whipped into a frenzy by outlets such as Fox News nor able to share its anger with like-minded souls via social media.
None of this means that Trump will triumph by winning the nomination, let alone the general election – not least because he faces a byzantine primary and caucus system that favours party establishment figures, especially in large “blue states” whose Republican voters tend to be more moderate.
But even if Trump fails, he has already transformed the electoral landscape by forcing the hands of more moderate figures such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Whatever the outcome of his run, Trump can still greatly affect the result of the general election – and all to the advantage of the Democrats.
Their likely candidate, Hillary Clinton, can not only count on support from black and Latino voters, working women, secular Americans and coastal metropolitan types, but who would also benefit from moderate voters turning away from what they see as the “crazies” that increasingly hold sway on the other side.
So even if he falls short of winning the nomination and makes the Republicans’ odds of winning the White House substantially longer, Trump has already begun changing American politics in ways his radical predecessors couldn’t.