In the 2015-2016 Republican primary, Trump’s quick rise to the top surprised many who could not understand how a conservative could find a suitable leader in Trump. I was among those sorely disappointed with his nomination (I supported Cruz). Here I offer my explanation for his quick rise, an explanation that may trigger liberals and embarrass conservatives.
One aspect of Trump’s rise that surprised pundits was his lack of credentials. He had no experience in politics or public administration. Yet his supporters felt he was highly qualified. Supporters kept saying “he’s a businessman,” and “he gets things done,” as if this was the best possible background for the head of… well, the executive branch. People wanted a president whom they could trust to execute a coherent vision for the government, and businessmen are good at executing visions unmarred by political dissent.
This sentiment transcended party lines: many of Trump’s supporters had voted for Obama twice. Trump in 2016 by no means promised a conservative presidency. He touted not only repealing Obamacare but also replacing it—under Trump’s own brand. He called for heavy tariffs and withdrawal from international free trade agreements. He wanted to build a wall and promised revamped infrastructure. (If he had proven one thing with his real estate ventures, it was that he could build the kinds of structures that make Americans proud.) How did a New York businessman promising big government policies gain the Republican Party’s favor after the Tea Party had spent years brewing a hankering for small government?
Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom famously argues that weak socialists naturally lead to the ascendance of strong men. (See this comic for a great explanation!) When a well-meaning socialist makes big promises for social programs and fails to deliver on his promises, the unsatisfied populace looks for a strong man whom they perceive as a capable executive.
In 2008 and 2012, Obama promised easy healthcare access, an end to the recession, and (in the minds of many of his supporters) a new era of improved race relations. He sold himself on Hope.
But he failed to deliver. Congress hamstringed Obamacare, and insurance premiums rose sky-high. The economy saw a weak and disappointing recovery. In 2012, Paul Krugman argued on the pessimistic side that North America would face “a Japan-style era of high unemployment and slow growth.” Towards the end of Obama’s presidency, race relations worsened.
Trump’s meteoric rise in 2016 provides a case-in-point for Hayek’s model, with two happy caveats. Obama wasn’t a fully-fledged socialist, and Trump isn’t a fully-fledged strong man. Of course, these are all qualitative judgments. Nevertheless, while Obama pushed for some socialist policies, he never called for the government to cease all private industry; and while Trump exudes typical strong man macho, he has relinquished some of his chief goals (still no wall). In my sights, the American political system remains resilient, even if it’s taken a beating over the past twelve years.
About an hour and ten minutes into Thursday night’s (much better) debate, Trump challenged Biden with a series of questions: “But why didn’t he [Biden] do it four years ago? Why didn’t you [Biden] do that four years ago, even less than that? Why didn’t you do it? You were vice-president. You keep talking about all these things you’re gonna do, and you’re gonna do this, but you were there just a short time ago, and you guys did nothing. You know, Joe? I ran because of you. I ran because of Barack Obama. Because you did a poor job. If I thought you did a good job, I would’ve never run. I would’ve never run. I ran because of you. I’m looking at you now. You’re a politician. I ran because of you.”*
The truth Democrats hate to hear is that Obama’s administration created the motivation behind Trump’s rise. More than anyone else, their beloved Obama bears the onus.
November’s election will see Trump’s first supporters either vindicate or indict his first term in office, during which he’s kept parts of his original vision but found himself mired in political squabbles on other issues. Whatever the result in November, I hope that Trump’s time in office will let off the steam built up by unfulfilled expectations from Obama’s administration. Perhaps we will then be able to return to less personality-driven politics. Lastly, I hope the perspective I present here can serve as a warning for those who want to pursue more radically socialist campaigns. Doing so may just be asking for the rise of another strong man, and next time he may be much worse than Trump.
*Another clip, an hour and eighteen minutes into the debate, showed Trump’s executive strong man approach in contrast to Biden’s political approach:
Trump: “Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years with Obama. You know why, Joe? Because you’re all talk, and no action.”
Biden: “We had a Republican Congress. That’s the answer.”
Trump: “You gotta talk ‘em into it, Joe. Sometimes you gotta talk ‘em into it.”