Editor’s Note: Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Rogan: Americans are exceptionally angry with the political establishment
President Obama is partly to blame for disenchantment with the status quo
As an American who grew up in part overseas, I am well aware of the fact that citizens of other nations often find US politics to be, well, very strange. That’s never been truer than in this election.
“After all”, many foreigners ask, “how could Americans even consider choosing a blustering billionaire over an experienced former senator and secretary of state?”
The answer is fourfold: anger, economics, cronyism, and identity politics
America is angry
First off, Americans are exceptionally angry with their political establishment. As a definitive Washington DC insider and Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton was always a natural target for this anger.
But the anger has a foundation. Many Americans view President Obama and members of Congress as having failed to deliver on their promises of a better nation.
Republican voters lament increasing spending and a ballooning national debt. Democratic voters lament Obama’s inability to get more laws through Congress. Independent voters (those not aligned with either party) lament the relentless partisan bickering.
As a once-in-a-generation political outsider, Trump has been able to capitalize on this discontent. Yes, the vast majority of his supporters are Republicans. But many others – in swing states like Florida and Ohio – are independents. Some even are Democrats.
Trump’s core success here has been his usurpation of amorphous anger into his political identity. Becoming the candidate of the angry disenchanted, Trump has made Clinton the candidate of the status quo.
The second issue that hurts Clinton and helps Trump is the economy.
While the recession is over and unemployment rates have fallen, a lot of Americans don’t feel it. Their doubt is supported by an increasingly weak employment participation rate and record numbers of Americans stuck in part-time work. Whatever one thinks of his policies or personality, Trump has capitalized on this economic doubt.
Using the decline in US manufacturing jobs as a metaphor for all economic doubts, Trump blames China and free trade and ignores technological changes. Though disingenuous, this populism – delivered with anger and charisma – is Trump’s Excalibur. And he wields it by weaponizing these doubts against his opponent.
Trump claims he’ll bring back hundreds of thousands of jobs. Then, in the next sentence, he attacks Clinton as a globalist beholden to global liberalism, rather than American workers. Trump used this strategy to good effect in the debates.
Trump’s charisma must not be underestimated when it comes to the economy. While many Americans view him as a vile narcissist, his offering of easy choices and confident leadership is tempting. I once lamented, on “The McLaughlin Group” TV show, Trump’s refusal to consider entitlement reform. As a conservative, I believe this is the key issue facing the US today.
My fellow conservative and Trump supporter on the panel, Pat Buchanan, offered a sharp rebuke. “Let me tell you what would be a joke,” he said, “walking out there and saying we’re going to cut Medicare!”
In campaign terms, Pat was right. In the same way, Trump’s economic message is one people want to hear, and avoids that which they don’t. It works.
Next up, there’s Clinton Inc. Whether it’s the email saga, or Clinton’s pay-to-play tenure at the State Department (seats on commissions appear to have been given in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation), or her big-buck speeches on Wall Street, Hillary Clinton does not have a reputation for honesty.
On the contrary, in many ways Clinton is a made-for Trump caricature of Washington DC cronyism. This record – and Clinton’s persistent refusal to show regret for it – has helped Trump shape an unusual narrative for the electorate: You not might like his gauche rhetoric, but at least he owns it. Clinton, however, is simply a liar.
Still, perhaps the most important issue against Clinton and in Trump’s favor is identity politics. Whether it be his proposed ban on Muslims, or his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, or his bombastic (if undefined) threats to annihilate ISIS, Trump persuades voters that he will protect them.
US society is growing more diverse and the world is growing more dangerous. For Americans focused primarily on paying the bills, Trump’s rhetoric against foreigners who either steal jobs or threaten lives strikes a nerve.
Obama is partly to blame here. His failed foreign policy and his flippant attitude to immigration law have angered many voters and discredited former Cabinet member Clinton.
That said, Clinton has herself to blame for much of Trump’s success. Take free trade. Trump’s anti-free trade sentiment has put him in pole position in the key swing state of Ohio. Instead of explaining how free trade saves hundreds of millions of Americans thousands of dollars annually, Clinton has flip-flopped. She used to be for free trade but today she is in a no man’s land between free trade and anti-trade. It’s a perfect error: No one believes Clinton is anything other than free trade, and so she’s ceded the debate to Trump. Clinton’s only rebuke here? Complaining that Trump makes his ties in China.
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Trump, in turn, says that this is good business sense and that he’ll do things differently when his priorities change as president. His supporters cheer, and Democrats and Independents give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a metaphor for the 2016 campaign: Trump’s fakeness veiled in populist charisma against Clinton’s never-ending political calculations.
Nevertheless, don’t take this article as a prediction of an impending Trump victory. He has upset many Republicans, most notably via his comments on women and fallen service personnel. But he may win. And if he does, these will be the reasons why.