Understanding Donald Trump Supporters

Alexander J. Segal's picture

I recently came across a very interesting question on Quora:

What if on the first year of Trump presidency, he doesn't deliver as he promised? [see question]

I provided a long and detailed answer on Quora from the Republican perspective, but I would like to expand on it here since this is a very interesting question.

In the National Review's “Against Trump” issue, Thomas Sowell wrote:

In a country with more than 300 million people, it is remarkable how obsessed the media have become with just one — Donald Trump. What is even more remarkable is that, after seven years of repeated disasters, both domestically and internationally, under a glib egomaniac in the White House, so many potential voters are turning to another glib egomaniac to be his successor.1

I am certainly just as disturbed as Sowell that a sizable number of my fellow “Republicans” seem to be throwing their lots in with the “glib egomaniac” reality television star. It is even more remarkable that many of these were the same people who have spent years criticizing the many Americans who were swept up by the simple and empty phrases of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns.

However, with respect to the question on Quora, it is important to note that Trump's support is still limited. Even in his best polls, he does not command anywhere close to a majority of the Republican electorate. Furthermore, even his large victory in New Hampshire only netted him about 35% of the Republican voters there. While it is clear that if Trump were to become President — which would have to occur without my help — he would have gained the votes of a wider swath of voters than those who currently support him in the Republican primaries, it is also important to not overstate the reach of the media-fueled Trump-mania. Trump is still broadly unpopular, even with Republicans, and all of us who seek what is best for the United States can only hope that his disgusting performance in the Republican debate in South Carolina on February 13 will help his supporters see the error in their ways.

It is fair to assume that the people who would have the highest expectations for a Trump presidency would be his core supporters, not those who would cast a ballot for him as the least of two or three evils while holding their noses. This led me to address an interesting question: why do these people support someone as clearly unqualified and unfit for the presidency as Donald Trump?

First, Trump offers the public empty promises with immense bombast. It is a sad fact that many voters are not looking for detailed and sober answers to the complicated issues facing our country. Rather, the people who are attracted to Trump are looking for broad promises that everything is simple and can be fixed by a “winner.” Many of Trump's supporters, just like many of President Obama's supporters in 2008 and 2012 and Bernie Sanders' supporters this year, are ready to accept the candidate who offers the broadest and cheapest promises wrapped in the most simplistic and populist agenda.

Trump is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider the spread of communism in the 20th century. Communist politicians sought to explain the world in very simple terms to the majority of people, terms which always set the problems at the feet of others and promised simple and sweeping solutions. It should have been immediately evident to most observers — communist country globetrotter Bernie Sanders not among them — that communism was a failure. Yet, it took seventy years of desolation in the Soviet Union and sixty-million dead for many people to understand the magnitude of communism's failure. What is more, even after the catastrophe of the Soviet Union and other communist failed states, we have countries like Venezuela where large numbers of people elect people who promise easy solutions and free things only to end up ruining their countries.

To be sure, the American public is savvier and better educated than countries where communism or communist ideas took hold. Yet, many voters are not beyond being bought by the same tricks used by third-rate leftist governments in places such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and others. Many who were sold by Twitter-ready slogans such as “Yes we can!” in 2008 have seen how the lofty promises and rhetoric of a campaign can be tempered by the realities of actually being the president of the United States. Even those who for some reason swear by the ostensible accomplishments of the Obama administration would have to concede that it has fallen well short of his campaign rhetoric in 2008.

In 2008, voters believed a man who had spent most of his adult life as a community organizer leading chants of “Yes we can!” (let us not forget, a phrase that was popularized in the popular children's show, Bob the Builder), and this year many of the people who scorned those voters in 2008 now support a reality television star who promises to make Mexico build a wall and walks around in a baseball cap that says “Make America Great Again!” Underlying Trump's empty slogan is the promise that he is rich and a winner, and therefore he will make America, and you, rich and a winner. How? To answer would be to reveal trade secrets. Just trust him because he is rich and a winner (he wants you to do this rather than to assess the substance of his positions and public statements).

Certainly, I think that Trump's core supporters would be very disappointed when they realize that Trump did not actually have any concrete ideas of how to make America great again, aside from trying to build a wall and starting a trade war with China. I can imagine that it would be rather disheartening to learn that your strongman was actually full of empty rhetoric rather than solutions. We can only hope that Trump's core supporters come to understand that a positive step toward making America great again is to vote for one of the four eminently qualified gentleman (Rubio, Bush, Cruz, Kasich) running against him (Iowa set an example) for the nomination before they have to learn that Trump is full of it the hard way.

Perhaps the Democratic primary provides a blueprint for how disillusioned Trump supporters would react to a failed Trump administration. As the media explains to us that Trump is unstoppable after obtaining 35% of the vote in New Hampshire, an actual self-described socialist with a long history of dalliances with the communist movement won 60% of the Democratic vote in New Hampshire. Like Trump, Bernie Sanders explains to voters that every problem is the responsibility of someone else, and that he will be able to radically redistribute wealth and create massive new “free” programs that will be in fact paid for in large part by his supporters' tax money. As I see it, the major difference between Trump and Sanders is that Sanders seems to, for better or worse, actually believe what he is saying. While Sanders has plenty of supporters who were too young to vote in 2008, it is possible that many Democrats decided after the disappointments of the Obama administration and its failure to “fundamentally transform America,” what is needed is someone with no record of accomplishment who promises to fundamentally transform America more dramatically than Obama did. To these voters, Hillary Clinton's promises of competence and building off the “successes” of the Obama administration are unappealing (they are to me too, but likely for different reasons). It goes to show that the response to disillusionment is not necessarily sobriety, but rather the acceptance of even more faddish movements in the future.

For the sake of this great country, I hope that we never have to find out how Trump or Sanders supporters would react to the failure of a Trump or Sanders administration. The Obama experience and history from around the world goes to show that in addition to the severe damage Trump or Sanders could do to the country, it is quite possible their supporters would not properly evaluate the mistake they made in supporting them in the first place.


  1. “Conservatives Against Trump,” NRO (Jan 21, 2016) http://c7.nrostatic.com/article/430126/donald-trump-conservatives-oppose-nomination
Understanding Donald Trump Supporters