In case one missed it, John Judis has an article on the National Journal website, dated October 2nd, “The Return of the Middle American Radical: An intellectual history of Trump supporters,” that is one of the best I’ve read on the Trump phenomenon. Judis’s analysis is inspired by a little-known 1976 book by the relatively little-known, now deceased sociologist Donald Warren, who coined the category “Middle American Radicals” (MARS) to designate the voters who supported George Wallace’s presidential candidacy in 1968 and ’72—the type of voters who, Judis says, supported Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s, and are Donald Trump’s base today. Warren, in Judis’s words, described the 1970s MARS as
a group who defied the usual partisan and ideological divisions. These voters were not college educated; their income fell somewhere in the middle or lower-middle range; and they primarily held skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs or sales and clerical white-collar jobs. At the time, they made up about a quarter of the electorate. What distinguished them was their ideology: It was neither conventionally liberal nor conventionally conservative, but instead revolved around an intense conviction that the middle class was under siege from above and below.
“MARS [were] distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected, [seeing] government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply suspicious of big business: Compared with the other groups [Warren] surveyed—lower-income whites, middle-income whites who went to college, and what Warren called “affluents”—MARS were the most likely to believe that corporations had “too much power,” “don’t pay attention,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many liberal programs: By a large percentage, they favored government guaranteeing jobs to everyone; and they supported price controls, Medicare, some kind of national health insurance, federal aid to education, and Social Security.
But if these positions were liberal-sounding, the MARS were very conservative on issues relating to poverty, race (i.e. they didn’t like black people; and today, Latino immigrants), and law-and-order. And they were strongly nationalistic (thus the present-day allergy to free trade and globalization). They were also the voting group the most distrustful of the federal government, though wanted a strongman in the White House. On this, Judis writes
[I]n subtle and not so subtle ways, [Wallace, Buchanan, Perot, and Trump] have also endorsed a more powerful executive at the top. Wallace, who had thoroughly dominated Alabama’s politics, was seen by critics as a potential “dictator.” Buchanan, who had served Richard Nixon through Watergate, touted the legacy of his former boss. Perot called for plebiscites to determine key economic policies—which would have had the effect of establishing a direct relationship between the people and the president, thereby bypassing Congress. For his part, Trump envisages the president acting as the “deal-maker in chief.” In a 1982 essay, “Message from MARS,” Sam Francis, who would later advise Buchanan during his campaigns, called this outlook “Caesarism”; it is also reminiscent of Latin American populists like Juan Peron.
Caesarism, a.k.a. Bonapartism, as I titled my post on Trump early last month. And continuing with French analogies, the French equivalent of MARS is exactly, precisely the kind of voters who support the Front National (père and fille alike).
Judis puts the MARS at some 20% of the American electorate and 30-35% of the GOP’s. It has been my conviction—and I’m hardly alone on this—that Trump’s poll numbers will decline as the campaign progresses and that he won’t go the distance. But who knows? I don’t dare hazard predictions on the GOP race. If Trump does fade or drop out at some point—which is no sure thing—I have been assuming that many of his supporters will shift to Ted Cruz. But in view of the Warren/Judis profile of the MARS, this assumption needs revising. In point of fact, if one looks at what the exit polls said about Perot’s vote in ’92 and ’96—and, in France, of the behavior of Le Pen voters in the second rounds of presidential elections since 1988—a certain number of MARS voters—a fifth to a third—would (or did) end up voting for the candidate of the liberal-left (US Democrat, French Socialist) if their champion was not on the ballot, and with a sizable portion—up to a third—staying home. So if Trump were to leave the race, his supporters would likely disperse in several directions, including abstention.
Also in the National Journal is a commentary, dated October 19th, by its editorial director, Richard Brownstein, that continues in Judis’s vein, “Donald Trump’s Lead Explained in Two Sentences.” Brownstein begins
The blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate has consolidated around one candidate.
The party’s white-collar wing remains fragmented.
That may be the most concise explanation of the dynamic that has propelled Donald Trump to a consistent and sometimes commanding lead in the early stages of the GOP presidential nomination contest.
Both national and state polls show Trump opening a substantial lead among Republican voters without a college education almost everywhere. And in almost all cases, Trump is winning more support from noncollege Republicans than any candidate is attracting from Republican voters with at least a four-year education. “It’s a challenge to Republicans that nobody has consolidated the college-graduate vote against Trump,” says Glen Bolger, a longtime GOP pollster skeptical of the front-runner.
In other words, Trump is cementing a strong blue-collar base, while the white-collar voters relatively more resistant to him have yet to unify around any single alternative. That disparity is critical because in both the 2008 and 2012 GOP nomination fights, voters with and without a four-year college degree each cast almost exactly half of the total primary votes, according to cumulative analyses of exit poll results by ABC pollster Gary Langer. With the two wings evenly matched in size, Trump’s greater success at consolidating his “bracket” explains much of his advantage in the polls.
The incarnation of the GOP white-collar candidate, Jeb Bush, is the subject of a comment Elizabeth Drew posted on the NYRB’s blog, “The Big Bush Question” (October 21st). When it became clear last spring that Jeb would be entering the race, I peremptorily proclaimed him the near-certain GOP nominee for ’16. How silly of me.
UPDATE: Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, has an essay (December 2nd) on “How George Wallace predicted Donald Trump.” The lede: “Trump’s more of a narcissist, but cuts an oddly similar swath through the country’s politics.”