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The Meaning Of Donald Trump

In this week’s 2016 Slack Chat, we leave the horse race aside to look for meaning in Donald Trump’s romp through the world of politics. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): The year is just about over, and we at FiveThirtyEight spent a good deal of time in 2015 arguing that Donald Trump has little chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. Some political observers, however, have found fault with that focus.

In the Washington Post earlier this month, Dave Weigel wrote that many data journalists (including those at this site) were so focused on showing that Trump couldn’t win the nomination that they missed the story of the political groundswell that brought him to such prominence. “Arguing that ‘news’ consists of who will win a contest is arguing for the cancellation of most news,” he wrote.

Obviously, no one is arguing that the only thing that matters is who wins. Saying Trump has little chance of winning is not the same thing as saying he’s not a story — it’s not like the world is lacking for Trump coverage.

But let’s confront this question head-on: Does Trump’s polling lead for the last several months tell us something new about the country or Republican Party? Forget the horse-race, what have you learned from the Trump phenomenon of 2015?

farai (Farai Chideya, senior writer): We’re in a period of high economic anxiety, which can exacerbate racial, ethnic and religious tensions. Although real wages have recovered in the past 10 years, they are still not much higher than they were a decade ago. So to me, this is an election rife with understandable but misplaced outrage over the American quality of life, and Donald Trump is happy to mine that.

If you look back, the two comparisons that make the most sense are Pat Buchanan and George Wallace. George Wallace was adept at racial rhetoric, but there was also a sizable group of white Southerners who knew blacks would be competing with them for jobs.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I had the same inclination with Buchanan and Wallace. I really was struck by the Wallace similarity. The end of the 1960s was a time when a lot of white voters thought that this country was getting away from them. Obviously, we know about southern whites, but northern whites were angry too, about what they viewed as the decay of the inner city. They were upset that folks like Martin Luther King Jr. were coming up and fighting on behalf of black workers in the north.

And what’s so interesting about Wallace (unlike Buchanan) is that it really wasn’t about religion. You look at the American National Elections Studies, and you see that Wallace got 19 percent among whites with less than a high school education, 14 percent among those with a high school education, 11 percent among those with some college education and 3 percent among those with a college education or greater. (The relative differences held controlling for region). And unlike Buchanan (who did far better with religious voters), Wallace did best among those who never attended religious services.

farai: Agreed. I think a couple of numbers about income still tell a story. In 1968, black family poverty was 30 percent (or for “Negro and other races”) vs. 7.8 percent for whites.

In the 1990 census, just a couple years before Buchanan’s 1992 run, you have black families earning, on average, $18,676 compared to $22,330 for Hispanics and $31,231 for white families.

The comparisons are stark. But we rate ourselves as social animals in comparison to those around us. And it’s possible to be at the top of the heap, comparatively, and still be anxious about your position in the world. And I think we saw that with all three of these candidates.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): When I’m sitting back and thinking about the Trump phenom, I’m honestly spending a lot of time thinking over the debate about things like “political correctness” that has been percolating for much of the election. It’s something that all the GOP candidates have sort of dog-whistled with, and basically what they’re saying to a certain kind of voter is, “we know you feel out of place in a lot of cultural discussions in America right now.” Trump is just the person who has enough overwhelming id to have put it not in dog-whistle terms, but in declarative sentences.

And I think this kind of new front of the culture wars is something that’s appealing to a certain kind of Republican, but it’s also appealing to the Reagan Democrats out there, and it’s making you realize that there’s a certain segment of the electorate that’s feeling a lot more alienated than a lot of us ever knew, and now they’ve got an angry political voice.

harry: It’s analogous to Wallace’s “work and soap” line — the idea of standing up to “hippies” during the 1968 campaign. [Wallace told a group of leftist hecklers that there were two words they didn’t know: work and soap.] That type of thing definitely appealed to a certain subset of voters.

clare.malone: I think the “soap” thing is an interesting point: Rubio’s newest Iowa ad is called “Essence of America” and the opening line is, “This election is about the essence of America, about all of us who feel out of place in our own country.”

farai: Buchanan did go for a more overarching version of social conservatism, with his famous 1992 culture war speech — “a religious war going on in our country and for the soul of America.”

micah: So let me push back a bit: It does seem like the forces driving Trump’s popularity include economic/ethnic angst and a frustration with PC policing, but weren’t we already aware of those? (See the Tea Party wave of 2010.)

farai: I think, Micah, it also reflects a deep distrust of establishment politicians, many of whom, themselves, inveigh against government as broken. So, if you’re told government is broken long enough by the party insiders, why wouldn’t you go for outsiders?

clare.malone: So Micah, I think we were aware of people feeling a little out of step with the conversation being presented by the yes, East Coast media (!) but we didn’t realize how isolated they felt.

farai: But here’s the thing: Trump is punching hard at some demographic groups that are a small part of the U.S. population, like Muslims, but have been forced into a big political role — I’d argue as a punching bag.

How the GOP is expecting to get a broad Latino crossover vote in 2016 I have no idea.

micah: So Clare and Farai, on both points, it seems more a matter of degrees: Politicians have used anti-Muslim language before, but it was more coded. We knew some white suburban and rural voters, especially those without a college degree and lower on the income ladder, were alienated, but we didn’t know to what extent.

clare.malone: Correct.

farai: Clare, I spent a fair amount of time in 2010 with a tea party group and also in Gainesville, Florida, before the Koran burning. I’d say the 2010 midterm laid a fair amount of groundwork for 2016, ideologically. And often from people who gave a lot back to their communities (at least the individual tea party members I met) but could not really cross the line to seeing the political interests of others in a diverse nation.

harry: I mean look at this ad from Wallace in 1968. This wasn’t so coded on race, and it was also pretty anti-free trade:

farai: One thing that has really changed — and thanks for the ad, Harry, really enlightening — is that Trump is getting so much free press he doesn’t really need much in the way of ads.

clare.malone: Harry, your trawling of late 1960s political YouTube pays off!

harry: I’m always looking for interesting videos on YouTube.

farai: I think a lot of GOP strategists are questioning how powerful they let Trump become; but some reporters are also starting to wonder what our calculus in the matter is. And Pat Buchanan was a master of free airtime, shifting seamlessly several times from candidate to pundit.

clare.malone: Well, I think what GOP strategists are taking from Trump is a page out of his playbook, granted more artfully done. I’ll point back to that Rubio ad — it’s about feelings of estrangement from America. That’s pretty radical, no? (Radical for an establishment guy.)

micah: I’m not sure it’s that different than the “take our country back” language of Palin in 2008, or many others since.

harry: I think that’s right on Buchanan. He was a television “star” like Trump before he ran, so in that way the two are very similar.

farai: What I think is interesting about Rubio making the claim to estrangement is that his parents are Cuban immigrants (as he repeats constantly on the trail), and he’s making an appeal that seemingly would reach his white core voters, but I’d love to see how that ad polls with GOP Latinos.

harry: My main point on Rubio is that Trump has shifted the entire conversation. Now, Cruz has a legitimate shot to win the nomination because, next to Trump, he seems much more mainstream. That is, he is more acceptable to the East Coast establishment. And when you combine that with evangelical support, it’s a possible winner. Trump has opened the door to possibilities that seemed far-fetched before.

farai: Again, I just don’t think — and nor, apparently, do all the GOP strategists whose memos have been leaked or who have even, occasionally, spoken for attribution — the GOP is going to do well in the long run with this seemingly endless 2016 nativist speak-streak. Within 30 years, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority of the population (not, at first, of the voting population, but overall).

clare.malone: Right, Harry. I think the lasting Trump effect on this race is that the really, really, really conservative guys (or what would have been considered such 10-15 years ago) now look pretty down the GOP middle.

And Farai, I agree it’s a huge problem for the GOP long-term. And I think people like Lindsey Graham, lauded dropout, know that, and are hella worried about it.

micah: Let me channel our vacationing editor-in-chief Nate Silver: What if Trump finishes second or third in Iowa, same in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He chugs along for a while with 15-20 percent of the vote. Or, maybe he quits the race after New Hampshire. Won’t the fact that we spent much of 2015 hyperventilating about Trump seem silly in retrospect?

farai: No. He’s still setting the ideological pace. And he’ll be in tons of Democratic attack ads during the general election.

micah: Well, maybe not silly, but won’t we have to then ask the question of how much of the Trump phenomena was media created?

harry: It obviously depends, right? Did Trump affect the ultimate winner? If it’s someone like Cruz, I’d definitely argue he did. If however, Rubio wins, then we might end up with a 1968 situation. That is, Wallace got a good chunk of the vote, but Nixon won and would have won anyway.

clare.malone: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s easy to write an op-ed about the media, saying we must make cooler heads prevail and we should have all ignored Trump, but I think there was and is a real story in how alarming or conversely how alluring he is to voters.

It’s our increasingly American tendency towards taking the conversation to the extremes in the culture. There are lots of echo chambers that people live in on the right and on the left.

farai: Pat Buchanan did well in some early contests. I don’t doubt Trump will begin to taper during the March primaries, but I don’t think he’ll fade fast. Meanwhile, my critique of the media is not how much he was covered but how awkwardly he was covered — often getting softballs at first, and then people figuring out that wasn’t useful but he had already set the terms of debate. And his followers don’t care when he’s called out for being wrong.

harry: Buchanan came in second in Iowa in 1996 and first in New Hampshire. In both contests, he got about a quarter of the vote.

farai: I think America has a lot of echo chambers, but when you call for treating Muslims like the Japanese during the World War II internment, that’s a bracing form of discourse with no equivalent on the left right now.

micah: OK, final question: It’s obviously very early to make any predictions, but do you all see Trump having a lasting effect on the Republican Party? Beyond 2016?

clare.malone: Sure, in the sense that all human events are built on top of each other. Politics is people reacting to the twin behemoths of culture and economy in their everyday lives, and Trump has certainly been a cultural “moment,” as we say.

farai: I see not just Trump but the way the other candidates often didn’t challenge him strongly — with some exceptions, including Bush — turning off key parts of an increasingly diverse electorate.

harry: I think it continues to point to a divide within the Republican party between college- and non-college-educated voters, which was apparent in 2012 as well. The question of whether the party can continue to hold together in its current formulation will remain. I don’t think Trump, if he loses the nomination, will necessarily keep the Republican Party from winning in 2016.

Watch: What Harry got wrong in 2015.

What Harry got wrong in 2015

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.