The Bad Science Behind Trump’s Opposition
Political scientists didn't see Trump coming. What went wrong?
Before I begin, let me remind you of the ancient wisdom of not shooting the messenger. Given that …
Many folks aren’t too happy with the way the primaries are going. To say that angst, agitation, and anxiety are on the ascendant is an understatement. The Washington Post in particular is acting like listeners to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. It’s full-on panic over there, with their writers running in circles with their hands over their ears — which makes it hard to use their keyboards, as we see next.
Here is a small sample of headlines that appeared just in the last couple of days:
- Clinton should prepare to fight dirty against Trump (she never would have thought of that on her own);
- Chris Christie’s despicable endorsement of Trump (in which Trump is called “a know-nothing buffoon”);
- Donald Trump’s ‘Captain Underpants’ campaign (which declares any above a third-grade education should have “trouble understanding the appeal of Donald Trump”);
- The real reason Donald Trump is winning: No one thought it was possible.
The last is my particular favorite, for it had the subheading “Political science said Trump would lose. Did GOP elites trust the theory so much they forgot to do anything to make it come true?” Paging Pauline Kael? I can imagine the scientific conversations at political scientist gatherings:
“Say, Bill, I created a political science theory that proves — utterly proves! — that Donald Trump couldn’t win a seat on a student council at high school, let alone the GOP nomination.”
“Intriguing, Phil. Nobel-worthy material. My own scientifically validated theory (it’s full of complicated mathematics) shows Trump shouldn’t even be running, which is a much deeper result.”
Tell me. Where else have we seen lately academics loving their models too much? I’ll tell you: pretty much everywhere, from global warming to sociology to psychology and now to political science. Their multifarious failures are the natural consequence of insulating themselves from reality.
The writer of the “No one thought” piece is one Daniel W. Drezner, “a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.” He said:
Trump is winning because no significant Republican coalition seriously tried to oppose him when there was still time for it to work. And the reason no powerful Republican coalition emerged to stop him is that the GOP believed all the analysts who said Trump had no chance. In other words, the political science theories predicting that someone like Trump was highly unlikely to win a major-party nomination were so widely believed that they turned out to refute themselves.
That bit of reasoning is what my old father would call a Messerschmitt. If the political science theories were true, or even mostly true, then Trump wouldn’t have had the success he has had so far. If they were true, they should have been believed. He has had success (to say the least), thus the theories must have been false. The question then becomes why. What could they not have accounted for?
Two things, I think. One, insiders are wedged so tightly inside the establishment that they have forgotten most people, which is to say most voters, don’t care about party, whereas party is so deeply fascinating to insiders that they have difficulty thinking others don’t share their adoration. Two, democracy itself.
Missed by most in the analysis of last Thursday’s Republican debate was a comment by Marco Rubio that he slipped inside a long sentence. Rubio said that what was wanted was, in part, a candidate who would support “the party.” Try telling the workers at the to-be-closed Carrier air conditioning factory — they’re moving the factory to Mexico — that the Republican party is what should be saved and see if they’re more likely to vote for him or Trump.
What’s that you say? Union workers, like those at Carrier, don’t typically vote Republican anyway? Did you already forget that people don’t care about party? They have their lives to worry about, and when it gets tough they tell parties to get stuffed.
Now to democracy itself. In this case, democracy means direct election of a president by citizens. Tell me this: what proportion of the electorate — which is ever expanding, incidentally; there are even proposals for allowing non-citizens to vote — understands the complexities of the office of the presidency? The question answers itself.
Is anybody really surprised, then, that as the electorate expands the key to winning more votes is to (let me put this nicely) increasingly simplify the message? Trump is a master simplifier.
There’s no use charging Trump with “populism.” Direct election of the president is by definition populism. What the elite therefore mean when they say Trump is a populist is that he isn’t a party man. What the elite fail to see is that this is the very message many voters want to hear.