A while ago Tom Hoopes posted an interesting piece pointing out the many ways in which Donald Trump’s candidacy is like Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. I’m not disagreeing with anything Tom said, but for the sake of understanding Trump’s distinctive appeal, it is worth pointing out the ways in which he is different from Obama and even kind of an anti-Obama.
There is one difference that is perhaps significant and at least worth noting. I think many people who supported Barack Obama in 2008 did so because of the attractive symbolism of what he represented, namely, racial reconciliation: one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the spectacle of a country in which race-based slavery was once established progressing to the point where it could elect an African American man president. Here I am thinking especially of not particularly ideological voters. Those who were committed to liberalism surely liked Obama for reasons of racial reconciliation, too, but they would have also voted for him simply because they could see that his politics aligned with theirs. But for the less partisan and less ideological, the symbolism was an important driver.
Although, as Tom points out, Trump, too, inspires visions of hope and change in his followers, the appeal is a little bit different. Many of Trump’s fans think of him as a man of action, a man capable of getting big things done, on the basis of his career in business. This is somewhat different from the hopes invested in Barack Obama on the basis of who he was and how he combined attachments to African Americans (through his father) and whites (through his mother). Trump’s fans–and, again, I mean especially the ones who are not particularly concerned with issues–support him not because of who he is but because of their perception that his business experience must point to his having certain skills, a certain executive excellence. They might, of course, be mistaken in this. Even if Trump has the excellence of a business executive it might not turn out to be the same as the excellence needed in a political executive. But my point is that I think this is what some of Trump’s supporters think they see, and that this is different kind of thing from that which Obama’s supporters expected from him.
That is one way in which Trump’s appeal is different. But more striking than that are two ways in which his appeal is actually the opposite of President Obama’s.
First, Trump’s basic appeal is essentially conservative: “Make America Great Again!” That’s his campaign slogan, and its fundamental appeal is a conservative one. I don’t mean here that Trump’s specific policy recommendations are conservative. A lot of conservative writers have attacked him precisely for not being what they think is a conservative, and that is another and a worthwhile argument. My only point here is that that slogan appeals to the sense of many Americans that America as it has existed was a great country in the past and that the proper way to treat it is to go back to what made it great. In contrast, Obama’s appeal was fundamentally progressive: he spoke of the movement he led as seeking to “fundamentally transform America.” Both appeals suggest something is gravely wrong with the country, but they go in opposite directions in search of a solution. This is why, for all their similarities, neither man could plausibly run for the nomination of the other political party.
Second, President Obama is much more of a cosmopolitan and Donald Trump is much more of a nationalist. In speaking about foreign policy and trade policy, Obama would emphasize how America’s interests are bound up with and advanced by adhering to universal rules that also benefit all other nations. In contrast, Trump tends to present foreign and trade policy as an arena of competition in which other nations try to take advantage of America. Simply put, Obama is a lot more likely to emphasize America’s obligations to the world community, while Trump is more likely to emphasize America’s obligation to Americans.
So both of them think of America as great, but in different ways. Obama thinks of America as becoming something great through progress, and as achieving greatness in foreign policy by aligning itself with great international causes. In contrast, Trump thinks of America as having been great and as capable of becoming great again by returning to its past greatness, and as achieving greatness in foreign policy by being great at protecting its own people and their interests.