Neil Newhouse is a Republican pollster. He was the lead numbers guy for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. And, like the rest of the political world, Newhouse has spent a significant amount of time over the past few months trying to figure out where Donald Trump came from and what he means for the GOP — both in the fall and in future elections.
In a recent PowerPoint presentation — which he shared with me — Newhouse explained Trump in the most succinct and best terms I've seen. He did it via five charts I have replicated below — with a bit of commentary from yours truly.
Despite the various metrics — jobs created, gross domestic product — that suggest the U.S. economy is improving slowly but surely following the deep downturn in the late 2000s, the chart above shows why so many people aren't feeling it. They are worth less — way less — than they were a decade ago. And that makes them angry. Trump channels that anger and the sense that the current leadership in Washington is clueless about everyday Americans.
I've noted this in the Fix before: Virtually every major societal institution is at or near a record low when it comes to the public's faith in it. There is a sense among the public that the old ways of doing things are collapsing but that there aren't any new ways replacing them. It's a tightrope walk without a net. And it causes massive collective anxiety — economically and when it comes to America's place in the world. Trump's promise to "Make America Great Again" speaks directly — and comfortingly — to that anxiety.
Trust in the federal government is lower today than it was during the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. What's fascinating about that comparison is that unlike Vietnam or Watergate, there isn't a single cataclysmic event in the media every day to drive distrust. Instead it's a sort of creeping distrust with everyone and everything that touches Washington. Trump ran in the primary as a symbolic middle finger to the Republican establishment and to Washington more broadly. And with so little trust in the government, the idea of getting rid of all of it and trying something totally different had — and has — real appeal.
It's been conventional wisdom since, well, forever, that people may hate "Congress" but they like their own member of Congress. It's the whole "They are all crooks, but my guy/gal isn't like that" thing. But, as the chart above shows, that wisdom is out the window now. Your own member of Congress is slapped with the same Washington stink as every other person who holds elected office in D.C.
At the start, Trump's candidacy was pitched not as a rejection of Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and President Obama but rather as a rejection of traditional Republican politics and politicians. Trump's entire schtick was built around the idea that GOP leaders in Washington — and his opponents in the presidential primary race — hadn't kept the promises they made to the public in the 2010 and 2014 elections. His diagnosis of what was wrong with the country was at least as much about the faithlessness of Republican politicians as it was about the incompetence or misguidedness of Democratic ones. The Republican base was already there.