Donald Trump’s recent rise in the polls has been both meteoric and puzzling. Many commentators expected his appeal to fizzle out by now. But, as he is often keen to point out, Trump still holds a commanding lead over his main rivals in the GOP field.
What’s particularly perplexing is that every time he makes bold, sweeping generalizations about a political issue, or attacks his opponents in a visceral manner, he receives widespread condemnation from politicians on both sides, as well as the media – but almost always, this outrage is followed by a rise in his numbers at the polls. Just when people start thinking, “Well, his campaign is over after that comment!” the exact opposite happens. Why is this the case?
Many candidate explanations have been put forth, some more charitable to Trump supporters than others. The more charitable explanations often invoke the frustration of blue-collar workers at persistent low wages. But why would such workers support Trump rather than Bernie Sanders, who promises a $15 minimum wage? Perhaps Trump supporters do not believe that high minimum wages are good for maintaining low unemployment. That may be true, but then why aren’t these people attracted to more centrist candidates like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, who have not pushed for high minimum wage figures? For many reasons, then, this particular explanation is unsatisfactory.
However, there is an alternate possibility. It’s common wisdom that when certain human desires are suppressed, they have the potential to express themselves in extreme or distorted ways. For instance, one of the common explanations for why there is much more binge drinking on U.S. college campuses, as compared with Europe, is that the legal and social norms around alcohol consumption by minors are much stricter in the U.S. So, when kids finally get the freedom to drink in college, they often do so excessively.
The case of Trump supporters might be analogous. What has been repressed in this case is open dialogue about some of the most challenging social and political questions of our time. Trump is able to thrive in the vacuum left by the intellectual, cultural, and political elite’s suppression of frank and open discussion of certain issues.
Here is a concrete example. A 2013 Pew Research study revealed widespread support of Sharia law among populations in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In many countries, the majority of Sharia supporters thought that the punishment for adultery ought to be stoning, and that the punishment for leaving the religion ought to be death. Now, this data raises several important and challenging questions for the West with regards to immigration and foreign policy. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise, and we ought to be able to talk about the study and its implications without immediately resorting to words ending in “phobia” or “ism.” Yet, the media, along with the intellectual and political elites, largely ignored the study – leaving room for Trump’s citation of erroneous data in support of his proposed “ban” to dominate discussion.
Thus, perhaps we need to rethink our practices of avoiding conversation about controversial issues surrounding immigration and foreign policy. Otherwise, we might have to deal with Trump-like figures in politics for years to come.