What explains the appeal of Donald Trump?

  • 2 March, 2024
  • Politics

Published in the Sunday Express on 03 March 2024.

Republicans see Donald Trump as the best way to make America great again.

As Donald Trump storms his way back to the White House, Lord Ashcroft explores why the ex-president continues to excite Republicans like no one else can.

This week Donald Trump is expected to sweep the board in 17 more Republican primaries, adding to his nine victories so far including New Hampshire, Michigan, and his remaining opponent’s home state of South Carolina.

Some see Trump’s easy stroll through the primaries – he has not even attended a debate – as proof that his support has become a cult of personality. In eight years of studying the Trump phenomenon through my large-scale polling, and especially focus groups with all kinds of voters throughout the US, I have certainly found that a large slice of the American electorate is so in thrall to the persona of Donald J. Trump that it has come to dominate not only the way they vote but their whole political outlook.

But I’m not talking about the people who are choosing him as their party’s presidential nominee. I’m talking about his more fanatical opponents. Though he certainly has his devoted enthusiasts, Trump’s critics are much more mesmerised by his daily sayings and doings than his backers. For most of his voters, Trump is simply the means to an end.

One way to help understand Trump’s enduring appeal is to look at the reasons they are rejecting Nikki Haley, who combines executive experience as the successful governor of a conservative state with diplomatic know-how honed as Trump’s UN ambassador. As a less polarising figure she also offers the chance to move on from the Trump circus with a new generation of leaders, which many long to do. What’s not to like?

Everything the Republican party used to be, she’s that.

The answer, according to the Republicans we spoke to during the early primaries, is that they associate her with the old GOP establishment, corporate America, the donor class, and an internationalist rather than “America First” outlook. Her stance on things like debt reduction, entitlement reform and support for Ukraine appeal to traditional Republicans who supported John McCain and Mitt Romney, and the kind of conservatives who despair of Trump and the direction in which he has taken the party. “She’s a globalist neocon warmonger,” as one primary voter put it to us in North Carolina. “Everything the Republican party used to be, she’s that.”

Trump, by contrast, has managed in their eyes to keep the mantle of “a businessman, not a politician.” To them he remains an outsider not beholden to the political class or the rules of its games; a leader who will take their side against Washington – not to mention a corporate, media and academic elite that seems to ignore or despise them. More importantly, he reflects their view of the world. They believe he will act on the issues they care about and that he has the record in office to justify their faith. They associate his presidency with a stronger economy, deregulation, domestic energy security, action on immigration, efforts to bring back jobs to the USA and rebalance the terms of trade with China, the appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court and a robust international stance.

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