Thoughts on Sanders and Trump

Sanders and the Democratic party’s nominating process

A NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll (May 3- – June 5, 2016) believe that the nominating process is fair; only 38 percent of Democrats label the process as unfair. This doesn’t mean that the Sanders supporters who are upset with the process may come around, but the majority of Democrats are not upset.

What is interesting is that despite the fact that the outsider on the Republican side (Trump) seems to have prevailed, in contrast to the outsider on the Democratic side, the level of Republicans who say that the process for choosing a nominee in their party is unfair is equal to that of the Democrats, at 38 percent. I do not have the raw data, or I would explore who is upset on the GOP side. Are they supporters of an unsuccessful candidate, or are there a number of Donald Trump supporters who still believe the system is unfair despite their having prevailed?

Trump’s attacks journalists and judges

When Trump attacked his political opponents, both within and outside of his party, with demeaning nick names (e.g. “Little Marco” or “Lying Ted”), it seemed sophomoric and unbecoming of any individual seeking the presidency, but it did not raise constitutional questions nor did it seem to threaten the fabric of American democracy, in my mind. However, when Trump questioned the integrity of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the context of Trump’s attacks changed from merely political to potentially threatening to the Constitutional balance among the three branches of government. There is a reason that lawyers can face sanctions for raising unfounded recusal arguments; frivolous recusal requests undermine the system of justice. Imagine if these came from President Donald Trump. To get an idea of the questions that would be raised, simply recall the reaction to President Obama’s derision of the Citizens United ruling during a State of the Union address, and consider that he did not make any charges about the motives or integrity of the justices.

Additionally, many political commentators and political scientists—myself included—have been troubled by Trump’s belligerent tone against the press. Without the benefit of data, I venture to assert that no other presidential candidate has treated the press with as much contempt as has Donald Trump. Gallup’s “Confidence in U.S. Institutions” measure shows that Americans do not have a high level of confidence in the television or print media; only 24 percent have a high level of confidence in newspapers, and 21 percent have a high level of confidence in television news. Interestingly, conservatives have a lower opinion of the media than do liberals, but conservatives have more confidence in television news (21 percent with a high level) than in newspapers (16 percent). (See Gallup. “Trust Differs Most by Ideology for Church, Police, and Presidency.”)

The public’s low confidence in the media makes Trump’s hostility to the press easier to understand. And yet the press has repaid Trump’s hostility with a wealth of earned (free or nonpaid) media coverage. According to the New York Times (March 15, 2016), Trump had received over $1.8 billion in earned media by that point in the campaign, eclipsing all other candidates by far. In fact, the second highest level of earned media went to Hillary Clinton, $746 million, or less than 40 percent of what Trump received.

The days of chumming with the press like John F. Kennedy did are long gone, and this has been to the electorate’s advantage. It would not surprise me to learn that most candidates carry disdain for the press, but candidates, as a rule, do not behave in an openly hostile manner to the press. Most candidates understand that the press—the fourth estate—is necessary to keep the public informed, to be a watchdog for public interests, and to provide voters with the information they need to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

Sources of Trump’s Support

At the 2016 New England Political Science annual conference in Newport, RI, in April, Matthew MacWilliams from UMass Amherst presented his research in a presentation titled, “The Rise of Donald Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring.” The provocative title drew political scientists into the panel like moths to a light on a summer’s night, and the presentation did not disappoint. MacWilliams, who is the President of his own political consulting firm called MacWilliams Sanders Communication, used survey data to measure respondents’ support for authoritarianism in a multivariate scale. Among the measures used in the scale are support for suspending habeas corpus, support for “keeping other groups in their place,” and preventing minority opposition. Those who scored highest on the authoritarianism scale were more likely to support Trump than those who scored low.

In fact, when controlling for several variables, such as age, education, ideology, and religion, one’s authoritarian score was the best predictor of one’s support for Trump. In an article for Politico (January 17, 2016), MacWilliams wrote,

So, those who say a Trump presidency “can’t happen here” should check their conventional wisdom at the door. The candidate has confounded conventional expectations this primary season because those expectations are based on an oversimplified caricature of the electorate in general and his supporters in particular. Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity. And the institutions—from the Republican Party to the press—that are supposed to guard against what James Madison called “the infection of violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or are asleep on the job.

We have been warned.