It’s a mistake to see Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump as a popular national figure. He’s not. In fact, polls show most Americans find him quite distasteful. But like Nickelback, Trump has cultivated a core following that adores him, even if the rest of the country finds the affection hard to understand.
For Trump critics, his relative success is a little mysterious. It’s easy to look at his crowds and wonder, “What are they thinking?”
With this in mind, Time magazine reported yesterday on a Frank Luntz focus group, held in the D.C. area, with self-identified Trump backers, to get a better sense of their perspective.
This 29-person focus group, conducted by Luntz and observed by a group of national press reporters from behind a pane of one-way glass, had gathered to explain the phenomenon of Trump. Why is a billionaire real estate mogul, TV celebrity and oft-accused demagogue who has never held office leading the Republican field with some 22% support in the polls? […]At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in. “You guys understand how significant this is?” Luntz asked the press breathlessly when he came back into the room behind the glass. “This is real. I’m having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking.”
The article is a little jarring. In fact, it included an entry for the 2015 Quote of the Year: “We know his goal is to make America great again,” a woman said. “It’s on his hat.”
To be sure, focus groups are not scientific surveys with random samples. In this case, it’s the opposite – every participant supported Trump before the discussion even began. There’s obviously no reason to be too surprised when a candidate’s backers sing his praises.
But again, the point isn’t to understand whether Trump has supporters, but rather, why.
“I think America is pissed. Trump’s the first person that came out and voiced exactly what everybody’s been saying all along,” one man, quoted in the Time article, said. “When he talks, deep down somewhere you’re going, ‘Holy crap, someone is thinking the same way I am.’”
Another added, “When Trump talks, it may not be presented in a pristine, PC way, but we’ve been having that crap pushed to us for the past 40 years! He’s saying what needs to be said.”
There was also this gem:
The crowd in the room was angriest about national security. Nearly all of them, it appeared, had an unshakeable feeling that U.S. border was porous as a sieve and that the very things that once defined the nation: army, border and national pride – were fading. They complained of America’s reduced standing in the world, and Obama’s apparent ineptitude in challenging Russia, Syria and ISIS.
The Washington Post had a report about a month ago noting that Trump’s surge is based in large part on low-information voters. The focus group seems to suggest there’s something to the thesis.
That excerpted paragraph tells the story quite well. In reality, border security has reached unprecedented levels, but Trump backers believe the opposite. In reality, there’s ample evidence that America’s global standing is strong and getting stronger, but Trump backers believe the opposite. In reality, President Obama has run circles around Putin’s Russia, but Trump backers believe the opposite.
What’s increasingly clear is that support for the GOP candidate isn’t based on facts, so much as it’s based on personality. One focus-group participant said Trump “kicks ass and takes names.”
Take a resentful group of low-information voters, throw in a dash of anxiety and fascination with celebrity, and you’re left with Trump 2016.