Unravelling the mystery of Donald Trump’s support base

The Stormy Daniels hush money case – the first criminal trial against a former President – starts this week. Dominic Stefanson considers the impact of multiple legal cases on Donald Trump’s November election hopes, and why he remains so popular.

Apr 16, 2024, updated Apr 16, 2024
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Pool/Sipa USA

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Pool/Sipa USA

Donald Trump is deeply unlikeable.

Before ever becoming president, he survived a number of controversies that one would think (and hope) would instantly end the career of any mainstream Australian politician: denigrating John McCain’s war hero status in July 2015, mimicking a disabled reporter in November 2015 and the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” leaked video of 2016.

His presidential term ended with him telling people to drink bleach to cure COVID-19 and American cities gripped by violent riots as the country seemed to be on the brink of civil war.

He then failed the most important test of democracy – accepting defeat.

Despite all this, Trump is the Republican candidate and has a realistic chance of winning the November 2024 election.

How is this possible? How did he ever become President in the first place? What are his chances of becoming President again? How will the criminal cases impact his chances?

In understanding how Trump ever became president, two important factors, which will also impact in 2024, are often overlooked.

Firstly, he got very lucky. He was helped by the approach of his opponents and the US electoral system. Secondly, on many measures, he was never actually that popular.

Trump’s first bit of luck was that traditional Republicans have always underestimated him and aimed to appease him.

For a long time, during the 2015-16 primaries, the leading candidates (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz) assumed he would eventually drop out with 15-20 per cent of the vote and looked to appease Trump rather than attack him, because they thought they would need his endorsement to win the nomination.

One example of this is the Republican debate of December 2015 when Trump was asked about the nuclear triad – the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by plane, intercontinental ballistic missile, or submarine. Trump clearly had no idea what the question was about.

Given this opportunity, Rubio chose not to humiliate Trump and demonstrate how his lack of knowledge made him completely unqualified for the presidency. Instead, Rubio gently explained the concept “to the audience” before giving his own answer.

It was only once that it looked like Trump might win, that Rubio, Cruz and other senior Republicans finally stuck the boots in. It was too late. The Trump train had left the station.

The same misjudgment was made after the 2020 election, when traditional Republicans, like Mitch O’Connell, chose not to vote to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection which would have made him ineligible to run again. Yet again, traditional Republicans didn’t want to alienate Trump’s support base believing they would need it in the future.

In fairness, when Trump’s chief lawyer was standing in the gravel parking lot of the Four Seasons landscaping business (mistakenly hired instead of a function room at the luxury hotel of the same name) with hair dye running down his face ranting and raving about a stolen election, it did seem unlikely that Trump would ever be a serious political force again.

Eventually, as traditional Republicans have retreated to appease Trump, he and his family have taken over. It is no longer a party held together by common policies and ideals but simply a personality cult. All that is left is Trump, which, in turn, solidifies support for Trump.

Going back to 2016, Trump’s second bit of luck was that he faced Hillary Clinton.

Trump ran as an outsider politician. Rather than being part of the system, he was going to change the system.  He was going to “drain the swamp”.  This, of course, appealed to anyone who felt marginalised and blamed “the system” for being hard done by.

Trump masterfully communicated directly to those who felt marginalised via Twitter. Trump spoke directly to people in a manner that was easy to understand and resonated. “Low Energy Jed” (Jed Bush the initial Republican front-runner) was very placid, “Little Rubio” did seem more little boy than President. “Crooked Hillary” did seem to think that the normal rules didn’t apply to her (ironic coming from Trump).

There was nothing vetted or workshopped about his tweets. Those tweets put out at 2am were clearly from the man himself.  This allowed direct one-to-one communication which was empowering, exhilarating and very real.

In Hilary Clinton, Trump had the perfect opponent to cast in the role of an entitled, establishment, and overly polished politician.  Apropos, the sometimes-floated idea of dropping Michelle Obama in as a last-minute replacement for Joe Biden is fraught with danger.  Michelle Obama would be an even greater entitlement/establishment candidate than Clinton. Obama has never held any publicly elected position or senior administrative position other than First Lady.

In 2016, Trump added hard-core religious support and those traditional Republicans who wanted lower taxes and were attracted by his business acumen and hoped he would moderate his behaviour once president.

This proved a winning combination, but only after taking into account Trump’s third and largest slice of luck: the massive gerrymander of the US electoral college vote which favours small, often economically stagnant, states where resentment and marginalisation run strong. For example, in 2016, a vote in Wyoming was effectively worth about three and a half times a vote in California. One elector in the college vote represented 712,000 people in California and 195,000 people in Wyoming.

Trump won the electoral college vote 306-232. However, Clinton received nearly two million more votes, or 48.2 per cent of the vote, compared to Trump’s 46.1 per cent, with 5.7 per cent voting for third parties.

In a fair and representative electoral system, Trump would have been thrashed, consigned to a mere footnote in history.

Further, when considering a 60 per cent voter turnout in 2016, less than a third of eligible electors voted for Trump.

Trump was never that popular. Trump got lucky. And afterwards, he kept losing.

Led by Trump, Republicans did relatively poorly, by historical standards at midterms in 2018. He got trounced by seven million votes by Biden in 2020. Trump received only 46.8 per cent of the vote (with 1.8 per cent for third parties). For context, Trump’s 2020 vote was much lower than the 47.73 per cent 2PP vote Morrison’s Government received at the last election.

Trump-backed candidates also stunk it up in 2022 midterms and governor races. Trump has a poor election record. The one time he won, he really should have lost. If the past is a predictor of the future, Trump will lose again in 2024.

Despite this losing record, he won the Republican primary.

To understand why, one needs to look past the vox pops popular on social media that take pleasure in finding the biggest village idiot possible at Trump rallies and interviewing them so everyone can laugh. Sure, there are village idiots who vote for Trump. But not all the 74-odd million people who voted for him in 2020 are.

Firstly, many Republicans consider that Trump delivered. They might not like the noise and the controversy that surrounds Trump, but he did deliver on tax cuts and, pre-COVID, he oversaw a fairly well-performing economy.

Recent inflation, particularly in high-impact areas such as fuel and groceries, serves to reinforce the feeling that things were better under Trump.

These Trump supporters would prefer Trump to be less volatile but consider his record to be one of fairly good achievements.

These are also Republicans who don’t follow politics too closely but will vote for Trump regardless because he is their guy.

This is the “disengaged voter theory” which postulates that in an increasingly partisan environment, political support is akin to supporting a local football team. People support their local sports or political team for a variety of community, family and historic reasons and will continue to support that team regardless of how well or poorly they are playing.

How many of these non-fervent Trump Republicans will continue to vote for him will be important. Trump will need the 20-30 per cent of Republicans who voted for Nikki Haley in the primaries to return to him in a general election.

Trump also delivered on the part of his agenda he seems to have the least personal commitment to – the religious agenda.

He had the incredibly good fortune of appointing three Supreme Court judges. Biden has appointed one. The new court overturned Roe v Wade allowing states to set their own abortion laws. Extreme abortion bans might help secure hard-core religious right votes in a primary but it is likely to be damaging in a general election.

Finally, Trump still has the core Make America Great Again support: marginalised Americans dismissed as “a basket of deplorables” by Clinton who, as Trump has noted, would continue to vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.

MAGA is a nostalgic appeal to a simpler, and whiter, past.

Paul Keating’s 1996 observation of Pauline Hanson could easily be applied to Trump’s MAGA agenda: “The great tragedy is that it perpetuates a myth, a fantasy, a lie. The myth of the monoculture. The lie that we can retreat to it.”

The myth continues to resonate as it did in 2016.  In fact, the “border crisis” appears worse.

This is the “white anger or rage theory” which sees the appeal of Trump as part of a long historical conflict to protect white political power and privilege in America, firstly in the Civil War and then in the century-long efforts to suppress black voting rights.

This history is not as remote as some may consider. Mississippi only removed the Confederate flag from the state flag in 2020. Indeed, confederate flags regularly fly side by side with Trump flags on the back of pick-up trucks.

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The rapidly changing demographics of the US bring real urgency to the fear of a white minority future.

According to the US Census Bureau, the proportion of people who identified as white dropped from 75.1 per cent in 2000, to 72.4 per cent in 2010 and to 58.9 per cent on 2023 estimates. The shift is driven by changes in demographics as well as self-identification. In 2023, whites were already a minority of 47 per cent in the 0-17 age group. The white majority is ageing out and will become a minority, according to some estimates, within the next decade.

Trump’s core MAGA support, driven by the same fears and prejudices, does not seem to have diminished.

The most significant factors going forward are Biden’s age and Trump’s ongoing legal battles.

Biden absolutely thrashed Trump four years ago. Biden might have been “Sleepy Joe” but many people thought even if he fell asleep for four years in the White House that would be a significant improvement on the four years of Trump. Biden was experienced, had fought hard for what he had and was a safe pair of hands.

In 2020, the Biden camp countered concerns about his age by putting out videos of him riding around on a bike. Most footage now shows he struggles to walk, let alone ride a bike. He looks old, he moves old, he talks old a lot of the time. He is 81. His age is identified as a problem in poll after poll. In politics, perception is reality so his age is a problem regardless of his actual ability to do the job or not.

Whilst Trump is only four years younger and there is plenty of speculation about his health and state of mind, he does appear more energetic. A younger Republican candidate could better exploit Biden’s age, but this is still a win for Trump.

Then we come to 88 felony charges in four criminal cases and the myriad of other civil cases against Trump.

Will these damage Trump or simply reinforce his narrative of a witch hunt and the weaponisation of the legal system for political purposes? I suspect they will do both.

It is hard to summarise the court cases as there are so many but here goes. Firstly, the civil cases.

In the E. Jean Carroll civil case Trump was found liable (but not guilty in a criminal court) of sexual assault by forced digital penetration. Carroll was awarded $5 million for damages and defamation.

Legal complexity about the difference between civil and criminal cases, and the fact that the “grab em by the pussy” video leak meant this was sort of old news, has led to the severity of the sexual assault finding not having the impact it should.

However, Trump continued to ridicule Carroll so she sued again for defamation and was awarded a further US$83.3 million in January 2024. Trump has since remained silent on the issue and has clearly lost his head-to-head confrontation with Carroll which has dented the veneer of his self-proclaimed winner status.

The New York fraud case, where Trump was accused of over-inflating the value of his assets to obtain larger loans was also a civil case. Trump was ordered to pay US$355 million plus interest, the size of his ill-gotten loans. Trump is appealing this case and it does seem clerical rather than criminal in nature. All loans were repaid. No money has been stolen. This case may end up hurting Trump’s pocket but not necessarily his political chances.

Moving to the four criminal cases.

The Stormy Daniels hush money case starting this week is brought by the State of New York. It says a lot about Trump’s morality, but it is difficult to understand what the crime actually is.

The crime is not the liaison with the porn star, which no one seems to doubt, nor the payment of US$130,000 hush money to Stormy before the 2016 election, but falsifying financial records to cover the payment. This is not a clear-cut case of criminal wrongdoing akin to a violent crime or theft. The affair was consensual and Stormy received her money. The lack of any perceived criminal wrongdoing fuels Trump’s argument about the cases against him being a witch hunt.

The two criminal election subversion cases (brought by the Department of Justice and the State of Georgia), also seem on the surface to be weak. Trump claimed the election was stolen and whipped his mob into a frenzy and they stormed the Capitol. However, this is far from an organised or serious insurrection or coup. Trump did also eventually, even if somewhat reluctantly, ask the mob to stand down and go home.

The case in Georgia might have more legs as it is narrower and there is direct evidence of Trump calling then Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and asking he “find 11,780 votes”. However, this case is currently being completely overshadowed by Trump’s legal moves to remove the prosecutor Fani Willis for a conflict of interest related to her love life which has successfully shifted the attention away from the actual charge against him.

The final case, the Federal Department of Justice criminal charges under the Espionage Act seems the strongest.

In short, Trump is charged with unlawfully taking classified documents, storing them in a spare toilet and then refusing to give them back. This seems a pretty open-and-shut case. The broader questions of what these documents contained and what Trump was going to do with these documents are terrifying. Trump seems desperate for money (he is trying to sell Trump-labelled sneakers and bibles). Was he selling national security secrets? To whom?

With all these trials there is a risk that Trump’s outrages have become so common people are immune to them. The espionage case however might still be able to shock people enough to mobilise against Trump. The details of the case and the likely rejection of his argument that he “declassified” the documents will make him look like a loser.

The federal cases have been delayed as the Supreme Court agreed to hear the ludicrous case put by Trump’s legal team that a president has total immunity. I suspect not even the Trump-appointed court will agree with a departure from the principle that the law applies equally to all.

The immunity hearing will delay the federal cases but they are likely to be in full swing during the campaign.

This is a serious issue for Trump as his criminal charges are completely occupying his time and his agenda and this will only get worse.

His running agenda for 2024 seems to be based entirely on trying to extract himself from his legal worries and seek vengeance against those who have slighted him. In increasingly fascist terminology invoking vermin and enemies of the people, he is promising to use government to settle scores with enemies. This might appeal to the hardcore base but it is hardly an election platform with broad appeal.

Biden, however, might not be well placed to exploit this weakness. Elections are about choosing who is the better candidate to oversee the future, not an examination of the past. At 81, Biden cannot own the future.

If Biden had stepped aside to enable an open nomination process to find a younger candidate, the Democrats would have been able to present as the party of the future.

So what will happen in November this year? Let’s not rule out the possibility that one or both candidates could die or suffer serious health issues before then. It is still a long way away.

Biden’s successful platform in 2020 was largely that he was not Trump. Rerunning the same campaign from a previous election is often a poor strategy.

In recent weeks Biden’s campaign has tweaked its message in a manner that will ultimately be successful. Rather than relying on fear of Trump to drive turn out, they have turned to mocking Trump. The court cases are helpful here as Trump’s rage is increasingly looking impotent as he is depicted slumped in courtrooms and being given orders to shut up by judges.

An impotent Trump deprived of his bluster and without any agenda is ultimately an emperor without clothes.

Dr Dominic Stefanson has a PhD in politics.  Dominic works in his own consultancy company, based in Adelaide.

Topics: donald trump
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