Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Politics of Emotional Intensity

Over at Marquette Warrior (, my old friend and colleague from my brief and now almost forgotten career in academia, Political Science Professor John McAdams, presents what might be called an "establishment," "conservative," "Republican" case against Donald Trump's candidacy. (The case as presented is largely cited from the blog of a lawyer and colleague of his, Rick Esenberg, whose full post can be found at

In contrast to those of us on the other side of the ideological divide, who who may be experiencing some Schadenfreude at the problems Trump has posed for his Republican rivals and, more to the point, who perceive in Trump's apparent excesses an unfiltered, unedited version of what American "conservatism" has become, Esenberg argues that such a view is "preposterous" because Trump "is not conservative. He is a big government crony capitalist who has fed at the subsidy trough and advocated for eminent domain abuse. He is a pro-choice (or was, until yesterday afternoon) and a supporter of Obamacare. He has contributed to Hillary Clinton."

Of course, all that is true. In the long run it may well weaken Trump with more establishment-type GOP primary voters and deny him the nomination. Time will tell. That said, however, at least in the short run all that likely matters a lot less than Esenberg seems to want it to. That is because the basis for the intensity of Trump's support in his distinctive constituency is, as everyone recognizes, primarily emotional and affective, not intellectual or even ideological. The essential emotion involved is anger, a powerful force in politics. And, as political scientists certainly know, intensity can compensate for any number of other deficiencies in a campaign. 

Trump the businessman is the archetypal capitalist - as his responses to the debate questions about his bankruptcies and his political contributions illustrated. Logically, that might make him an odd spokesperson for anti-elitist, "populist" rage. but, of course, in politics logic does not necessarily rule. One of the historical paradoxes of American politics has been the readiness of many ordinary Americans to admire and even identify with successful businessmen, instead of scorning the successful elites in whose interests the system seems so rigged.

The easy readiness of other Republican candidates to acknowledge that the Trump campaign is genuinely in touch with the feelings of a significant segment of society may not merit any of them a place in Profiles in Courage, but it does authentically reflect a certain political reality - including the reality of where their party is now after the years of political incivility and self-induced dysfunction.

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