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The Trump Phenomenon

Podcast

The Trump Phenomenon

November 22, 2016
Politics and law

City Journal editor Brian C. Anderson and contributing editor Aaron M. Renn discuss Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential race, the popular discontent that led to his rise, and the future of the Trump administration.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Two weeks on, a lot of people are still in shock or are scratching their heads about Donald Trump's victory in the presidential race.  But not City Journal contributing editor, Aaron Renn.  I can personally attest to Aaron's early and astute understanding of the Trump phenomenon.  He's with us today on 10 Blocks to talk about what he saw in Donald Trump and his campaign and how he thinks the President-elect might govern.  Aaron, thanks for joining me, as always.

Aaron Renn: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: You said in your City Journal piece, which we posted the day after the election, that the Trump win was, in your words, the "most bravura performance in American electoral history."  How did he pull it off?

Aaron Renn: Well, he obviously tapped into a seam of anger that had really been going on in America for quite some time.  It had been building and building and building and one of the things he was smart enough to do was to sense that this was the year that he could enter.  You know, he's been talking about running for president since at least 1988, maybe before that, but he really sensed, I think, the anger out there, in the country.  I come from a rural community in Southern Indiana and I was hearing it.  I was hearing people who were lifelong Republicans talking about how much they hated the Republican Party and so Trump was able to, in part, tap into that.  He also was able to tap into his massive brand recognition.  People knew who he was.  He was an incredibly media-savvy person.  He's someone who has been in the tabloids in New York City, going back to maybe the 1970s, so he was an expert at dealing with the media.  He had been building up a massive following on Twitter and was really a master of using social media to get his word out.  And so he was able to take advantage of a number of things to basically be like a disruptive entrepreneurial entrant into the political marketplace that he saw was not serving - there was a market that was not being served.

Brian Anderson: What role do you think the opioid crisis played in Trump's election?

Aaron Renn: The opioid crisis - that's an interesting one.  I do think it contributes to the sense of despair in many of these working class communities, where it is a symptom of this social breakdown that has occurred.  A lot of these communities, like where I grew up, they were never prosperous communities.  I mean, part of what it means to be working class is to have a little bit of a hardscrabble existence.  But these communities were very socially intact.  They were the kid of places, like where I grew up we literally left our doors unlocked.  I mean that's not something that happened in the 50s - it happened in the 80s.  We left - people left their keys in their car because someone might need to use it or might need to move it.  Well, let's just say that's not happening today.  And so there's been a tremendous social breakdown in these communities.  It's very complex as to the cause.  You could probably write a book trying to figure that out.  But certainly that contributes to a feeling that things are out of control and heading the wrong way in these communities.

Brian Anderson: Earlier this year you reviewed Hillbilly Elegy for City Journal.  This is the book, bestselling book now, written by J.D. Vance, about his somewhat turbulent childhood in Appalachian Southern Ohio.  The book was interpreted by many as an attempt to explain the appeal of Trump to people living outside the urban centers of New York or San Francisco and Washington D.C.  You had a similar upbringing and you found a lot to appreciate in Hillbilly Elegy.  But you're one of the few who didn't completely buy Vance's argument in that book.  What did you like about Hillbilly Elegy and what rubbed you the wrong way?  Or maybe that's putting it too strongly.  Where did you have a difference with Vance?

Aaron Renn: Well it's a great book.  If you haven't read it - there's a reason it was a New York Times number one bestseller.  He's got a very compelling life story growing up in Ohio as the child of Appalachian origins.  What I saw in the kind of social breakdowns that he showed, the social and economic uncertainty was really, I think, a quite good way to sum up some of what's happening in these white, working class communities.  He came at it - one of the things he did very well is he came at it from a standpoint of affection for these people.  He's like these are actually my people.  I am a hillbilly.  I love my mamaw.  I love these people.  And yet, he, by virtue of having attended Yale Law School and kind of moved into the upper middle class, he has acquired a certain critical detachment from that community and thus was able to criticize it.  And I think he does a good job of recognizing that this community has suffered outside blows that it didn't do anything to deserve, but on the other hand that a lot of its own decision making has been very bad and that you can't control what happens to you, but you do have some agency over how you respond to it.  And too often, you know, they responded poorly to bad circumstances.  Or, frankly, even to good circumstances, often squandering them.  So that was very good.  Where I sort of differed was, you know, he comes from an Appalachian background.  Appalachia has sort of been a byword for dysfunction, frankly since before the Scots-Irish even arrived in the United States.  They have kind of been known for that.  And it's very different, like where Robert Putnam, who wrote the book Our Kids, growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio, what I experienced in Southern Indiana, we experienced communities that were, again, previously socially intact.  So we have a living memory of successful working class communities, which is something that Vance didn't see.  So I think he was maybe a little more inclined to blame his own community than I would be, because he was dealing with a community that had never really known success.

Brian Anderson: Looking ahead, do you think that there are other politicians on the horizon who might be able to do what Trump had done, for better or worse, or was he a kind of unique phenomenon in American politics?

Aaron Renn: That's a very good question.  If you look throughout the Western world, there is a lot of dissatisfaction.

Brian Anderson: We are seeing populous upheavals across the Western democratic world.

Aaron Renn: Right.  Yeah, we're seeing it with Brexit passing in the U.K. and then the rise of these populous politicians intercontinentally.  There is a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction out there and can other politicians find a way to tap into that?  I think it's possible.  You know, Bernie Sanders, I often linked Trump and Sanders.  You know, Sanders had a tremendous appeal to educated millennial youth, these sort of left-leaning campus types.  I've spent time on college campuses and I would go there every single person was a Bernie supporter.

Brian Anderson: I think he wound up getting, in the Democratic primaries, about 80% of the younger Democratic voters.

Aaron Renn: Right.  So he wasn't as talented, probably, a politician ultimately as Trump was.  I mean this is a guy who said I'm not going to talk about Hillary's emails in a debate.  I kind of consider the matter closed.  He really didn't go on the attack in the ways that he could have.  He probably would have been a quite formidable candidate.  It'll be interesting to see what candidates do in the future to try to tap into this populous sentiment - if they try to tap into it or if they try a different strategy.

Brian Anderson: Trump's success, as you've just noted, was at least significantly driven by his reaching rural voters, people who've felt left out of 21st century globalization.  What about Trump and the urban voter or the urban scene?  He is, of course, a city product himself, Trump.  He's a hugely successful urban entrepreneur and real estate developer.  What do you think his impact is going to be on cities and perhaps on the GOP's stance toward cities?

Aaron Renn: Yeah, that's another very good question.  You know, Trump is the most urban, will be the most urban president in the history of the United States.  A lot was made about the fact that Obama was a very urban president, coming out of Chicago, living in Hyde Park.  You know Trump was raised in Queens and lives in a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan.  Now, he did not get much in the way of an urban vote.  It seems that a lot of the progressive mayors and such are going to position themselves as a very strident opposition to him.  They've had a lot of very, very strong statements against him, which of course is their right to do.  I fully support that.  But it might suggest there is going to be a bit of an adversarial relationship.  Trump has tended to react pretty strongly to those who criticize him.  But there are potential things that he could do for benefitting inner cities or downtown urban areas, the infrastructure plan being one.  Here in New York City, for example, there's this Gateway Tunnel that we need to build, the new Amtrak tunnel under the Hudson River.  We need a lot of investment in our subway infrastructure.  So if urban leaders and Trump can put aside their differences, you know, politically, and work on things where they do agree, like infrastructure, there are certainly some possibilities for beneficial things to come out of it.

Brian Anderson: Trump also did somewhat better among black voters than Romney did or George W. Bush did.  In fact, I think he got at least, if exit polls are to be believed, twice the percentage of black votes and then a lot of black voters just stayed home, especially in places like Michigan, not terribly enthused about Hillary Clinton.  Do you think that Trump might have a chance of expanding GOP support for, or I should say black support, for the GOP?

Aaron Renn: Well, blacks have been a reliable Democratic voting block for a long time.  It was almost inevitable that Trump was going to do better than Romney did.  We had America's first black president, Barack Obama, who is also an exceptionally talented politician in his own right.  I mean he came in as the upstart and beat Hillary in 2008, so to some extent it was due for a correction.  Certainly black America, if working class white America has been doing poorly, then you know black America has been doing even worse in terms of economic performance.  There's been a lot of erosion of black wealth in the housing crisis, particularly in many suburban communities.  So I think there's a lot of work to be done.  I do think it's very urgent that we try to, try everything we can to include black America, integrate black America into mainstream economic success.  Whether that will turn into - even if Trump were successful at that, you know, reversing, you know, that longstanding identification of blacks in the Democratic party.  That's not a one-term project, that's something that would require a long time to reverse.

Brian Anderson: What do you see as the potential pitfalls going into a Trump administration?  What mistakes, in your view, should he aim to avoid, above all?

Aaron Renn: Well, I would say he obviously needs to look at the style in terms of his style was extremely effective in the campaign, and so I am not as down on his rough and tumble style as some might have been as a campaigner, because frankly that's what it took for him to win.  It was effective and it worked.  Governing is a very different matter.  So dealing with foreign leaders, being able to work with the you know, opposition in Congress, maybe even people who are stridently criticizing him.  Not that he's going to all of a sudden become mister nice guy, but certainly I think the risk is, you know, how does he pivot from the campaign mode into governing mode?  His book was called The Art of the Deal, so we'll see what kind of a dealmaker he turns out to be in practice.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Aaron.  Aaron's work can be found in our regular issues of City Journal and on our website, City-Journal.org.  We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter, @CityJournal, with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thank you again, Aaron, for joining us.

Aaron Renn: Thank you.

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