Explaining Donald Trump: Ten ‘expert’ theories

It seems Trump has enabled the Big Thinkers to make fools of themselves by creating one questionable theory after another to account for his unexpected rise in popularity.

Donald Trump has caused critical collateral damage to people in the field known as the social sciences — psychologists, sociologists, political theorists, and historians. It seems Trump has enabled these Big Thinkers to make fools of themselves by creating one questionable theory after another to account for his unexpected rise in popularity.

Academics are currently churning out these theories at an astounding rate. Indeed, producing these theories has become a cottage industry in itself, offering professors and pundits an exciting new way to make their way onto the op-ed pages of major newspapers and blogs. Some of their theories contain complex statistical data accompanied by Byzantine footnotes; others offer detailed historical parallels, particularly from European history; and still others draw conclusions from charming anecdotal evidence, notes from the Trump followers’ trenches.

But what all of these theories have in common is an astonishing intellectual confidence of the highest order. Almost every social scientist putting out his theory declares that this one is it, the sole theory that explains it all. And many go on to say that now that he looks at the Trump phenomenon really deeply, employing all of his analytic tools, it is fair to say that Trump’s ascendancy was inevitable.

The problem, of course, is that none of these social scientists predicted this “inevitable” outcome. That would be considered a serious shortcoming in any other “science.”


The First Theory to achieve the status of ‘Conventional Wisdom’ was The “Next Logical Step of the Republican Party” Theory. It goes like this:

us_south_censusStarting with Reagan’s “Southern Strategy” and moving on through the Tea Party Movement, the Republican Party has been moving incrementally toward racism, xenophobia, etc. all along, but no “respectable” Republican politician ever really talked about these things in straightforward terms. Instead, Republicans used code words. Then along came someone who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, etc. and talked about it in unvarnished language, indeed, in crude language, so naturally people flocked to him. It made people feel like a homosexual who finally comes out of the closet: no more hiding their true feelings. So all one had to do to see a Trump-like figure coming down the pike was to follow the dots and then extend the line. It was plain as day.

This theory is very popular with Democrats.


On March 1, 2016, as the Trump phenomenon was just beginning to gain its first wave of momentum, the Second Theory, the “Authoritarian Trigger Theory,” burst onto the scene. Published in the high volume blog, Vox, the article, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” went viral immediately.

To get a sense of the overweening confidence of the academic sociologists who penned this piece, it’s enlightening to quote from the article’s opening paragraphs:

“The American media, over the past year, has been trying to work out something of a mystery: Why is the Republican electorate supporting a far-right, orange-toned populist with no real political experience, who espouses extreme and often bizarre views? How has Donald Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly become so popular?”

And, a bit later, “What’s made Trump’s rise even more puzzling is that his support seems to cross demographic lines — education, income, age, even religiosity — that usually demarcate candidates.”

The solution to all of these mysteries, the article then said, was found by a PhD student who had put together a psychological profile of individual voters who are characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. When feeling threatened, people who scored high on his “authoritarianism” scale tend to look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

To some readers, this may sound like a no-brainer, a theory that is true by definition of its terms, i.e. people who desire order are attracted to leaders who promise them order. Not a big surprise. But this did not prevent the article from going on for 30-plus pages of explanation.

The most mind-boggling part of the piece came under the heading: “How a niche subfield of political science suddenly became some of the most relevant research in American politics.” Here the reader finds the nitty-gritty of how to identify people who have authoritarian personalities: you simply give them a personal values test, like one about parenting goals, which has such questions as:

“Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?”

And “Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?”

If a person opts for “respect for elders” and “good manners,” he clearly has an authoritarian personality. And, of course, if he has an authoritarian personality, he is likely to be triggered to vote for Trump.

Any questions?


Jamelle Bouie
Jamelle Bouie

Around the same that the “Authoritarian Trigger” theory took off, the Third Theory, the “Black Presidency Backlash” theory, gained traction. Written by Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent and an African-American, the article’s sub-head says it all: “It’s not just anger over jobs and immigration. White voters hope Trump will restore the racial hierarchy upended by Barack Obama.

To Bouie’s credit, he neither asserts that his theory is the only credible theory nor that Trump’s rise was inevitable.


At about the same time, and possibly in reaction to Bouie’s widely-circulated column, the Fourth Theory hit the ground running. This one was known as the “It’s Really All About Trade, Stupid” theory. Written by Republican columnist, Thomas Frank, in The Guardian, this theory was noteworthy for the stinging potshots it took at other theories and theorists, especially for their elitist blindness to the genuine feelings of the working class. Wrote Frank: “When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class Other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s.”

Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank

But if these elitists actually listened to Trump’s speeches, Frank maintains, they’d realize that he is not selling racism, he is zeroing in on the pain and suffering of the working class who have lost their incomes due to bad international trade agreements. This, by the way, is usually a major issue for liberals, so maybe that’s why they missed seeing it.

Yet Frank is not immune to the temptation to throw in some sociological-statistical, “academic” findings of his own, to wit, “A map of [Trump’s] support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.”

True. But it coordinates even better with what you get when you Google “One-legged Irishmen.”


It was inevitable that an “I Told You So” theory would surface sooner or later, and sure enough, the Fifth Theory did just that in another Vox article called, “The political scientist who saw Trump’s rise coming.”

Norman Ornstein
Norman Ornstein

This one is an interview with the right-wing thinker, Norm Ornstein, who says that Trump’s rise is the Republican Party’s own fault, not because it was the “next logical step” in that party’s unspoken agenda (see First Theory), but because the Republicans are suffering from a self-inflicted wound. They railed against the establishment and then, lo and behold, the people saw the Republican Party as part of the establishment. Says Ornstein, “GOP leaders tried to fan the flames of populist anger, but ended up undermining their own authority.”

Of course, there is always something appealing about any theory that provides a comeuppance to the smug, even if that theory’s author is the epitome of smug.


The Sixth Theory, the “Anger at the One Percent” Theory, has the distinction of accounting not only for Trump’s popularity, but also for Socialist Bernie Sanders’s surprising popularity.

Marxist in origin, this one states that the anger that draws people to Trump began with the realization that the top one percent of the Western world owns 40 percent of the wealth. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations turned this fact into a meme and then Thomas Piketty’s book, “The Economics of Inequality,” gave it academic validity. Never mind that most Trump followers have not read this book (nor have many other people, for that matter, although it was a bestseller). Nor, possibly, have they ever heard of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. But these things do trickle down. And then, as Marx observed, the people take it out on the people most available. The one-percenters are hard to locate and even if they are located, they tend to have walls and bodyguards around their mansions. So the people take aim at the usual, and more readily available, suspects: Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, etc. Enter Trump.


Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff

What is refreshing about the Seventh Theory is that it focuses on Trump himself rather than on some subterranean cultural urge that Trump merely gives voice to. The “Power of the Charismatic Sociopath” theory, as put forth by law professor, Tobias Wolff, claims that deep down we all yearn to be free of moral strictures, to be conscience-free like a child. It’s just the way we’re built. In the 1960s, this yearning found its expression in hippiedom, but those days are gone, in large part because no one can afford to live like a hippie anymore. But now, when a unique public figure comes along who is not only conscience-free, but flaunts it, says anything that pops into his childlike mind, and then gets away with it, we envy him. We want to be like him and let it all hang out, sadism and all. So we choose him as our leader, our Pied Piper. Let the good times roll!


The Eighth Theory, the “Political Correctness Backlash” Theory, has never gained frontrunner status, but it hangs on the fringes of many other theories, like the above, “Power of the Charismatic Sociopath” theory. This one blames liberal political correctness for Trump’s ascendancy. The damned liberals have been telling us that we can’t call the baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, “Indians,” because that is disrespectful of Native Americans. Gimme a break! What’s more, we can’t call African-Americans “jungle bunnies” or women “bitches.” Get off our backs, wouldja? What ever happened to calling a spade a spade? Whatever happened to Freedom of Speech?

Thus, people admire Trump because he has a foul, insensitive mouth. Anybody got a fucking problem with that?


The Ninth Theory is brought to us by the pop psychologist du jour, George Lakoff, whose professional title alone

George Lakoff
George Lakoff







is breathtaking: Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics. For Lakoff, it’s all about the language we use and the worldview it expresses. And Lakoff argues that we think of our nation as one big family. Witness the expressions “Founding Fathers” and “Homeland Security.” Those metaphors tell the whole story.

Further, he argues, what we consciously think is totally irrelevant. He says that voting patterns have nothing to do with rational belief, specific issues, self-interest, or any other conscious ideology. No, it all comes down to our inherent sense of what a good family is.

The theory then posits two basic family types: A family headed by a Strong Father (conservative values) or a family headed by a Nutrient Father (liberal values). And when people are under stress and fear they want a Strong Father government.

If this sounds a lot like the “Authoritarian Trigger Theory” (Theory Two), that is because the two theories are basically the same, except that Lakoff expresses his in psycho-linquistic jargon. He is, after all, a distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics.


James Fallows
James Fallows

Finally, Theory Ten, the ultimate “I Told You So” theory, appeared in The Atlantic online. Titled “A 2-Year-Old Article About an 87-Year-Old Book, With New Relevance for the Here and Now,” noted columnist, James Fallows, harkens back to “The Revolt of the Masses” (1930), by the Spanish philosopher and social thinker, Jose Ortega y Gasset. He had the goods on Trump a century before Trump was born.

Channeling Ortega y Gasset, Fallows writes, “Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elite still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.”

Hate experts, eh? Count me in.