Hindsight: What to make of Trump’s rise

Throughout the election cycle, political pundits have searched far and wide for reasons that might explain the popularity of Donald Trump. They analyze it sociologically, citing the anxieties of many of his supporters left behind in the globalized age. They point to the historical precedent of anti-immigrant sentiment, from the Know-Nothing Party to the Immigration Restriction League. They write of angry white men who are uncomfortable with the country’s changing demographics and shifting gender roles. Trump becomes a kind of static quantity, a symbol of regressive thought elevated by a perfect storm of social and economic grievances.

What these analyses overlook, however, is that Trump ran a remarkably effective campaign. Love him or hate him, Trump demonstrated strong talent in branding and persuasion. Comparing his slogan to that of his rivals during the Republican primaries, we see that Trump’s was the only one that was the least bit memorable. Ted Cruz’s “TrusTed” might have stayed in the mind for a few days, but puns don’t tend to inspire. If you knew nothing about the candidates, simply that one person’s slogan was “Make America Great Again,” another’s was “TrusTed,” and the rest’s were too generic to recall, then you would have no problem guessing the outcome of the Republican primary. Trump did not invent the phrase—Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were fond of saying it as well—but he did have the idea to copyright it in 2012, years before his presidential bid.

Trump was a good campaigner. He knew how to play the media to keep himself in the public eye. While Cruz would go on cable news shows and complain that they weren’t giving him as much attention as other candidates, Trump would create a narrative that got the media talking. He feuded with Megyn Kelly over what he perceived to be an unfair question. The story went on for months, with twists and turns and a fairytale ending. The story was media catnip. It’s estimated that the constant media coverage of Trump during the Republican primaries amounts to $3 billion in free advertising.

Conventional campaign methods fell flat in comparison to Trump’s unorthodox style. While his opponents would spend millions on ads that most people skip anyway, Trump would write a controversial tweet that reached millions and got picked up by news outlets across the country. His use of media meant that he could spend less than his opponents but still receive better results. Comparing campaign and PAC expenditures and number of delegates earned, Trump had by far the best return on his investment. Trump spent less than $40,000 per delegate, while Cruz, the next most frugal, spent $382,000 per delegate. Jeb Bush spent an incredible $53,073,000 for each of his three delegates.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell discusses why underdogs win more frequently than we would anticipate. He cites the research of political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, who found that weaker countries win wars against stronger countries about a third of the time. When weaker countries use “unconventional or guerilla tactics,” however, their odds jump to 63.6 percent. The rise of Trump through the Republican primaries demonstrates a similar phenomenon. Though he lacked the backing of much of the Republican establishment, and the network of donors that someone like Jeb Bush would have access to, he worked around these barriers in ways that left more traditional campaigns unable to react. Even with millions of dollars, how do you craft an effective response to the label “low energy”?

The Trump phenomenon might be understood through a number of lenses. You might see Trump as a conman and the Republican electorate as a parade of unknowing dupes. You might see Trump as a referendum on the establishment, a “Molotov cocktail,” as Michael Moore phrased it, meant to bring down the status quo. You might see him as a clown elevated by the corrupt media. But there is another lens through which one might interpret Trump’s rise. What if the primary reason that Trump out-performed expectations was that he ran an effective campaign? Instead of external factors, perhaps Trump himself—his skills and his acumen—provides the answer. Maybe he knew what he was doing all along.