‘Taking Trump Seriously’: Abrasiveness aside, BSU prof saw his ‘centrist’ appeal

President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan after meeting in the speaker’s office on Capitol Hill Thursday.
President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan after meeting in the speaker’s office on Capitol Hill Thursday. AP

Justin Vaughn recognized last spring that the nation had better start taking Donald Trump seriously.

At the time, Trump had built a lead in the state-by-state Republican primary elections, befuddling many experts who had predicted for the better part of a year that he couldn’t possibly win the GOP nomination.

In a column for Boise State University’s publication The Blue Review, Vaughn, a political science professor, argued that political elites and commentators were overlooking the depth and significance of support Trump had attracted, just as they had dismissed the candidate himself.

Vaughn, too, is surprised that Trump actually won the presidency. He figured it would be close but Clinton would prevail.

The reason Trump won was largely what Vaughn identified seven months earlier as the reason Trump kept beating Republicans in the primaries: deep, festering disgust with the political status quo. Voters saw Trump as just the outsider to upset the elites’ applecart, Vaughn said.

Until political and media elites get over their need to repeatedly point out the less savory aspects of Trump’s candidacy and instead attempt to understand fully why The Donald is resonating with voters across party divides, the establishment will fail in its attempt to stop him, and will continue to fail the American people.

Justin Vaugh, writing in April

“Trump’s not a politician, and Americans know he’s not a politician because they’ve known who he is for the last 40, 50 years,” he said. “That, on top of the fact that the public was primed for that kind of message, made him a particularly strong messenger.”

Vaughn thinks Trump’s stance on immigration got him through the Republican primaries. Afterward, during the general campaign, Trump skillfully pivoted to a broader “drain the swamp” criticism of America’s government at large, Vaughn said.

There are other reasons Trump won, Vaughn said Wednesday. It’s obvious in hindsight that Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a strategic blunder by ignoring the traditionally solid-blue Michigan and Wisconsin in the belief that Democrats had both states in the bag, he said.

Also, despite an abrasive tone, Vaughn said, Trump mostly espoused centrist policy positions, which made him uniquely attractive.

“He managed to do something that nobody else in America has been able to do and win as this certain kind of centrist candidate,” Vaughn said.

Idaho Statesman Q&A with BSU’s Justin Vaughn

(Lightly edited for clarity):

What was the key to Trump’s victory Tuesday?

His ability to tap into this dissatisfaction in the electorate.

He was very able to not only communicate that he got that and he understood it, but who is to blame for it, and deliver a more general message for change that Hillary Clinton was just unable to make. She has been a political elite for decades. She was campaigning on continuing the third term of the Obama presidency. In this particular moment, she was very poorly positioned to have the kind of message that would resonate.

But candidates rail against the status quo in every election. Why was Trump successful?

One difference between this election cycle and every election cycle is that people are really dissatisfied. In 1996, it was hard for Bob Dole to tap into dissatisfaction, right? Because people weren’t dissatisfied. But right now, they really are in both parties.

Was this moment inevitable? Necessary?

The path that the two parties have been on was untenable permanently. Something was going to have to break. We’ve seen the tensions much more obviously in the Republican Party, but they’re there in the Democratic Party, too.

In April, you told your readers that there was more to Trump’s support than racism. But exit polls are showing a huge white-nonwhite divide. How important was race in Trump’s election?

Certainly, there were people who were supporting him for racist reasons. The KKK doesn’t endorse accidentally. There are a lot of people who realized that about him, were disgusted by it, and then still supported him. Because, while they didn’t appreciate the racial tone, they also didn’t want to support Hillary Clinton and they didn’t want to continue the status quo.

But if the Democratic Party would decide to write off the reason they lost to the belief that white Americans are racists, they’re not going to solve their problems.

Why do you think nearly 30 percent of Latinos voted for Trump despite his stance on immigration and anti-immigrant rhetoric?

That surprises me. On the other hand, maybe the most obvious explanation is that, just like non-Latino voters, Latino voters have multiple factors they’re considering. The critique Trump had, which no one really took very seriously, is that Democrats treat minorities as one-issue voters. Maybe most of the Latinos were, but at least almost a third weren’t.

What are the implications for the GOP’s future?

If I’m a Republican, I have a lot of faith that I can continue to build on that Latino turnout, because your future politicians aren’t going to be alienating them in that kind of way, probably. So if Trump can get 29 percent, then somebody who isn’t as divisive, or at least whose rhetoric isn’t as divisive, could get 35 or 40. Which, really, is huge in terms of the future of the Republican Party.

Where do the Democrats go from here?

As of today, the Democrats can start reinventing themselves and understand what the cleavages are within their party, what the generational differences are within their party, how to go about reaching out to that disaffected middle third of America. The Republicans, now, have to deal with Donald Trump being their standard bearer and continuing that civil war amongst themselves for at least another four years.

After 2012, the Republican Party did a really thorough post-mortem. Why did Mitt Romney lose in a race that maybe could have been winnable? And then they proceeded to largely ignore the conclusions of their study. The Democrats need to do something similar and take it really seriously.

Did Trump’s win give Republicans a lasting blueprint for success?

Donald Trump devised a game plan that future campaign managers can pull out and try to improve upon, that they can amend in whatever ways. But the conditions that allowed that particular campaign plan aren’t always going to be present. People aren’t going to be totally disgusted with their government and anxious about their economic future forever. And you’re not always going to have a candidate who can make that argument. Jeb Bush couldn’t have made that argument, and Marco Rubio couldn’t make that argument, for very different reasons. There’s only so many Donald Trumps.