Is Trump Leading a Genuine Political Movement?
Policy + Politics

Is Trump Leading a Genuine Political Movement?

REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

What Donald Trump is doing in the Republican presidential primary is increasingly being called a “movement,” both by Trump himself and by conservative commentators, whether they like where he’s trying to take the GOP or not. However, according to one long-time student of political movements and leadership, the Trump “movement” may not be worthy of the name.

And the criticism isn’t coming from some leftist ideologue who instinctively backs away from Trump because he is energizing elements of the far right. It’s coming from former eight-term Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards, a founding trustee of the conservative Heritage Foundation and former national chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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“I wouldn’t call this a movement,” Edwards said. “Movements usually have a particular aim, a central direction. This is just an appeal to people who are disgruntled.”

Edwards, who now directs the Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership program at the Aspen Institute in Washington, said that unlike the tea party movement, which roiled the electorate in the years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Move On, which backs liberal causes, Trump’s followers seem to have little in the way of common, articulated goals.

(And no, “Make America Great Again!” is not a real statement of a goal.)

“This is not like the tea party or Move On where you have a common complaint and a vague idea of what you want to do,” he said. Trump’s followers have what he called a “very disparate” batch of complaints that seem to stem mainly from the fact that they “feel the ground shifting under them,” Edwards said. “They’re concerned about people taking their jobs, that people don’t look like they used to. He’s a good focal point.”

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Almost nothing Trump says “has any merit,” Edwards said, noting that he feeds his audiences a heavy diet of demonstrable falsehoods and exaggerated claims about the country’s decline.

The result is that Trump creates a shared sense of victimhood among his followers, which primes them to lash out when he points them at a target.

Last week, for example, Trump took to social media with a celebratory tweet about the declining share price of the Macy’s department store chain. Trump and Macy’s have a complicated history. The chain sold his line of men’s clothing and accessories for many years, but stopped doing so over the summer after Trump’s public comments denigrating immigrants from Mexico as rapists and murderers.

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“Good news,” Trump noted gleefully. “Disloyal Macy’s stock is in a total free fall. Don’t shop there for Christmas!”

Good news, disloyal Macy's stock is in a total free fall. Don't shop there for Christmas!

Posted by Donald J. Trump on Friday, December 4, 2015

Consider for a moment how problematic this is. The leading candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination is on the record cheering about the declining fortunes of a U.S. company – one that, with more than 166,000 workers, happens to be among the top 50 employers in the country.

Not only that, but Trump is doing it out of anger that Macy’s was “disloyal.” Not disloyal to the country, mind you. Not to its customers. Disloyal to him.

Trump goes further, urging his millions of followers to make things worse for the retail giant by not shopping there at Christmas. Imagine this kind of thing coming not from a billionaire former reality television star’s social media account, but from the White House.

Of course, the post was immediately shared on Facebook and Twitter by thousands of (mostly supportive) Trump followers who pledged never to shop at the chain again.

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Why would people happily pledge to try to damage a business that employs thousands of their fellow citizens over its refusal to continue stocking overpriced neckties from a billionaire’s vanity fashion line?

It’s that sort of question that troubles Edwards.

What stands out to me about this election has nothing to do with the candidates, it has to do with the electorate,” he said. “It ought to be sobering to realize the number of people who buy in to what Trump’s saying. The number of people who cheer when he tells lies.”