The rise of Trump explained in four graphics


How did he get this far this quickly?

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign by gliding down the golden escalators of Trump Tower, with paid extras hired from the New York theater community to pad the crowd size, it was easy to dismiss the real estate mogul as a self-promoting dilettante more interested in publicity than politics.

So many people got it so wrong. His Republican rivals, in the famous words of George W. Bush, “misunderestimated” him. The Pundit Elite kept predicting that just one more embarrassing gaffe would extinguish his White House hopes. The nation’s best newspapers kept churning out damning investigative pieces questioning Trump’s business acumen, his honesty, his ethics, his wild flip-flops on issues and his command of basic knowledge of the world ~ and it seemed to matter nary a bit.

Historians will be discussing the Trump phenomenon for decades. Yet here we are, the general election upon us. How did Donald Trump, a political neophyte and nearly lifelong Democrat, emerge as the self-proclaimed champion of conservative values, the master of the Republican National Committee, and the voice of angry white people?

It’s easy to oversimplify Trump’s appeal, but I’d like to try to explain the rise of Trump in four informational graphics.

#1: Americans have grown increasingly alienated from major institutions


Until the 1960s — amid Vietnam, civil rights struggles and social unrest — Americans had almost universally positive views about basic institutions in U.S. society. The trend has been downward ever since. But there has been a significant drop in the past decade in institutions as diverse as religion, schools, banking, the news business, the courts, and, of course, the Congress. There are two major reasons: self-inflicted wounds, such as congressional dysfunction and the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, and a partisan media led by Fox News, which has made it a constant theme of its programming to tear down institutions in order to rebuild America in its ideological image. Donald Trump positioned himself as the champion of the “little guy” against all the big, bad institutions — from Wall Street, to the news media, to big business, to the “rigged” Congress and court system … even against the Pentagon generals who know less about military strategy than the reality-TV star.

#2: There has been a rapid, dramatic shift to the left on social issues


Within the past decade, the United States reached a tipping point on social issues. On gay rights, the nation went from strong opposition to same-sex marriage to overwhelming support for the new reality that was blessed in 2013 and 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger generation — Democrat, Republican and those disgusted with both parties — is almost unanimously in favor of social change that affects women (“no means no”), gays (“marriage equality”) and the environment (climate change is real, not a Chinese-inspired hoax). This rapid shift has proven to be disconcerting to many older people, particularly men, who cling to (no, not their guns and bibles) their now-unpopular views. They want to say no to social change. Trump says they’re right. And he says that he’s their voice.

#3: We’ve seen a partisan reversal on globalization


For decades, Democrats were the protectionists and Republicans were the free-traders. Democrats, influenced by labor unions and environmentalists, resisted trade liberalization as bad for workers and the environment. Republicans embraced globalism and immigration as good for business, good for America, and, ultimately, a net plus for American workers.

Not any more. The Republican Party, radically altered by a massive influx of middle-aged white men displaced by a global economy for which they no longer have the requisite skill set, has become the party of protectionism and economic nationalism. They see immigrants as a threat to American jobs and American values.

Democrats and independents are now more open to international economic liberalization than the Republican Party, the traditional home of the U.S. business community. Trump is the big winner in this new reality. His “America First” backers crushed the internationalist Republicans like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and are challenging Democratic dominance in the nation’s economically distressed industrial heartland.

#4: People now get political information from self-selected partisan sources


We live in parallel information universes. Left-of-center Americans rely on a mix of CNN, NPR, MSNBC and the New York Times for their political and government news. Most of those news outlets present news from a predictably liberal mindset. Right-of-center Americans overwhelming rely on Fox News and local radio for their information. Fox and the Rush/Hannity/Coulter axis is not just conservative, it is almost anarchic in its desire to tear down institutions of the “elites” and the “establishment” while advocating for the grievances of whites who feel they are innocent victims of racial minorities, immigrants, non-Christian religions, China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Israel, Mexico, NATO … you name it.

The result of this Great Information Divide is that facts have become obsolete. The news of the left may be biased, but it is rooted in objective fact. Nonpartisan fact-checking websites can tell you how often politicians tell you the truth or lie to you. The news of the right has increasingly become resistant to globally accepted facts (evolution, climate change) and has allowed the virus of “fake news,” often generated in countries like Russia and Macedonia, to infiltrate the political mainstream. As Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said after Fox News retracted a false story that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted, “The damage was done.”

Social media has exacerbated the divide. Citizens follow information sources on Twitter and Facebook that confirm their preconceptions of reality. This has become the first post-fact-check presidential election. Trump, with his finger on the “tweet” button of his smartphone and a knack for creating viral content, is the perfect politician for this moment in history.

Explaining America to the world: I analyze Trump’s populist revolt for a Finnish audience

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When I moved to Beijing in 2013 to explain global best practices in journalism to a diverse group of Global Business Journalism Program students, I had not expected that I also would frequently be asked to explain American politics and democracy to a global audience. I’ve been interviewed regularly in Chinese media, but also in European news outlets from Finland to Slovakia (plus the good old USA).

This week, I discussed the rise of Donald Trump with my friend Matti Posio, who heads up the national news operation for a group of Finnish newspapers, Lannen Media. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Q: You have met Donald Trump in person. Tell me about it.

I am one of thousands of people who has met Donald Trump at black-tie social events. For me, it was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington several years ago. He was cordial and polite, very different than his public persona. He was clearly a celebrity among celebrities. Reporters were coming up to him an asking if they could pose for photos with him. He was patient, unlike the hot-tempered character on the campaign trail. Nobody I talked to thought he would ever run for president. I really didn’t do more than exchange small talk. He seems comfortable with social conversation and, obviously, he has been going to formal events for a half-century. From my very short glimpse into his life, I would say that he is a very good actor playing certain roles that are expected of him at different times.

Q: I don’t see how anyone can actually be like that. Is his personality the same in real life than portrayed on media?

How many of us get to see him in “real life”? Real life is his life in his big mansion in Florida. Real life is his family. I can imagine Orson Welles playing the role.

Screenshot 2015-12-26 11.17.49

Cruz + Trump = Volatile mix

Q: What is it that foreigners / Europeans really don’t get about Trump?

Do you mean, “Why is he getting so many votes? Why would anyone vote for him for president?” Politically, he is the right man at a very strange time in American political history. After two decades of anti-elitist rhetoric on right-wing talk radio and the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative cable news network Fox, there is a large minority of the country that believes their way of life has been taken from away from them by the faceless “them” — minorities, immigrants, big companies shipping jobs overseas, corrupt speculators, too-big-to-fail banks, gays and lesbians, working women, feminists, or Big Government giving their tax dollars to undeserving others, Donald Trump is a reality TV performer and is playing to that audience. He is playing the role of populist demagogue, race-baiter, keeper of the working-class flame, proud leader of the “poorly educated,” ranter against the system and the elites and Wall Street and Big Business. So what if he is a son of privilege, a highly educated billionaire and someone who has played the system for years to make deals and make money.

Q: What are the main reasons he has become so popular?

He strikes a responsive chord with less-educated, lower-income white voters across the political spectrum. He is winning among moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.. He is even getting a modest share of higher-educated, higher-income voters. He is bringing new voters into the system, economically struggling people who thought they had no voice until Donald Trump appeared. While Trump moved relentlessly forward in a media frenzy, his opponents spent months destroying each other rather than going after him. His opponents sound like traditional politicians — which they are — at a time American voters yearn for the myth of “authenticity.” Trump is acting the role of “truth-sayer” supremely well, even if the fact-checking web sites say he is lying much of the time.


Talking multimedia innovation at Lannen Media’s Helsinki offices last March

Q: He is behind both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the real election. Could he still win?

When it is a one-on-one race, anything could happen. If there are independent candidates dividing the non-Trump vote, anything could happen. There has never been an election like this. Bill Clinton says he expects a close general election. Pundits, who have been wrong all year, are predicting a Trump defeat that costs Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. I’ve been predicting that the public will eventually tire of Trump and “cancel” his election-year reality TV show. But I’ve been wrong for months, along with my fellow political reporters and pundits. So, to repeat an American political cliche, never say never.

Q What would happen if he really became the president? How much would he change?

In recent days, his primary opponent rival Ted Cruz has claimed that Trump told the New York Times editorial board privately that he would act very differently as president than he has during the campaign, as least as far as immigration is concerned. None of us know. As a reporter, I’ve always said that the best way to judge what a politician will do after getting elected to office is to study what he or she promises during the campaign. We can’t read his mind. If he does everything he’s promising to do on the campaign trail, there will be a constitutional crisis and a global economic and diplomatic catastrophe. You’ll have the Putin-Trump axis versus the world. I can’t see it. He would have to change or he would be ineffective domestically and isolated internationally.

Q: Let’s assume he doesn’t become the president. Has he already achieved something, left a lasting mark in the country and its politics? What is it?

Screenshot 2016-02-29 13.58.51

Dismantling the Reagan coalition

Yes, he has achieved something of historical significance. He has destroyed Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. If he wins the nomination, the party of Reagan will have ceased to exist. It is the same thing that happened to the Democrats in 1972, when George McGovern won the presidential nomination and destroyed the four-decade-old New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Democrats won the White House four years later because of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, it took them two decades to recover institutionally from the crack-up of 1972.

Q: You are currently a professor in China. What is told about Trump there? How much of it is true?

Trump has been portrayed in Chinese media as an eccentric, bombastic showman and celebrity. He’s seen more as a curiosity than a threat, so far, at least. Most people who are savvy about the United States ask me, “Could Trump be elected? Why would Americans vote for Trump?” It’s similar to questions people would ask you in Europe. The coverage of him on Chinese state television is generally straightforward, so far, at least. There has been a bit of negative editorial commentary in traditional state print media, but nothing nearly as inflammatory as what Trump has said about China. And Japan. And Korea. And Mexico. And Iran. And Europe. And Obama.

Q: Would you consider moving to China all together, should Trump be elected?

How about Finland?


Taping an interview at YLE, the Finnish radio network

The ten worst political campaigns of 2014


Pat Roberts has been working overtime to show how he understands the problems of his Kansas constituents.

From pornographic emails to pervasive plagiarism, this has been a good year for bad candidates. We’ve seen hubris, laziness and monumental incompetence.

That’s not really something new in American politics.

What may be new is that some of the campaigns are so bad that even partisan news outlets like Mother Jones and Fox News have called out the perpetrators.

So who has run the worst campaign of 2014? There are lots of candidates in contention for runner-up status but we already have a clear winner of that dubious achievement:

1. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor


Biggest loser: The former #2 man in the House of Representatives. Soon to be a very rich nobody.

A Hall of Shame horrible campaign. Overconfident. Out of touch. The future House Speaker became a former House member with the help of an obscure but spirited Tea Party activist. Cantor is crying all the way to the bank as he cashed in on the capital’s revolving door culture by getting a nice Wall Street-ish job.

2. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts

Win or lose, the veteran Kansas senator, who lives in Washington, was caught napping. He survived a primary scare that he didn’t see coming and then trailed badly against an independent in early general election polls. With the GOP establishment circling the wagons — and hardline conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seizing the moment — Roberts has finally gained some momentum, at least for the time being. But win or lose, he’s evidence of what happens when you catch Potomac Fever and don’t keep up with the folks back home.

3. Montana Sen. John Walsh

Democrats were on the defensive from the moment longtime Montana Sen. Max Baucus resigned his seat to become envoy to Beijing. But Dems had high hopes for John Walsh, an Iraq veteran, former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard and former lieutenant governor. Those hopes evaporated when the New York Times reported that Walsh had “plagiarized large sections of the final paper he completed to earn his master’s degree at the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.”

Walsh quickly made a bad situation a lot worse. According to the Times, Walsh initially “expressed no contrition for the plagiarism.” Even when withdrawing from the race two weeks later, he remained in denial, saying that the paper “has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.” The Army War College thought it was much more serious, revoking his master’s degree. But he’s still a senator, however lame a duck he may be.

4. Texas gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis

National Democrats thought they had found an instant superstar when the telegenic Fort Worth state senator staged a filibuster against a draconian Republican anti-abortion law in 2013. The party raised tons of money from her pro-choice passion and pink sneakers and shipped almost all of it out of state. It then somehow convinced the celebrity senator that she could be elected governor in one of the most reliably Republican states in the Union. All you had to do was read my 2012 statistical analysis of Texas demographic and electoral trends to know that true partisan competitiveness was from eight to 12 years away.

To make a difficult situation worse, Davis’ campaign has been inexplicably tone-deaf. They seem to be running the kind of a campaign a Democrat would run in Massachusetts or Illinois, not Texas. (In contrast, the last Texas Democrat to be elected governor, Ann Richards, knew how to appeal to the good-ole-boy and good-ole-girl vote without sacrificing her basic principles.)

Final exclamation point, a new television ad that tried to paint Republican Greg Abbott as a hypocrite but ended up making him a victim. Even liberal standard-bearer Mother Jones called it, “to be blunt, bullshit.”

“If Wendy Davis Thinks She Can Win an Election by Pointing Out Her Opponent’s Disability, She’s Wrong,” declared the MoJo headline.

“It’s offensive and nasty and it shouldn’t exist,” wrote Ben Dreyfuss. “She’s basically calling Abbott a cripple.”

That’s what her friends are saying. Texas Democrats should be saying, “Wait ’til next year.” Or is it “next decade”?

5. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett

This is not the kind of headline you want on Fox News’ web site if you are a Republican incumbent:

Porn scandal involving former staff puts Pa. governor on defense in already-tough race

It’s not a question of whether Tom Corbett will lose, it’s by how much he will lose. In a very good year for Republican candidates, the GOP incumbent is a very bad candidate. Whether it’s his ties to the Penn State football program’s child sexual abuse cover-up or the scandal involving pornographic emails sent by staffers, the news is relentlessly negative for the embattled incumbent. Democratic nominee Tom Wolf is breezing to victory. The only question is whether Corbett’s margin of defeat is larger than the 20 percentage point repudiation of then-Senator Rick Santorum in 2006.

It’s a hard time to be a GOP spinner in the Keystone State. “This is not an Anthony Weiner situation,” one Republican consultant said on Fox News, trying to put the best face on a very bad situation.

Cold comfort.

6. Ohio gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald

It’s never good when a headline in the Washington Post declares:

The remarkable implosion of Ed FitzGerald

Especially not if you are an Ohio Democrat and Ed FitzGerald is your nominee for governor. Democrats had high hopes for unseating Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose edgy personality and hard-driving policy agenda had alienated a fair number of voters. But their candidate, a local elected official with precious little big league experience, proved truly minor league. A typical lowlight was the revelation of a 2012 incident when he was approached by a police officer while in a parked car with a woman who was not his wife.

How bad have things gotten? With the campaign winding down, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that “the beleaguered Democrat is altering his strategy in an attempt to ensure his troubles don’t doom his party’s entire statewide ticket.” At least he’s not playing stupid “spin” games and trying to convince us that he still is in contention.

7. South Dakota Senate nominee Mike Rounds

Republicans thought this was a sure thing when Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement. Red state. Popular ex-governor. Anti-Obama electorate. Good Republican year. Can’t lose.

Well, yes you can.

Rounds has exhibited a severe case of overconfidence and has run a lackluster campaign (to be generous). Toss in a wild card — the independent candidacy of former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, the only politician to say no to the “American Hustle” hustlers — and you have the South Dakota road show version of the venerable musical “Anything Goes.”

I’ll still be shocked if Rounds loses. But he’s trying his best.

8. Michigan Senate nominee Terri Lynn Land

Like Texas Democrats, Michigan Republicans thought they had a chance to pull an upset on hostile partisan turf by nominating Terri Lynn Land for the Senate seat long held by retiring Democrat Carl Levin. Now, national Republicans will tell you it is one of their biggest disappointments of the year. Land’s campaign has been mediocre, at best, lacking imagination, energy and an overarching strategy. She’s been on the defensive, like her attempts to counter perceptions that her policy positions were “anti-women.” She aired an ad that was described by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz as the worst of the election season (which is saying a lot). In the ad, she drank coffee and looked at her watch and said that, as a woman, she knows more about women than her male opponent. No discussion of any issues.

As the Detroit News reported:

The “Really?” ad, aired in May, sought to reject claims that Land is anti-woman because of her opposition to abortion and federal legislation known as the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Luntz criticized the commercial on “Fox & Friends” for failing to “give any message” or “communicate any sense of substance.”

No wonder Democrat Gary Peters — once considered a “tough sell” — has been consistently leading in the polls for months.

9. California congressional candidate Carl DeMaio

In the category of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, we take you to San Diego, where Republicans have been talking all year about their strong candidate against endangered Democratic incumbent Scott Peters.

Let’s just say the talk has shifted all of a sudden. After all, how many candidates for the House of Representatives find themselves in the bizarre position of denying that they masturbated in front of a staff member? Or groped his genitals?

That’s the plight of Carl DeMaio, a highly touted Republican candidate who had been leading in many polls in California’s 52nd Congressional District. Let’s just cut to the Oct. 10 CNN interview with his former aide, Todd Bosnich.

Bosnich: “I saw his hand —— his penis in his hand. He had a smile on his face. And as soon as I came over, he was looking at me.”

CNN reporter Chris Frates: “So there was no mistaking what was happening?”

Bosnich: “There was no mistaking whatsoever.”

According to TalkingPointsMemo, Bosnich has accused his ex-boss of “making inappropriate advances, massaging and kissing his neck, and groping.”

I should note that DeMaio categorically denies his ex-aide’s account and held a press conference to condemn it as “an outrageous lie” that has been dismissed by law enforcement authorities.

“This is an individual that was let go by our campaign manager for plagiarism, a well-documented plagiarism incident of taking a report from the National Journal and passing it off as his own work,” the candidate told CNN. “He was terminated. He admitted that he plagiarized.”

At his press conference, DeMaio went further: “It’s absolutely untrue and it’s unfortunate that an individual who is the prime suspect in the break-in at our campaign office would manufacture such an outrageous lie.”

Someone is lying. But no candidate wants to be denying this kind of thing in the final weeks of a campaign. Or ever.
10. Texas Agriculture Commission loser Kinky Friedman

Once considered a serious (or at least semi-serious) candidate for governor of Texas, this singer/songwriter/author has been failing downward. This year, he ran an erratic campaign for Texas Agriculture Commissioner and was defeated in the Democratic runoff by “not Kinky Friedman,” a.k.a., an unknown guy who was the other name on the ballot. Kinky’s top campaign issue this year was legalization of marijuana.

“I want to make this election into a referendum on lifting the prohibition on pot and hemp,” Friedman told KHOU 11 News during a campaign event in Houston. “This is about the future of Texas.”

It certainly wasn’t about Kinky’s political future.