Donald Trump is probably not a Manchurian candidate planted by Vladimir Putin to disrupt the American political landscape. That is just the latest attempt to explain how, of all people, the crude thrice-married billionaire from the outer boroughs became the Republican nominee for President of the United States. While the “Trump as Russian sleeper agent” theory is far-fetched, several well thought-out explanations have caught on. Too often, though, these fail to explain why Trump specifically became the standard-bearer of the GOP and stands a shot at winning the election. The jump from “what is happening” to “why him,” is key to understanding the Trump phenomenon. Bearing this in mind, I argue that Donald Trump is the candidate of schadenfreude. Not the kind of schadenfreude those on the left may feel when they see (or hope they see) the Republican party imploding, but that felt by the voters who gave Trump the nomination, and may give him the presidency.
Schadenfreude—deriving pleasure from the pain or misfortune of others—is not a phenomenon that drives a healthy democratic process. Of course, most narratives of Trump’s rise have emphasized just the opposite: widespread distrust of elites, the sheer number of Republicans vying for the nomination, a weak economic recovery, and the media’s fixation on outrageous and “shareable” stories play a part in almost any thinkpiece on his candidacy. These factors all indicate a weakening of American civil society, but they are not unique to Trump. Every other Republican candidate had to compete in the same environment. Interpreting Trump’s candidacy as driven by schadenfreude unites these theories, and provides some insight into what we can expect moving forward.
The overarching theme of 2016 has undoubtedly been the massive loss of trust in American political and media elites, and from an early stage pundits noted Trump’s success in the so-called “anti-establishment lane”. Indeed, Trump’s feud with Jeb Bush may be one of the best examples of the way schadenfreude has driven his candidacy. From mocking Bush as low-energy to refusing to apologize to his wife for bringing her into the debate on immigration, Trump consistently embarrassed a scion of one of the most powerful families in the Republican party. The brother of a former president was reduced to begging for applause. Trump also literally belittled Marco Rubio, the establishment’s golden-haired boy following Bush’s withdrawal from the race. On the eve of his landslide loss to Trump in the state for which he serves as a U.S. Senator, Rubio was visibly in shambles when forced to confirm he would support Trump as the party nominee. Pundits consistently viewed Trump’s attacks as a kind of Russian roulette—the last gaffe may not have done him in, but the next surely will! Instead, Trump steadily gained support, showing that anti-establishment voters would tolerate, if not welcome, presumptuous politicians being brought down to size.
It is important to note, of course, that Trump was not the only anti-establishment candidate seeking the Republican nomination. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul also sold themselves strongly to voters motivated primarily by antagonism towards incumbent power. How was Trump able to consolidate his support in such a crowded field? He certainly didn’t beat his anti-establishment opponents with ideological purity, a history of supporting the GOP and conservative causes, or a stronger ground game. Those traditionally meaningful metrics all put Trump leagues behind his competitors. But, as J.D. Vance, author of the recently published New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, put it: “He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t.” In Appalachia (possibly the most pro-Trump region in the country), Vance says, “they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders [i.e. the American elites]. If nothing else, Trump does that.”
Schadenfreude also helps us understand the appeal of Trump in the context of America’s limping economic recovery and the associated anxieties about immigration and globalization. Here, the pain Trump causes others is explicit: he will make them pay. Whether it’s Mexico that will pay for the border wall, China for “cheating” in trade, or NATO countries for military protection, Trump promises that under his administration, there will be a cost to those who in his view have economically harmed Americans. To American companies outsourcing jobs abroad, Trump says: “there are consequences.” Independent of the real impact of immigration, the outsourcing of jobs, or the import of Chinese goods, voters who are uncertain about the future hear not only that they will be protected, but that those who have wronged them will suffer for their misdeeds. As for NATO, Americans who have for years heard chidings from Europe for acting as the “world police” may relish the opportunity to show just how much they would miss us if we were gone. In a sense, “making them pay” has a double meaning: literal payment, or the metaphorical price Europe might suffer in retribution for taking American protection for granted.
The final factor that tends to crop up in analyses of Trump’s rise is his uncanny ability to generate free media. His omnipresence on television cannot be denied; by some estimates he has received as much as $3 billion in free coverage. Yet Trump led in name recognition as early as July of last year, so simply being covered more isn’t enough to explain Trump’s success. The manner of coverage is also important, and that coverage has often (rightly or wrongly) been a mix of disdain and incredulity. At a time when only four in ten Americans trust mass media, and only one in four believe the media even attempts to report without bias, Trump’s ability to send the media into overdrive fact-checking, debunking, and calling him out likely sends the same signal to voters that his provocation of the GOP establishment did: he is someone who will drive those who have betrayed their trust up the wall. Every paroxysm of coverage Trump generates is like catnip to millions of voters who have been waiting for the media to get their comeuppance.
This heuristic—Donald Trump as the candidate of schadenfreude—is admittedly difficult to verify. Voters are already hesitant to share with pollsters opinions they may believe are unpopular, so it is hard to imagine many freely admitting that their decisions are driven by the pleasure they get when they see others suffer. But it can be seen in the way some of Trump’s supporters talk with a grin about groups, like Muslims, who “had it coming,” and in the recurring chant of the Republican convention: “Lock her up.” And it is a theory that simultaneously answers several questions about Trump’s success up to this point. If it is true, what does it tell us about what to expect in November, and the state of American politics moving forward? 2016 has already proven incredibly unpredictable, in part because those we usually trust to make predictions are so distant from those demanding change. When there are big swings in the polls, or Trump makes a “gaffe,” don’t forget how often you heard pundits declare the end of his candidacy. As for the state of U.S. politics more broadly: the damage is done. Trust in the political and media establishment has been low and falling for some time, but what Trump’s candidacy shows is that they are no longer respected. The two are related, but the latter is harder to get back once lost. To do so, elites will have to show a deeper appreciation for the fear and anger driving voters to Trump than they have over the past year. If you believe that will happen, I have a tower in Manhattan to sell you.