A lot has been made of Donald Trump’s online supporters—many of whom are part of a social media brigade of trolls posting offensive, oftentimes racist and sexist memes to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Hillary Clinton made these people—known collectively as the ‘alt-right’—the subject of a speech in which she attacked Trump’s association with the movement.
Trump is not the first political candidate to have a major online following. During the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries, Ron Paul was famous for his Revolutionaries whose ubiquitous social media activity ensured that ‘End the Fed’ was a top post on even the most obscure and unpolitical YouTube videos. In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ mass of young, white men posting in support of single-payer healthcare and free college tuition became known as ‘Bernie Bros.’
Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all mobilized sizeable and enthusiastic online followings. But, only Trump has been able to transform that support into tangible electoral success. Why?
In 2008, Ron Paul earned just over one million primary votes. He barely doubled that number in 2012 when he won (controversially) a majority of delegates in four states. During the 2016 primaries, Sanders undoubtedly generated more electoral success than Paul when he earned over 13 million votes and won 23 states. Still, neither of these men were able to clinch their respective nominations. On the other hand, Trump captured 14 million votes as well as the Republican nomination.
Trump has been able to inspire support, both online and offline, because his message is emotional rather than ideological. In contrast to Trump, Ron Paul had the least emotional and most ideological message of these three candidates. During debates he would rail against the Federal Reserve and fiat currency, even getting booed for suggesting the 9/11 terror attacks were a result of blowback from U.S. foreign policy. Ron Paul’s ideological campaigning was strong enough to make celebrities of two obscure economists when he urged his supporters to search out the works of Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises to understand his economic policies.
Sanders preached a similarly ideological message, and, while it did contain emotional elements—the attacks against the 1%; appeals to Americans who were hurting from the economic collapse, who, unlike the major banks, received no bailouts—the message still came from Sanders’ years of studying socialist doctrine. From his time at a Marxist kibbutz in Israel, to his tenure as a member of the far-left Liberty Union Party of Vermont, Sanders honed his thinking around economic inequality and the power of democratic socialism.
From what we’ve seen of Trump, he has no ideology. The only author he ever cites as inspirational is himself as author of The Art of the Deal. The only book he claims to like more than his magnum opus is the Bible, which he has shown little evidence of having actually read (when asked his favourite verse Trump replied, ‘Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many,’). Likewise, unlike Ron Paul and his supporters—who exalted the Constitution—Trump’s claims of constitutional support seem false: he stated that he would ‘protect Article I, Article II, Article XII.’ There is no Article XII of the Constitution.
These gaffes don’t shake Trump’s supporters, though. Had Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders made a similar mistake, it’s unlikely they could have survived. Their supporters were more dedicated to ideology than they were to the candidate. Paul’s Revolutionaries refused to support his slightly less libertarian son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for president, and the Bernie Bros bristled at the idea of backing Hillary Clinton, who they saw as a Wall Street sell-out. Trump supporters have no ideological test for their candidate—and many of them don’t desire one. Trump has never required an ideological test for his supporters either. Instead, he appeals to the emotions of voters who feel left behind and ignored. Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders told voters if they learned enough they could change the system. Trump told voters they were allowed to be angry—angry at an economy that’s shifting jobs away from America’s heartland to China and Mexico—and that they were allowed to be fed up with politicians who promised workbooks of policies they would implement and then compromised behind closed doors after getting elected. Paul and Sanders gave voters instructions to use their brains; Trump gave them permission to listen to their hearts.
After Clinton’s speech about the alt-right, several leaders of its online movement held their own press conference to answer questions about their ideology. Peter Brimelow, an anti-immigration author and editor-in-chief of VDare.com; Richard Spencer, a white nationalist blogger and head of the National Policy Institute think tank; and Jared Taylor, a self-proclaimed ‘race realist’ and founder of American Renaissance magazine; told the press that, while they and their supporters want Trump to win, they don’t think he shares their racist convictions. It was a bizarre moment in the campaign. Trump has been labelled by the mainstream media as a bigot since he announced his candidacy and here were three of his supporters complaining that he wasn’t racist enough. But, they tempered their criticism by explaining they had no delusions about his lack of ideological devotion to their ideals. Instead, they were supporting him because Trump was an emotional lightning rod that drew white, working-class support. He may have stumbled onto some shared policies—deporting illegal immigrants and barring Muslims from entering the country—but ultimately it was more important that Trump win than he be a true believer. To them, Trump represented the test of a supposition: could a candidate win without appealing to minority voters and by criticizing multiculturalism and immigration? If Trump could accomplish this, it would not matter if he followed through on his promises. If Trump could pull off the election he would prove to the alt-right that there was an opening for its candidates. Trump would break a hole in the system wide enough for a new generation of ideologically rigorous alt-righters to climb through.
This promise of success is a major contributor to Trump’s support among lower-class, poorly educated Americans. Similarly to how the alt-right views Trump, residents of rural Appalachia and the former manufacturing strongholds of the Northeast (the areas Trump performed the strongest during the primaries) see in Trump a chance for salvation. These rural voters, like the alt-right online, have no meaningful representation in the political process. Due, in the case of working-class Americans, to their lack of economic agency, and in the case of the alt-right to their socially unacceptable political views, both groups see Trump as a bomb that can blow up the system and provide them an opening.
This has been Trump’s power all along. His real-world political success is the result of what he represents to his followers. Whether he is a crypto-racist for the alt-right or a strong and competent businessman who will turn the economic fortunes of working-class America around, Trump’s lack of adherence to any clear ideology is what has allowed him to gain his political foothold. Trump supporters aren’t supporting a specific economic plan or set of moral guidelines, they’re supporting a man who has spent his entire adult life selling himself as a brand. Trump isn’t a politician so much as he is a promise—a promise of success, of glitz, glamour, and greatness. And in this campaign he has become a promise to so many Americans that the America they lost—the America that once employed millions in the Rust Belt in manufacturing and Appalachia with mining jobs—could one day return. That America could be Great Again.
Paul and Sanders built online followings by promoting ideals that had to be studied and researched. They inadvertently created ideological purity tests for their supporters and themselves. If they didn’t stick to the checklist of acceptable beliefs they created for their followers, they would be abandoned. By abandoning ideology in favour of his personal brand, Trump built an ideological following online and generated real votes at the ballot box. On November 8, we will see how many Americans buy what Trump is selling.