How is it that republican voters can vote for a man who has demonstrated that he couldn’t even pass a high school final in social studies, history, or economics? I think it has to do with mythology.
There is a narrative, you might even call it a mythology, in the United States that best be summed up as, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” I call it The American Monomyth. The myth is simple: local government is corrupt or helpless to stop criminals running a town. An outsider comes in, fights the bad guys, cleans up the town, then rides off into the sunset. Although we’ve seen it most typified in westerns like Shane, the myth has such resonance with the American zeitgeist that this narrative shows up in a wide range of unrelated movies, from gritty crime movies like Robocop and Batman Begins all the way to fantastical adventures like The Wizard of Oz.
Knowing this myth is so strong in our culture, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that every president since Jimmy Carter has been either early in their career or the governor of a rural state. Reagan and George W. Bush, the last two Republican presidents to serve two terms, had that “it factor.” They were governors of states far away (both ideologically and physically) from Washington, D.C.; they had a folksy charm that managed to connect them to The Common Man, even though they were obscenely wealthy; and taking it a step further, Reagan and George W. Bush both played the part of a cowboy.
Republicans have also carefully cultivated the myth that government is bad, and business is good. While the liberal viewpoint is a little nuanced, and we talk about how government is good for some things and not so great at others, and so on, the conservative talking point is simple: “We have the best (fill in the blank) because of businesses not government.” (I’m not going to argue the positives or negatives of this viewpoint right now, I’m just pointing it out.) So, it stands to reason that a rich businessman must be smarter than a politician. It stands to reason that businessman is more willing to speak his mind and tell truth to power than some cowardly politician who just wants to do well in the polls.
So, if you’re a Republican in 2009, your last two candidates were a war hero and a successful businessman who was also a governor and was very religious, too. Mitt Romney certainly checked most of the boxes that George W. Bush did, but that “it factor” just wasn’t there. What a Republican wants is a cowboy. They want someone who is a great businessman, not a career politician; they want someone who can play for cameras as a tough guy; someone who is animated in front of a crowd, not stiff like Romney or McCain; the perfect Republican candidate for 2016 would be some sort of TV or movie star with a recognizable brand.
Trump may not have been the best person to run the country, but since Schwarzenegger could never have run, Trump fit the mold perfectly.