Like almost everyone, I have been trying to figure out how it was possible that a person who has never held public office before, and who may not actually be a Republican, could be on the verge of gaining the Republican nomination.   Many conservatives cannot figure this out, especially given that he holds views that are diametrically opposed to most Republican orthodoxy.

There is no doubt that Trump has gained a large number of votes, over 10 million, which at this point are the second most ever garnered by a Republican in the primaries (Bush in 2000 collected over 12 million votes).  So even though Trump has not gained a majority of the Republican votes, he certainly has gained a lot of support.

So what explains Trump?

Of course the obvious answer is that some people are “angry” at Washington, politicians and what generally is happening to them.  This also explains, in part, the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Ironically both of these candidates were not members of the parties they seek the nomination for, until recently (if they ever converted).  One measure of the people’s anger at Washington is overall “approval” ratings of Congress that now hover close to single digits.
But this just begs the question: why are people so mad at Washington, at politicians?

My theory is that one of the main reasons the Republican base is angry is that the GOP has overpromised for years what can possibly be accomplished if the Republicans gained office.  So, after President Barack Obama gained office in 2008, the recession and other factors led to a backlash in 2010, fed by the so-called “Tea Party” movement.  Republicans gained control of the House, and later the Senate.  

What seems important is that when the GOP ran to take office they promised that they could overturn all or nearly all of the policies enacted by Obama, led by “Obamacare” but also sustaining aspects of the stimulus package, and many other policies.  The GOP base was very happy the House would lead the dismantling of Obama’s policies.  And of course they tried, for example voting over 50 times to repeal Obamacare.

But this was always a fool’s errand.  Why?  To understand this, people need to understand the simple basics of the US federal government structure. To repeal any legislation, or to pass it, it must be passed not only through the House, but also through the Senate, then get signed by the President.  And to get through the Senate, the reality is that 60 votes are almost always needed, not a bare majority. Why? Because with 40 or more votes, the minority can put a halt to any piece of legislation unless more than 60 Senators vote to “invoke cloture.”  The Republicans don’t have 60 votes now (they hold a 54-46 margin), and only rarely in history has the majority party held more than 60 votes. See graph here for history of this.

Even if one party did control both Houses of Congress, and over 60 votes in the Senate, of course the President needs to sign any legislation, unless two-thirds of both Houses override his veto.  It has been very rare for any party to have 67 votes or more in the Senate (this has happened only twice in the last 100 years, while FDR and Johnson were President).
So the reality is that the GOP voters were told that much if not most of Obama’s agenda would get repealed and reversed if the GOP simply took control of the Congress, and other GOP initiatives could get passed.  But they had to know at the time this was impossible while Obama holds his veto pen.

My view is this is why a relatively small, but vocal subset of the population is so furious at Washington, and why Trump (and Sanders for that matter) could exploit this and do well this primary season.  In particular, Tea Party voters are the most angry, and they make up a large part of Trump’s base.  Since they are also not part of the traditional (or establishment) GOP base, these voters are unconventional – fiscally conservative on some issues, but not others; not necessarily driven by “social issues” like abortion; and in some cases more isolationist than traditional Republicans.

So in many ways, the Republicans have themselves to blame for creating the Trump phenomenon.  By stoking the anger and opposition to Obama and the Democrats for years, and convincing voters to put them into office, this achieved the objective of giving the Republicans control of Congress, but little else. As is well known now, the 114th Congress has been the least productive of any in recent history, and this seems to be a shock to many GOP voters (and tea party voters) who certainly expected a lot more from them before now.

Recent polls shows that the Tea Party supporters, voting in the GOP primaries, strongly support Trump (for example, a February poll by CNN shows that Trump led with 56% support of tea party advocates, a huge lead over 16% that favored Cruz).

Of course many other factors explain Trump’s success, well enumerated elsewhere.  And while the anger at Washington is obvious, what seems very little understood is that the GOP set itself up for this problem by overpromising what it could possibly accomplish.