Over the weekend, 2016 Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump accused the Republican Party of stealing the nomination from him via a rigged system designed to deprive him of a rightfully-won victory. “I will say this,” said Trump in Staten Island. “It’s a rigged system. It’s a crooked system. It’s 100 percent crooked.” Trump then threatened, in purely Joe Pesci circa Goodfellas fashion, to burn down the house if he doesn’t get his way at the Republican National Convention: “The Republican National Committee, they’d better get going, because I’ll tell you what: You’re going to have a rough July at that convention. You’d better get going, and you’d better straighten out the system because the people want their vote. The people want their vote, and they want to be represented properly.”
Trump supporters cheer such nonsense. Trump isn’t being screwed. He’s winning more delegates than his vote share would warrant. In South Carolina, 68 percent of voters who didn’t vote for Trump are disenfranchised by his 100 percent delegate win – but that isn’t considered corrupt. Trump himself routinely brags about buying political figures, and says openly that he will bribe people in this process since “nobody has better toys than I do.” But he’s still the victim, according to his worshipful supporters as well as the chattering class who love him; Matthew Dowd of ABC disingenuously called the system “rigged” and cited the Colorado caucus system, stating, “The system is broken…it is a rigged system that only benefits certain people.”
So why is Trump winning this argument?
Because people believe the system is rigged even if it isn’t. That’s true across the board. People think the RNC is rigged. After widely-disliked Senator John McCain (R-AZ) took the nomination with just 47 percent of the popular vote in 2008, Republicans felt discomfited; after Mitt Romney did some solid broken-field running to rack up 52 percent of the popular vote in 2012, many people felt similarly upset. Trump’s complaints resonate with people because people feel that the RNC has not properly stopped President Obama’s brand of change, and they think the RNC has constructed its own foolproof system for maintaining establishment control. That baseline popular belief allows Trump to lie that that’s happening now, even though it isn’t.
Similarly, Americans believe the media are rigged. Just 6 percent of Americans trust the media. 71 percent of Democrats have some faith in the press; just 45 Republicans do. That means that whenever Trump claims he’s a victim of the media, a majority of Republicans are likely to believe him. When he says that his campaign manager is a wonderful fellow battered by a reporter from a pro-Trump outlet in the press, when he says that the media skew his words on every topic from abortion to Muslim immigration, when he dismisses his bad behavior as “political incorrectness,” people believe him because they distrust the media. And when Trump defies the media and survives, he becomes a heroic figure to many of those people. Every lie with which Trump gets away is a signal of strength. He can run roughshod over the truth and be feted for it.
Institutions fail because they are corrupted by worship for individuals – because rules no longer apply to the privileged few. Unfortunately, that corruption results in popular demand for other people to be granted freedom from the strictures of the rules so as to fundamentally change the system. When people lose baseline trust for institutions, their tendency isn’t to minimize the power of those institutions, but to look for a Dear Leader to grab the reins of those institutions, free of blowback. Trump is, for many Americans, that Dear Leader. His lies make him powerful because the institutions he lies about and to are perceived as corrupt. But the answer isn’t a Dear Leader: it’s more distrust of individuals and institutions, not less. Waiving your principles and following a con man just because the media and the RNC are his marks doesn’t mean you’re not the ultimate target of the long con.