First of all, a note about causality. Most events are the result of a chain of causes - if one link in the chain falls apart, the event doesn't happen. This is not the way human intuition naturally thinks about causality - we instinctively imagine each event as the sum of causal factors, and attribute some percent of responsibility to each factor. But with a causal chain, each link is responsible for 100% of the causality. Just like the marginal value of a right shoe and the marginal value of a left shoe are both equal to 100% of the total value of a pair of shoes.
So I think that Trump is a special human being. He's a reality star, a possibly-faux-billionaire celebrity who's really good at overselling himself, and has essentially no scruples. There aren't many of those in the United States who want the job of president. In fact, there is probably only one. If Trump had been killed in a car accident in 2014, we might be looking at a much more typical Republican candidate, with the Republican establishment retaining a shaky but intact grasp on the party.
But that's just one link in the chain - one precondition for the Trump Takeover. I think there are two other main links here: 1. The dramatic weakness of the Republican establishment, and 2. The existence of a Trump-friendly voter bloc in the first place.
In the past, the Republican presidential candidate was usually a gray, bland figure, a stalwart conservative but not a fire-breathing one, a man who had worked his way up the ranks. Romney, McCain, Bush II, Dole, and Bush I all fit this description - Reagan was the only possible exception within my lifetime, and even he didn't deviate too far from this model. As a conservative, the Republican nominee would support tax cuts, a business-friendly attitude, a tough-guy attitude toward America's enemies and rivals, and traditional family values based on Christianity. That's what conservatism was.
But in the past fifteen years, the three pillars of conservatism - economic, foreign-policy, and social conservatism - have all had huge, dramatic failures.
Economic conservatism had two big failures. The first failure was when the Bush tax cuts failed to reverse income stagnation:
Simple truth: Economic conservatism failed in the 2000s and 2010s.
Next, foreign policy conservatism. This failed during the George W. Bush administration, when Bush turned bellicose rhetoric into bellicose reality with the disastrous Iraq War. The Iraq War was a disaster because despite winning the war pretty handily and taking low casualties, we received no gains. We spent massive amounts of money and thousands of lives, and temporarily wrecked our international prestige, only to turn Iraq from an unthreatening petty dictatorship into a failed state and a breeding ground for ISIS. It was a failure of the modern conservative approach to war itself.
A more minor failure was the seeming emptiness of Bush's bellicose rhetoric when it came to actual threats. Under Bush's watch, Putin's power grew inexorably, and North Korea got nukes, while Bush barked impotently. This wasn't nearly the kind of disaster that Iraq was, but it probably unsettled some Americans, and it certainly unsettled the foreign-policy establishment.
So foreign-policy conservatism failed in the 2000s.
Finally, social conservatism. This was the biggest failure of all. Social conservatism promised to restore family values by promoting Christianity and resisting things like gay marriage. But as Charles Murray and many others have documented, working-class white America professes more traditional values, but doesn't practice them. On the whole, working-class whites are no longer going to church, are no longer getting married (or staying married), and are having kids out of wedlock - in other words, traditional family values are dying among the very people who were most receptive to social conservatives' message. Here's a graph from the Washington Post:
Add all this up, and what do you get? A massive, total failure of all three pillars of modern conservatism within a 15-year period. It's little wonder, therefore, that Trump voters were unwilling to vote for Republicans who offered them only more of the same - the same economic policies that seemed to cost them their jobs and businesses and wages, the same foreign policies that embarrassed their country, the same social policies that had done nothing to save their families. Even when the conservative ideology was offered with maximum fire and vitriol, in the person of Ted Cruz, they weren't willing to bite. So they looked around for something else, and Trump was there.
So that leaves us with the final link in the chain: the question of why Trumpism filled the void that conservatism created with its rapid collapse. Why are Trumpians Trumpians in the first place? That's a question I don't think I know how to answer. It's probably something having to do with race, religion, tribalism, xenophobia, etc. It very well might have something to do with globalization and import competition from China. Or it might just be a faction that was there all along, and supported conservatism for a while out of convenience. Or all three. Or something else. I don't know.
But whatever the reason for Trump's support, a necessary piece of the Trump takeover equation was the collapse of the conservative ideology. That epochal event should be a lesson to us all - it's what inevitably happens to an ideology when it succumbs to overreach, dogmatism, and an echo chamber.
I hope I don't ever have to watch the same thing happen to the American left.