This morning Governor Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump for president. There was widespread speculation that this reflected Christie hoping for an appointment as Attorney General in the event of a Trump victory. This was met with widespread disgust from mainstream conservative intellectuals, all of whom despise Trump (and immediately prior to the endorsement were delighting in Rubio having learned to fight Trump at his own insult comic game). Over on Twitter, Josh Barro observed that it is precisely Trump’s outsider nature that makes endorsing him attractive for an ambitious Republican politician.
“The incentive to get in with Trump is EVEN STRONGER than with a normal presumptive nominee.”
“Most nominees have an entourage already: Senate staff, state house aides, large campaign staff, longtime political allies.”
“When you endorse a normal candidate, you’re getting in line behind all those people for jobs. With Trump, you’re at the front of the line.”
“Chris Christie has made himself, instantly and by a large margin, Trump’s most important ally. No endorser can do that with Rubio.”
This struck me as very astute and reminded me of Gould’s 2002 AJS on The Origins of Status Hierarchies. This model starts with a cumulative advantage model for status. The trick with cumulative advantage models though is to avoid their natural tendency towards absolute inequality and so the models always have some kind of braking mechanism so the histogram ends up as a power-law, not a step function. For instance, Rosen 1981 uses heterogeneity of taste and diminishing marginal returns to avoid what would otherwise be the implication of his model of exactly one celebrity achieving universal acclaim. Anyway, the point is that cumulative advantage models need a brake, and Gould’s brake is reciprocity. Gould observes that attention and resources are finite and so when someone has many followers, they lose the ability to reciprocate with them. To the extent that followers are attentive not only to the status of a patron, but the attention and resources the patron reciprocates, then their high numbers of followers will swamp the ability of high status followers to reciprocate and so inhibit their ability to attract new followers. For instance, a grad student might rationally prefer to work with an associate professor who has only a few advisees and so can spend several hours a week with each of them than with a Nobel Laureate who has so many advisees he doesn’t recognize some of them in the hallway.
In this sense, Rubio as the clear favorite of the party establishment has already recruited great masses of political talent. Should Rubio win in November, he will have an embarrassment of riches in terms of followers with whom to fill cabinet positions and other high-ranking political roles. That is to say, Rubio’s ability to reciprocate the support of his followers is swamped by the great number of followers he has acquired. (I’m talking about followers among the sorts of people likely to be appointed to administration positions, I’ll get to voters later). This then makes some potential followers decide to affiliate with a patron who is not too busy for them, and hence Chris Christie is hoping to spend the next eight years building RICO cases against people who use the term “short-fingered vulgarian.”
But, there’s a problem with this, which is that status itself provides resources, especially in a system where power is not continuous but winner-take-all. (The discontinuity of is really important, as Schilke and I argued recently). In this sense, it shouldn’t matter that a candidate with few endorsements has the fewest supporters competing for patronage because that candidate would lose and so not have patronage to allocate. That would be true if the political science model nicknamed “the party decides”(which we can generalize as the endogeneity of status competition) were true. But if that model were true, we would be seeing Rubio (who recruited the most intellectuals) or Jeb! (who raised the most money) as the clear front-runner and that is anything but the case since the GOP primary this cycle has been consistently dominated by outsiders (Trump, briefly Carson, and even Cruz, who is a senator but not a notably un-collegial one).
This then suggests that we have to recognize that power, including the ability to allocate resources to followers, is not necessarily a function of how many followers one has. In ordinary times it might be, especially in the Republican party which normally follows the party decides model. However in this year it is clear that popularity in opinion polls and primaries/caucuses has no (positive) correlation with establishment support. This may be because Trump, like Lenin, is a figure of such immense charisma that he can defy the models. Or it may be that the base is revolting over a substantive issue like immigration. Or maybe the support of neo-Nazis with a bizarre interest in anime and the Frankfurt school is the secret sauce. Whatever the exact nature of why the party decides model is breaking, the fact is that it is. The Republican primary reminds me of Bourdieu’s model of a field of mass cultural production and a restricted field of production. Rubio is clearly dominating in the restricted field of elite conservative opinion, but that does him very little good considering how effective Trump is at the mass field. If we view the competition for endorsements not as an isolated system, but one that is loosely coupled to an adjacent system of competition for voters, then the status competition for endorsements is no longer entirely endogenous but there is a source of exogenous power shaping it. (In the Gould model this would be subsumed as part of Q_j). Hence Trump’s great popularity with voters despite his great unpopularity with party elites makes him more attractive than he would otherwise be to party elites who will break ranks and affiliate with the demagogue.
In Trump’s case, his fame, wit, and shamelessness have gained him the support of voters and this has disrupted the otherwise endogenous system of endorsements, however the model could generalize to any source of power outside of the endogenous process of consensus building within party elites. A very similar model would apply to those political actors who welcome a foreign invader as supporters in domestic disputes they would otherwise lose. Americans take for granted that the opposition party will be a loyal opposition and so we abide by the maxim that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” which is why periods like the Second Red Scare (or from the other perspective, the Popular Front that preceded it) seem so anomalous. However for centuries, machinations to set yourself up as a client-state after relying on imperial powers to depose the current batch of elites is most of what politics was. In such a scenario, a political actor who lacks much power within the internal dynamics of oligarchy could still acquire followers if they seemed to be favored by the forces massing across the border. So we might expect a lot of ambitious mitteleuropean politicians to affiliate with heretofore minor fascist parties c 1938, or with heretofore minor communist parties c 1943.
cross-posted at Code&Culture