Why does President Trump have such a committed base of voters?

Solid marketing and Steve Bannon’s “Bottom Third Strategy.”

Imagine you’re a decent white guy. Not necessarily valedictorian, but a smart guy, a good guy, and a hard worker. Absolutely not a racist. You’re not a political partisan—you’ve voted for some Republicans and some Democrats in your life—but you’re totally sick of corruption in Washington. You pay your dues, raise a family, and start looking forward to retirement.

Then, in 2008, the bottom suddenly falls out of the economy. Your 401k crashes, you go underwater on your mortgage. You lose your job and your pension. You’re terrified. Somebody dropped the ball. Somebody has to pay.

Meanwhile, there’s panic on Wall Street, and not just because Lehman Brothers collapsed. Many bankers are scared because if working-class and middle-class Americans figure out how the billionaire trust funders have been rigging the tax code, real estate fraudsters have been lying and manipulating the real estate markets and the casino bankers have been gambling with your pension and 401k money, they’ll want billionaire heads to roll.

This was a crisis that the trust-funders and real estate fraudsters—oops, I mean “job creators”— absolutely had to prevent!

And, with a little bit of razzle-dazzle, they could.

Along came Rick Santelli. One morning in January 2009, the CNBC bond and commodities analyst made a speech on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that went viral. He ranted to the brand-new president, Barack Obama, that if he passes a proposed bailout of the “loser” taxpayers who were stupid enough to take out sub-prime loans, there would be a “Tea Party” revolt. (No, the Tea Party didn’t start as a grassroots protest by fed-up taxpayers, despite what Fox says. It was started in early 2009 by commodity traders at the top corporate financial news program on cable TV. The fed-up taxpayers were the dupes, as always.)

(Oh, and those sub-prime loans that angered Santelli? Banks and originators strong-armed “losers” into taking out toxic mortgages, using a heck of a lot of fraud, so they could get huge commissions and the casino bankers could bundle the sub-primes into gold-plated turds called “asset-backed securities” that they could sell for big profits to your pension funds, gambling that home prices would keep going up forever, and fueling the 2007–2008 crash. Once everyone else started to see that these investments were shit, the Wall Street gamblers made billions more betting AGAINST them. Oh, you couldn’t get in on that bet? Darn. Heads they win, tails we lose.)

The real estate fraudsters couldn’t believe their luck. Everyone was buying Santelli’s rant! The corporate media played it over and over, from “leftist MSNBC” to “fair and balanced Fox News.” (Do you think Trump won “despite” the “leftist media”? They are his life blood, and he is theirs.)

Now the big banks and mortgage scammers had a scapegoat: the “losers.”

It turns out it’s super easy to make folks hate the “lesser haves.” Don’t worry about the guys at the top of the ladder—worry about the guys on the next rung down. They’re the socialists that are being paid by George Soros to take your job. They’re the real scammers who want something for nothing, not us! (It can’t possibly be that the guys on the next rung down are hard workers trying to provide for their families and who are just as disgusted as you are by the trust-funders who scam their way out of the army and into the Ivy League.)

Lo and behold, the bankers got their bailouts and bonuses, and the “losers” got squat. All you had to do was make angry sounds on TV! The Tea Party was a huge success, and tons of corporate money poured in from bankers and billionaires who would like to continue writing their own laws (thanks Citizens United!). The “losers” didn’t have much of a Twitter presence, so they could hardly fight back.

Santelli started it, but Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon took anti-loserism up a notch with the “Bottom Third Strategy” that plowed through the 2016 election (or, as Bannon calls it publicly, “economic nationalism” or the “populist revolution”). Bannon’s target demographic was the 30–40% American voters who are A) white, and B) in the bottom two demographic categories of educational attainment: without a college degree and without a high school diploma.

The message for this target group was simple: the bankers (like Bannon, an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, Hollywood producer, and Saudi Arabian agent) and real-estate developers (guess who) weren’t to blame. In fact, all the rigged games they’d been playing weren’t scams at all. They were what made America great! (Now show the people something shiny, like your supermodel wife and private airplane.) Success! Trump doesn’t dodge his taxes because the system is rigged for trust fund billionaires like him, he’s just way smarter than you losers!

In fact, anyone trying to change the rules of the game—to make them even remotely fair—was not just a loser, but also a “leftist,” a “socialist,” and (believe it or not) a “globalist elite” of the “administrative Deep State.” (When you hear “Deep State,” think “competent professionals who might hold corrupt insiders accountable.” Precisely the opposite of what they tell the Bottom Third.)

And don’t think the liberals were all heroes in this scheme. They had a toxic, shouty minority of their own, without whom Bannon’s “anti-loserism” message would never work. Smug SJW liberals added insult to injury by telling the white working class—whose wages had been stagnating or declining for decades—that they were losing a game that was actually rigged in their favor. It’s not hard to understand why so many working Americans might prefer a sleazy, tax- and draft-dodging sociopath who at least tells them they’re winners to a party that makes them feel like both losers AND cheaters.

Now, not everyone bought Donny Bullshit’s gold spray-painted garbage. The vast majority of Americans with college degrees (whether they’re conservative, libertarian, or liberal) saw through the messaging, because they know how a strong capitalist economy actually works. It is a powerful system of rules-based competition, trust, transparency, and controlled risk that rewards smart, hard-working entrepreneurs and drives real market-based innovation. It is NOT supposed to be a coke-fueled game of Russian Roulette run by trust-fund brats and slimy, self-promoting frauds who pay off their team of lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians to write the rules for them.

But Steve Bannon didn’t need them. He realized that, to win elections, all you need is the “unified bottom third.” Over-educated liberals and conservatives have a tendency to overthink things, overfeel things, and tear their own movements apart (usually by acting like smug assholes). The bottom third, though, were steady, and they rarely look beyond the messaging they see on TV.

Even though folks like Bannon, Trump, and Mnuchin were not in the Bottom Third (Bannon and Mnuchin are in the globalist ultra-elite of both Wall Street AND Hollywood), they could easily connect with their targets based on flimsiest thread that tied them together: their “patriotism.” The guys who want to take away the tax breaks for Ivanka’s inheritance? America-hating, success-hating socialists.

The Bottom Third strategy was perfected by Internet scammers over a decade ago. Know why those e-mails from billionaire Nigerian princes contain so many spelling errors? It’s not because the scammers are semi-literate, it’s because their targets are. Misspelled subject lines, like misspelled MAGA memes, are great filters. They are quickly dismissed by educated people, so those folks won’t stick around to expose the scam. The scam doesn’t actually work if you use reason, evidence, and grammatical sentences. You just have to make them angry.

Through Cambridge Analytica, Bannon targeted those Americans who are particularly open to authoritarian messaging, such as the religious right. This strategy was essential to diverting anger away from the powers that be, or—even better—persuading them that obeying billionaire bankers and real-estate barons was actually heroic. (BTW, since his victory in the US, Bannon has now turned his attention to a new fun project: reviving the authoritarian nationalistic Catholic right wing in Europe that formed the ideological and political foundation of 20th century fascism in Italy and national socialism in Germany. As you might recall, that didn’t turn out so well for anyone the last time it was tried.)

If the Bottom Third is feeling scared and their lives are feeling more and more desperate, it’s easy to convince them it’s because of the black leftist (probably secretly Muslim and not even American) in the Oval Office who probably only got elected because of—Chicago thuggery? Yeah, that’ll work. And if it’s not because of him, it must be because of the dirty immigrants who have no connections or money. THEY’RE the folks the system is totally rigged for. Or it’s because of some insane criminal Deep State conspiracy (Vince Foster? Uranium One? Benghazi? Emails?) that Hillary is masterminding. (Evidence of criminality or even reality is not necessary. They won’t check before believing.)

This fact-free “up-is-down” marketing worked like a charm as long as it was entertaining, and today the Bottom Third outrage media machine is running at full tilt. The most popular cable news channel and national newspaper chains are fully on board. (You can watch it yourself. Next time a wealthy Trump crony is caught self-dealing, stealing, or rigging the game, turn on Fox News to watch the focus shift to nameless, penniless foreigners or smug college liberals.) Twitter is Trump’s bitch. The Russian troll farms supply steady income to Putin’s nihilist millennials. (You might be able to see some of their handiwork in this thread if you look for it.)

If Rick Santelli is the Paul Revere of the Bottom Third Revolution and Steve Bannon is its Thomas Paine, Donald Trump is its George Washington. The spokesman for the bankrupt Trump Mortgage, LLC is the master of all the skills the Bottom Third Strategy requires: turd-gildingTV grandstandingpunching downcheating the little guyrace baitingscammingbullying “losers,” taking credit for the work of others, and lying as easily as he breathes. (And, contrary to popular belief, he actually did hold a very important elective office prior to the presidency.)

He’s the only one brave enough to say, “None of your problems are your fault, and they are certainly not the fault of our beautiful bankers or real estate developers. They’re the fault of the Mexicans, the Muslims, the dirty asylum seekers, and, of course, those “globalist socialist elites” in Washington, whoever they are. (It doesn’t matter; they won’t check.) Plus, he’s got tons of awesome real estate advice! Did your property values crash in 2008? Well then you’re just a loser, because you didn’t have a pipeline to Putin’s kleptocrats who need to offshore their stolen money. (The technical term is money laundering, and for losers like you and me, it would be a felony.)

Apparently, Steve Bannon was right, and his Bottom Third has absolutely no problem buying into this insane narrative. (Especially with the helpful propaganda from Fox and conspiracy radio.) As we all learned in high school, we can always count on a third of the kids not to do the homework. The folks who tried to rein in the out-of-control financial industry and who saved the collapsing American automobile industry and its 7.25 million jobs (Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Barney Frank, Bernie Sanders, Steve Rattner, et al) are really “loony lefties” in the “administrative state.” (Remember how Obama nationalized all of the hospitals under Obamacare and turned General Motors into a state-run communist collective? Yeah, me neither.)

But that guy from TV who cheats on his taxeshides behind American bankruptcy courts (6 times now and counting)started receiving his $480 million inheritance when he was 3 years oldsteals money from his own family “charity” to buy a giant portrait of himselfhides his tax returns, and has never done a hard day’s work in his life? Yeah, that guy’s totally got your back.

Don’t believe the Trump administration is in the pocket of the predatory banks? Just Google Mick Mulvaney. Don’t think the legal system is rigged for rich frauds like Trump? Try doing subcontractor work for TrumpCo. See if the legal system helps you recover your money when Trump only pays you 1/3 of what he owes you and tells you to sue for the rest.

The success of Bannon’s “Bottom Third” Strategy is indisputable. His company, Cambridge Analytica “microtargeted” this group relentlessly on social media (by harvesting and weaponizing personal Facebook data without asking permission), and the results speak for themselves:

The importance of Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation campaign can hardly be overstated. Trump won the 2016 election by 70,000 swing votes in a few swing states. Cambridge Analytica harvested 30 MILLION certified voters through Facebook, and targeted them with fake news tailored to their individually profiled fears and trigger points. Even if these fake stories worked only one time out of every 300, that was enough. For the Bottom Third, it was The Truman Show times 30,000,000. (Think “Lock Her Up (TM),” “Crooked Hillary (TM),” “Deep State (TM)” and “Drain the Swamp (TM)” were spontaneous memes from the brilliant mind of DJT? Think again.) The Trump campaign fed them exactly what it wanted them to hear, whether it was true or not. If you were an NRA member, it was how Hillary wants to eliminate the Second Amendment. If you were an elderly Catholic, it was how she wants to rip third trimester babies from their mothers’ wombs. If you were libertarian, it was wild exaggerations about “big government” under Hillary. If you were a millennial liberal, it was how she stabbed Bernie in the back. Trump, the master of cheap labor trafficking, did it again: people from across the political spectrum happily shared his memes in their own personal outrage-amplifying social media echo chambers. For free. (Just wakin’ up the sheeple.) Putin’s pathetic cyber campaign investigated by Mueller was a drop in the bucket by comparison.

As H. L. Mencken said, “No one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Donald Trump and the American kleptocracy needed another bailout, and the Bottom Third gave it to them from their own pockets as they cheered in their red hats. Trump and the Republicans then promptly turned around and gave the casino bankers and trust funders (not to mention the Trump Family and Trump’s “Golden Cabinet”) the biggest handout in history, with top-tier tax cuts and the doubling of the Estate Tax exemption. And the Bottom Third didn’t even squeal. Big cuts to my Social Security and health care? Bring ’em on, as long as it hurts the guy on the next rung down. Apparently, that’s how you “stick it to Hillary and the elites.”

Trump loyalists love that he is “a great businessman.” It’s part of the act. I just happen to live in the town where Ivanka and her brothers grew up. Coincidentally, it’s also the town where George H. W. Bush was born and raised. (Oddly enough, it’s also just 10 miles from where Bill and Hillary currently live.) It’s also the CEO capital of the world. By all accounts, it’s where American blue-blood conservatism and business leadership is manufactured.

But it also just happens to be the world headquarters for the WWE. Of the dozens of Fortune 500 CEOs he could have chosen among my neighbors, guess which one Trump chose for his cabinet? (Hint: she also was the biggest contributor to the Trump Foundation, which was recently exposed as a corrupt family slush fundand consequently shut down. Gotta pay to play, I guess.) None of it makes any sense until you realize it’s all a razzle-dazzle show to exploit Steve Bannon’s target audience.

Most of the CEOs I know are smart, honest, decent, hard-working people, and genuinely good parents. They have no tolerance for the Wall Street gamblers (because they’re careless) and trust funders (because they’re lazy). They mistrust Trump because he’s both. They care about the people on the lower rungs and want to lift them up, not just find new ways to rip them off. They know the difference between building a business and mere self-promotion. They are disgusted by Trump’s efforts to hide his taxes and keep his finances above the law. A strong company doesn’t hide its numbers.

They also care about the American brand, and know that it takes more to maintain it than wearing red caps with slogans. Since Trump took office, we’ve dropped below all of our chief competitors on the gold standard of international reputation, the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, for the first time since George W. Bush left office. This means less influence, less investment, less credibility, and less power. (See What do business people think of Donald Trump?)

If you are sickened by how Trump and Bannon have degraded the American brand, poisoned our conversations, and normalized self-dealing and corruption, don’t take it out on the people they exploit, or even those who support the Republican Party for other reasons. Calling Trump supporters racist or stupid, or referring to them as a “cult,” only hurts the country and further divides us. Don’t just laugh when they say that the reality TV trust fund billionaire on his third wife is “just a regular guy who gets me.” Don’t just roll your eyes when they repeat his idiotic and cruel rally memes. And don’t fall into the “Who’s a bigger liar, Hillary or Donald?” trap.

Talk to them about the things that bind us as Americans—a love of justice, competence, fairness, strength, decency, prosperity, and freedom. I’ll bet most Trump supporters value those things as highly as you do. Convince them that you’re on the same team trying to really make America great.