But we’re forgetting that Christie’s popularity in his first term was based in no small measure on some of the same qualities that did him in later on. Videos of his town hall question and answer sessions made him a YouTube star and a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Conservatives loved when he told off annoying journalists or silenced tough questioners like public school teachers because he was showing he wasn’t bound by the rules that normally restrict the way politicians act and speak.
Trump has profited from that same factor, which enabled him to survive a host of gaffes that would probably have sunk a conventional candidate. But if Trump’s supporters still cheer when he breaks the rules others dare not transgress, in large measure it’s because they think he’s doing it for them. Many Republicans and Independents felt that way about Christie too when he was challenging public-sector unions and entrenched state interests that were pushing New Jersey toward bankruptcy, just as they have threatened many other states and municipalities. That’s what enabled him to not only become a national figure but also win a landslide re-election in an otherwise solidly Democratic state.
But there is a fine distinction to be made between that sort of populist appeal and appearing as if you are out for yourself.