Home / Articles / Nemesis: Donald Trump and the Future of American Politics
Donald Trump (Source: Flickr – gageskidmore)
In September 2015, FPRI unveiled its new e-Publication, The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, which aims to survey American politics and culture from a variety of scholarly and pop culture perspectives. The first issue included a long essay by the Review’s editor, Ron Granieri, on the subject that had dominated political discourse throughout the previous summer—Donald Trump. At the time, no one knew for sure how long Trump would command the political stage. More than a year later, he is with us more than ever as the presidential election campaign goes down to the wire. Knowing now the impact he has had on American political life, and waiting to see what further impact he will have on Election Day and beyond, FPRI is re-publishing Granieri’s essay in its original form (edited only to catch some stubborn typographical errors), as a further contribution to the discussion of the Trump phenomenon.
After three months in the electoral spotlight, and now two nationally televised debates, Donald Trump has been the sensation of the Republican “invisible primary.” Already a celebrity famous for his skills at self-promotion and for his business acumen, Trump has tapped into vast reservoirs of voter discontent and has surprised a political establishment that thought it already knew how to manage that discontent. He stands right now at the top of a very muddled presidential field. Whatever his ultimate political fate, Trump has earned close scrutiny as a possible president and a general political phenomenon.
There has been no shortage of articles addressing the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump, or what his astonishing success says about the Republican Party, the presidential election, and the future of American political culture. In an effort to introduce readers to the type of essays we hope to offer in TheAmerican Review, this article will survey and analyze recent reactions to the Trump Phenomenon, unapologetically adding to the mounting glut of Trumpiana in an effort both to summarize and contribute to the ongoing conversation.
I want to get at three very large and interrelated questions: First, why have the other Republican candidates had such a difficult time responding to the challenge of Donald Trump; second, what does Trump’s appeal tell about the current state of American politics and culture; and third, where does the Trump phenomenon fit within broader developments in the politics of the industrialized world? Obviously, these questions also raise a series of other issues as well which we will attempt to analyze in due course.
Donald Trump and the Sorcerer’s Apprentices
The easiest answer to the questions both of where the Trump Surge came from and why the other Republican candidates are having such a hard time countering it is that Trump is a product of years of conservative rhetoric and Republican practice. At least on the issues that Trump deigns to address in his often policy-free speeches and talk show appearances, whatever differences may exist are not in substance but merely in the degree of crudeness with which he expresses them. Thus, when Trump calls for building a “really beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico, or declares his general policy for the Middle East to be “bomb ISIS, defeat them, and take the oil,” or even when he suggests that the solution to dealing with Iran or China is simply driving a harder bargain, he is not taking positions very different from other Republicans.
The similarities, denied by Trump’s more enthusiastic fans, are a source of frustration for conservatives. Jay Nordlinger of National Review, for example, a conservative critic, dismisses claims of the man’s originality. “What I hear from Trump supporters, or apologists,” Nordlinger writes, “is, ‘At least he got people talking about immigration! And political correctness!’ Um . . . have we not talked about those things every day of our lives — every moment of our lives — for as long as most people can remember?”
Nowhere is this more apparent than on immigration. Republican-leaning analysts such as Max Boot may criticize Trump’s demagoguery on immigration and call for a more nuanced combination of better legal procedures, more efficient integration, and support for economic development in poorer countries. Actual Republican politicians, however, have shown no such courage or creativity. As Trump has ramped up his anti-immigrant statements beyond his promise to build a “beautiful wall” along the border, including his attacks on so-called “anchor babies” and even his suggestion for changing the 14th amendment to limit birthright citizenship, not a single Republican candidate has forthrightly contradicted him. Instead, they simply tried to argue that they would somehow handle the problem better than Trump. Chris Christie, for example, suggested that immigrants should be tracked like FedEx packages, while Jeb Bush (considered one of the most progressive Republican candidates on the subject), in a vague attempt to pander both to nativists and Latinos, claimed that the anchor baby problem primarily applied to Asians. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tied himself in knots trying to agree and disagree with Trump on the 14th Amendment and even attempted to look serious and thoughtful when calling the possibility of building a wall along the Canadian border a “legitimate idea.” Walker’s awkward stab at nativism, which he later tried to walk back, earned him the mocking scorn of writers on the left such as Slate’s Jim Newell and Salon’s Simon Maloy; the latter of whom dismisses Walker and his colleagues as one of many “Trumps of August:” Republican candidates so “rattled” by Trump’s success but so averse to losing potential voters they have been unable to offer any constructive responses and find themselves huffing and puffing to keep up.
Equally disturbing for many Republicans, Trump’s rise has coincided with the implosion of the candidacy of former front-runner Jeb Bush. The Trump spectacle has thrown into relief Bush’s own charisma deficit, just as his anti-establishment sentiments have reminded many GOP voters that they may not want to nominate the third member of the Bush Family in less than three decades. Even if Trump does fade, it is by no means certain that Bush can recover, even if the vast war chest he collected before his weaknesses became so manifest will allow him to stay in the race for much longer. His performance in the 16 September debate will certainly give his fans new hope, but it will take patient work to regain the status he appeared destined to claim.
One can perhaps give Trump credit and say that he is more honest in his naked appeal to the anger, frustration, and xenophobia of Republican primary voters. Furthermore, none of his rivals have really been able to respond because they are so desperate to grab that same audience. Trump is indeed a creature of the Republican Party of the Obama Era, where generalized opposition to everything the other side does—expressed in the most aggressive tones possible—is the order of the day. The recent travails of Fox News, as recently outlined by Gabriel Sherman in New York Magazine, are illustrative. Questions from the Fox hosts of the August Republican debate—famously, though not exclusively, Megyn Kelly—indicated to many that Roger Ailes, as a loyal Republican, wanted to pin Trump down on issues such as a possible third-party run and also to raise concerns about his style in order to provide openings for the more establishment candidates. Trump’s blunt responses, the uninspired performances of his rivals, and most of all, the subsequent waves of anger from Trump supporters at Ailes’ effort to put his thumb on the scale forced Fox furiously to backpedal. In one of the least surprising discoveries of this surprising summer, Roger Ailes learned that much of Fox’s own audience was already pro-Trump.
This should give Republican voters pause. His supporters may claim that Trump is popular because he says things that other candidates are not willing to say, but it is more accurate to say that Trump is saying things other Republicans have tried for years to imply without having to say them too openly. Both Fox and the Republican leadership have spent much of the past eight years encouraging an increasingly confrontational analysis of hot-button issues and an increasingly aggressive rhetoric when dealing with those with whom they disagree. Now, they face a phenomenon that they worked so hard to create. They may be embarrassed when they hear some of these things said at Trump’s volume and in his style—in the way that many parents are appalled when they hear small children in the back seat repeat some of their more colorful comments on fellow drivers—but for many years they were apparently not uncomfortable with the message. Their recognition of this embarrassing fact has left them powerless.
With apologies to one of Fox’s media rivals, Roger Ailes and Reince Priebus each in their own way have been playing the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and they have not yet found the magic word to stop the process they have set into motion. Unable to offer voters a choice, they are stumbling to produce a more cultured and appealing echo.
Conservatives Playing Defense
The dilemma for conservatives is quite clear. Trump threatens to take away voters upon which they have come to rely, and will turn those very voters against the conservative institutions and politicians that considered themselves the natural leaders of this constituency. Depending upon one’s place on the political spectrum, this is either a disturbing development or a just and ironic comeuppance.
Joan Walsh of Salon, who last year published a book about the political pathologies of her Irish relatives and white people in general, sees Trump as the culmination of a tradition combining “populist economic appeal with xenophobia and racism,” and which traces back to the late-1990s insurgent campaigns of Patrick Buchanan and further back to the cynical strategies of Buchanan’s former patron, Richard Nixon. Walsh is not alone with noting a connection to Patrick Buchanan; even National Review’sJim Geraghty calls Trump “Buchanan’s heir.” The two men may differ in some ways, but in general, “Both are harsh critics of free trade, both staunchly oppose illegal immigration, both spoke out against the Iraq War and find themselves at odds with the party’s hawks. They each wear accusations of racism, xenophobia, and hatred as a badge of honor for bravery against the forces of political correctness. And they share a certain style: blunt talk, raised voices, jabbed fingers, and pounded podiums.” Trump supporters are also unmoved by their hero’s previous non-conservative positions—from his resistance to free trade to his flirtations with single-payer national health insurance—which makes it that much more difficult for “responsible” conservatives to figure out how they are supposed to deal with him.
Some writers, such as Daniel McCarthy in The American Conservative, blame the conservative movement for creating the problem. In previous election cycles, he claims, the conservative and Republican establishments channeled the extreme right into voting for candidates who had no chance, from Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee to Rick Santorum. This guaranteed the success of establishment candidates, but also foreclosed serious debates within the GOP or among conservatives generally about the meaning of conservatism. That success has fed the frustration of a political base that is thrown red meat at intervals, and then told at election time that they need to practice vegetarianism. Is it any wonder they are hungry for an alternative?
Trump is the candidate who promises to liberate the base from the control of the establishment, and the establishment has no real ideas in response. Organizations, such as the Club for Growth, are apparently planning to advocate for the creation of a common front against Trump, but to what end? To re-establish the dominance of tax cutting? To maintain the dominance of the economic elite? Are those cures better than the disease? Are they even cures?
Thomas Frank, whose biting critiques of the conservative movement should be read by anyone seriously interested in the development of American politics, had highlighted this problem a decade ago with his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? In it, he pointed out how the Republican base—made up largely of white middle- and lower-middle class voters and motivated by their concerns about social issues (such as abortion, gay rights, and immigration)—finds itself voting for leaders who mouthed those concerns but did little to address them. Instead, those middle-class voters supported a political elite that served its economic interests, even at their own expense. Frank has received deserved criticism for his economic determinism and for his lack of appreciation for how real those social concerns can be. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that conservatives have made great hay by attacking coastal “liberal elites,” while managing to downplay the economic elitism of their policies. It should come as no surprise to anyone that those voters have rebelled against an elite that took them for granted for so long.
But if Trump is tapping into some deep-seated needs of the Republican base, are those the kinds of impulses any responsible leader should be encouraging? Ben Domenech in The Federalist is but one conservative intellectual who worries that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in particular threatens to transform the Republican Party into a representative of “white identity politics,” encouraging a further Balkanization of American political life. “A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies,” Domenech concludes, “requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government. Only the United States and Canada have successfully maintained one over an extended period. Now the popularity of Donald Trump suggests ours may be going away. In a sense we are reverting to a general mean – but we are also losing a rare and precious inheritance that is our only real living link to the Revolutionary era and its truly revolutionary ideas about self-government.”
Other conservative intellectuals, such as the New York Times Ross Douthat, share similar concerns about the future of the GOP, but with more sympathy for the Republican voters who are embracing his message. “In a healthy two-party system, the GOP would treat Trump’s strange success as evidence that the party’s basic orientation may need to change substantially, so that it looks less like a tool of moneyed interests and more like a vehicle for middle American discontent. In an unhealthy system, the kind I suspect we inhabit, the Republicans will find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message. In which case the pressure the Donald has tapped will continue to build — and when it bursts, the G.O.P. as we know it may go with it.” Such apocalyptic conclusions aside, however, Douthat later claimed that Trump represents a natural development of intraparty transformation rather than an impending catastrophe and even suggests that an ongoing dialogue will be healthy.
Jonah Goldberg is less forgiving, worrying that any movement that embraces Trump “cannot call itself conservative.” Trump’s appeal is “catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument.” Goldberg, along with his colleague Eliana Johnson, also criticizes Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been especially friendly toward Trump, including him in his rally against the Iran Nuclear Deal. Goldberg has little patience for Cruz’s high-minded claim that his chumminess with Trump springs from the principle that he will not criticize other Republicans. Goldberg asserts that claim does not pass “the laugh test” when one reads the long list of vitriolic attacks Cruz has launched against the Republican Congressional leadership. The only principle on display there is tactical, as Cruz attempts to appeal to Trump’s voters in the hope of scooping them up if Trump himself should falter.
For his trouble, Goldberg was attacked aggressively by Trump fans and felt compelled to write a rejoinder that boiled down to an admission that he shared many of Trump’s positions, such as on immigration control (thus proving he is not a RINO—or worse, a “cuckservative”) but boiled his criticisms down to: “Why can’t the real explanation of my motives be the ones I put down in writing? To wit: I don’t think Trump is a conservative. I don’t think he’s a very serious person. I don’t think he’s a man of particularly good character. I don’t think he can be trusted to do the things he promises. Etc. If all that hurts your feelings, I’m sorry. But there’s no need to make up imaginary motives. The reason I’m writing such things is that I believe them — and that’s my job.”
Meanwhile, liberal commentators observe the Trump phenomenon with a combination of concern and Schadenfreude, asserting that his popularity reflects the coming home to roost of many culture war chickens. Scott Eric Kaufman in Salon, for example, declares that recent polling shows that “[by] a significant majority, Trump’s supporters consist of the relatives you’ve been forced to block on Facebook because you’d finally seen enough pictures of President Barack Obama’s face superimposed onto the body of a chimpanzee or suicide bomber.” Those same commentators were amused to see the effusive and partially coherent interview between Trump and Sarah Palin, a pairing repeated at Sen. Cruz’s anti-Iran rally.
Outside of the competing partisan writings of Salon and National Review, Thomas Edsall in the New York Times has also noted the appeal that Trump offers to a segment of American society that feels increasingly embattled, Edsall writes, “A half-century of Republican policies on race and immigration have made the party the home of an often angry and resentful white constituency — a constituency that is now politically mobilized in the face of demographic upheaval.” Trump, “in other words, is part of a movement gaining momentum among whites across the Northern Hemisphere. The Trump campaign will serve as a measure of the strength of this movement in the United States.” Edsall concludes on a warning note: “To voters who see the world this way, Trump offers the promise that he can restore a vanished America, that he can ‘make America great again,’ as his campaign puts it. Trump clearly finds this endeavor personally gratifying, even as his odds of winning the nomination remain slim. To his followers, the letdown of defeat could be brutal, leaving them stranded, without a candidate who can successfully capture the intensity of their beliefs.”
If Trump is the herald of a Republican crack-up, is it possible that he can be an agent of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” within the party? Josh Barro has asked the provocative question of whether Trump, with his successful attacks on the Republican establishment and his departure from tax-cutting orthodoxy, is the candidate “reform conservatives have been looking for.” Such “reformocons” as Reihan Salam and David Frum have long yearned for a Republican leadership that would abandon small-government, low-tax fundamentalism and selectively embrace government action and the taxes to fund them. Barro notes that Salam and Frum, for all their doubts about Trump the man, believe that Trump “may be the jolt that the Republican Party needs to compromise its pro-plutocratic agenda.”
That’s fair as far as it goes, as it is true that Trump’s flirtations with tax increases (connected to his references to the so-called carried interest loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay taxes at the lower capital gains rate) have “alarmed” Republican leaders more than any other position. At the same time, however, it is also a declaration of electoral bankruptcy by the so-called reformocons. To admit that the traditional positions and leadership of the GOP is so in the pocket of plutocrats that they actually look with hope toward somebody who promises to destroy the entire system, because no responsible leader in the party apparently has the nerve to do so, is not exactly a hopeful message for the future. One senses the amusement on the other side of the aisle when Paul Krugman notes that after weeks of Trump’s crypto-racist attacks on immigrants and criticisms on him personally, Jeb Bush finally decided to come out swinging against Trump’s vague willingness to raise taxes and his support for single payer health care, “precisely the issues on which Mr. Trump happens to be right, and the Republican establishment has been proved utterly wrong.” Krugman goes further to note that Trump’s voters do not seem to be bothered by his economic heresies, which may be proof that the interests of the Republican base and those of the Republican donor class (whom the self-financing Trump can ignore) have diverged to the point that Trump’s appearance could actually be salutary by exposing just how narrow and self-interested the economic views of the donor class are.
Krugman is clearly no fan of Trump or of Republicans in general, but the attempt to find a political silver lining in this challenge to the traditional party leadership is widespread. Salam himself has recently written a piece for National Review following up on Barro’s. “In an ideal world,” he muses, “the rise of Trump would force elite conservatives to recognize that voters, including GOP votes, care more about wage stagnation than about high-end tax rates, and that the GOP base is not reflexively opposed to the safety net, provided it encourages those who can work to do so, and that it provides a decent minimum for those who cannot.” Salam wants to believe that “a conservative agenda that recognizes these realities, and that speaks to the economic fears and aspirations of working- and middle-class voters, would attract the support of far more voters than a politics of anger.” Indeed, he even believes “that there are more black, Hispanic, and Asian voters who are open to voting for a more populist GOP… conservative populism is the way to appeal to these voters and the voters who’ve been most energized by Trump.”
The degree of wishful thinking present in Salam’s piece is immediately apparent when one reads the comments on the article. To imagine a “conservative populism” detached from the “politics of anger” is comforting, as if someone could take Trump’s ideas (such as they are) and separate them from the appeal of his celebrity persona. It is also comforting for a certain breed of conservative intellectual to imagine a GOP that embraced moderate welfare state policies and expressed concern about the middle class and that made an honest effort to speak to the small-c conservatism present in communities of color. If it is so appealing, however, and makes so much sense, why hasn’t anyone actually tried it? One can certainly blame the donor class, but that’s too convenient as an overall explanation.
It may be true that there are fewer dollars to be gathered offering such a position, but the bigger problem—at least so far—is that there are fewer voters to be found there. Many of the citizens who turn out to celebrate Donald Trump cheer more loudly for his attacks on immigrants and his flagrant jabs at “political correctness” than for his discussion of carried interest or even Social Security. Indeed, for many of them, the desire to protect their benefits is built around a narrative of defending what they consider to be their entitlements against the grasping hands of others, hands that in the imaginations of those audiences are usually of a darker color than their own. So even if Trump fulfills the dreams of the reformocons and knocks down the old edifice, the redesign and reconstruction of the Republican party will require more creativity and courage than has been on offer so far.
Trump as Symbol of Something Bigger
Donald Trump may think of himself as something sui generis, but as Edsall noted, the image he presents and the passions he evokes are becoming increasingly common across the industrialized world. On both left and right, voters have been turning to candidates who denounce the political establishment and promise voters something new and different. This includes not only other right-wing populists, such as Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National, but also left-wing insurgents such as Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA in Greece, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and most recently, Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran back bencher who just rode a wave of populist disgust with the centrist “Blairism” of his rivals to win a landslide election as leader of the British Labour Party. In each of those cases, attacks on the economic elites in Brussels, Berlin, or London have helped mobilize the angry and disaffected, even if it’s not clear what shape a formal alternative could take. Closer to home, Bernie Sanders’ success in motivating Democratic voters uninspired by Hillary Clinton is offering another example of how populism is a winning strategy.
The frustration with politics and politicians sells particularly well in the Republican Party, where small-government rhetoric and common man mythology combine to make the outsider pose especially appealing. William Galston of the Brookings institution has noted that three of the most popular figures among the crowded Republican field are non-politicians—not only Trump, but also neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. Galston relates the appeal of the non-politicians to the larger issue of public frustration with career politicians and the hunger for an outsider to save the day. “It is a pretty safe guess that whatever their own merits and appeal may be,” Galston concludes, “the three non-politicians in this year’s Republican contest are also serving as vehicles for rank-and-file Republican and Republican-leaning voters to express their discontent with their party and its leaders.” As a result, “There is no evidence that these voters regard being a current or former elected official as a positive credential; indeed, the reverse may be the case.” The attempt to ride this wave can lead to unintentional hilarity, such as when Scott Walker, having clearly read the same polls, denied in a recent interview that he, who has been an elected official of one kind or another for more than twenty-two years, and has never held a long-term job in the private sector, is not a career politician.
Rather than stretch the Trump phenomenon across current space, Mackubin Owens reaches further back into American history, seeing Trump as the sort of demagogue feared by the Founders and embodied by their contemporary Aaron Burr, whose vaulting ambition and lack of principle led him to flirt with the treasonous destruction of a Republic that he could not be elected to lead. Hemmed in by conventions and constitutional rules, the demagogue expresses his own frustrations in terms that resonate with the daily frustrations of other citizens, with potentially damaging consequences.
Other writers have been more blunt, seeing in Trump’s combination of nationalism, anti-intellectualism and populism nothing less than Fascism. Evan Osnos sees Trump as attracting “the Fearful and the Frustrated,” which includes an element of white nationalism. George Packer of The New Yorker, for his part, sees Trump within the long and not always proud American tradition of populism, encouraging the resentments of the people against the powerful. “Trump (whatever he really believes) is playing the game of anti-politics,” Packer asserts. “From George Wallace to Ross Perot, anti-politics has been a constant in recent American history; candidates as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama have won the Presidency by seeming to reject or rise above the unlovely business of politics and government. Trump takes it to a demagogic extreme.” In denouncing politics and politicians and by demonstrating contempt for the traditional nuances of policy and diplomacy, Trump is in line with others. Joan Walsh cites the Trump movement’s similarities with European right-wing parties as “angry white voters believe they can turn back the clock to a time when they made all the rules.”
Even though the specific veracity of Trump’s comments has been called into question numerous times, his fans really do not appear to care much one way or the other. What Trump offers is a feeling, a reinforcement of what people already believe about their own embattled victimhood and about the forces arrayed against them and their vision for America. His appeal to the frustrations of middle-class, middle-aged, Middle Americans is authentic, even if it may be difficult to imagine the jet-setting New Yorker really having that much in common with his voters. Trump’s rhetoric of toughness and self-assertion and his disdain for “losers” and “suckers” resonates with people who might never in their lives set foot in Trump Tower. As Arthur Goldwag concluded a recent essay in the New York Times, “I suspect that Mr. Trump doesn’t put too much stock in his rhetoric, and that most of his followers know better, too. But those are the buttons he is pushing, and they are working well. The thrice married former casino owner is easily outpolling Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, among evangelicals; though a defender of Medicare and Social Security, his margin among Tea Partyers against Ted Cruz, who wants to dismantle many social programs, is even bigger. To tell you the truth, I am starting to worry that his poisonous message may carry him to the White House.”
When You Stare into the Abyss…
Where does all this leave us? I am reluctant to make specific predictions about Trump’s ultimate role in the presidential race. His critics may continue to hope that he will flame out, or lose interest in the hard work of campaigning. Though his polling numbers and the continued media attention they bring make it very hard to imagine him leaving the race voluntarily, just as the combination of his unblushing exhibitionism and independence from third party donors makes it unlikely he will do or say anything so outrageous/inappropriate/damaging enough to force him to withdraw. If his comments about Megyn Kelly’s natural cycles or Carly Fiorina’s and Heidi Klum’s relative pulchritude have not done it, it is hard to imagine what could. Trump himself has begun to tell cheering crowds that his polling success would be meaningless if he didn’t stay in to win. It will take more than establishment critiques or random gaffes to defeat him.
It is more likely that the Republican Party as a whole will rally behind a more conventional candidate once the real primaries begin. That, however, will require a significant thinning of the current field, which will itself take time, time in which either Trump will find ways to broaden his appeal or during which Republican voters may lose some of their distaste for the belligerent billionaire.
Of course, if the Republicans manage to find an alternative to him, will Trump end up contributing to the party’s ultimate defeat by running an independent campaign? This is the question that worries Roger Ailes and shaped the last debate. In a grand gesture, Trump recently pledged not to run a third-party campaign, but the Trump Tower Summit with Reince Priebus was just another form of political theater. The agreement that he has signed does not bind anyone legally, and we know from Trump himself that he views even the most binding legal agreement from a purely pragmatic perspective. As Jonathan Chait recently noted, Trump already reneged on a promise to avoid attacking Fox News after his Megyn Kelly dustup, which suggests he will maintain his flexibility. Chait also cites “the defense Trump proffered at the debate of the way he stiffed various business partners in the past: ‘Let me just tell you about the lenders. First of all, these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, okay?’ All Trump needs is some insult to his oceanic ego to declare any previous agreement null and void.” Chait sees a third-party candidacy as more or less inevitable, but even if it does not happen, the problem remains for the GOP.
Further complicating factors is the surprising surge of Dr. Ben Carson. As this essays goes to press, and the next debate looms, it appears that Dr. Caron has pulled even with Trump in the polls. That suggests that even if some Republicans may be disturbed by Trump as an individual, they are not immune to the appeal of someone who claims to have nothing to do with the current political leadership. The fantasy of the virtuous outsider continues to exert a strong pull on the hearts of Republican voters. Whether that will lead to corresponding pulls on electoral levers remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the Republican picture will remain clouded for some time to come.
The second debate on 16 September has some indications of how the Trump phenomenon may flame out. Adam Nagourney in the Times notes that Trump offered much the same combination of self-promotion and attacks with a shaky grasp of policy details, to less effect, which suggests that he may have plateaued. CNN, the host of the debate, certainly wanted to encourage sparring between the candidates, but the length and the tone of the program earned harsh criticism. The first moments, centered on Trump’s attacks, threatened to devolve into acrimony, offering a concentrated glimpse into how Trump’s presence has influenced (if not degraded) the overall quality of political debate. As the three-hour marathon wore on, Trump faded at times from view, less willing or able to engage in substantive policy discussions. Salon noted his “slightly diminished presence,” and his rivals tried to take advantage of those openings. Several flagging candidates, such as Rand Paul and Chris Christie, offered stronger performances. Jeb Bush certainly improved on his earlier effort, though he still has work to do, while Marco Rubio burnished his reputation for strength on foreign policy. Meanwhile, the other two “non-politicians,” Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, raised their profiles. Fiorina in particular used a dignified response to Trump’s attacks on her appearance as the centerpiece of her effort to push into the top tier of candidates.
The month or so between now and the next debate will be crucial for the entire field. For Trump, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to develop enough policy expertise to dispel the impression that his candidacy is just a summer fling. If he cannot, analysts may end up agreeing with Jamelle Bouie that this is the “beginning of Trump’s end.” For his rivals, from Jeb Bush to Carly Fiorina, they will have to build on their performances to convince voters that they have both the ideas to set themselves apart from Trump and the verve to attract the voters’ attention in the first place.
It is, of course, still very early, and few things have shorter shelf lives than political predictions. Nevertheless, Trump has been with us long enough to encourage serious reflection about the development of American politics and the possibilities for the future. With all that in mind, we should welcome the Trump phenomenon if for no other reason because it should encourage conservatives, and the American people as a whole, to ask themselves what they really want from politics. After years of claiming that they represent the real people as opposed to some vaguely defined elite, the Republican leadership and the conservative movement need to confront their creation. If they find Trump’s rhetoric embarrassing, they need to ask why it works; if they reject his policies, they need to develop more appealing alternatives. Simply railing at the man or exchanging insults brings neither the party nor the nation one step forward.
Furthermore, Americans across the spectrum need to ask themselves how they imagine their very complicated society should govern itself. If we do not trust our leaders, we should find others; if our leaders want to regain our trust, they need to be more honest not only about what they intend to do, but also what they will be able to do within the limits placed by our constitutional system.
Our leaders have disappointed us, to be sure. But we the people need to accept our responsibility for the current situation, and to be more responsible in how we imagine possible solutions. As a society, we cannot demand purity from our ideological compatriots and decry polarization at the same time. Polarization flows from purity. Refusing to compromise satisfies the demands of the purists, many of whom would rather see the machinery of government grind to a halt than make the smallest concession to the other side. The resulting stalemate then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who do not think the government can do anything useful. If Republicans would rather see the country stagnate than contribute to constructive political debate, they need to re-consider their definitions of patriotism.
The United States faces a very uncertain future. As much as we may decry the imperfections of the political process, the only way to guide the nation on the paths ahead is through constructive and creative political action. We may be frustrated with our leaders, but the only people who can improve the quality if our leaders are the voters themselves. That means engagement, not estrangement, and participation, not frustration. It means taking up the burdens of citizenship rather than simply demanding the benefits.
Donald Trump did not appear out of thin air or descend from an alien spacecraft. He is a recognizable, if not predictable, product of 21st century American politics and society. As such, all engaged citizens need to confront the impulses that have propelled him onto center stage, and consider what we intend to do in response. We all have had moments in our lives when a game is particularly difficult, and we imagine standing up and overthrowing the table rather than continuing. Or when we become so frustrated with the real or imagined transgressions of our opponents that we decide the rules simply should not matter anymore and do not care whether our scorched earth tactics will set any dangerous precedents. That is a very tempting position for the ten-year-old child in all of us, but it is irresponsible. If our society is to have a future, it will require us to listen to our inner adult rather than our inner Trump.