After Indiana, American politics have entered a new period.
For eight months, Donald Trump’s electoral strength has astounded, shocked, and dismayed the political class and terrified the inner circles of the GOP. The outer-borough New Yorker, pushy WASP (Russell Baker’s phrase of some thirty years ago), developer and TV star with flamboyant personality, bold and bombastic, a militant centrist, an Eisenhower Republican with a Berlusconi temperament, has managed to carry out what amounts to a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, or at least its presidential process.
Republican voters, told for months that Trump was not a real Republican, not a real conservative, not whatever National Review, the Wall Street Journal, or the Weekly Standard thought a Republican nominee ought to be, have said they didn’t care. Every important national pundit predicted Trump would, eventually, lose. The voters disagreed. Record Republican turnout in one state after another. Trump wins. Last night, a long resistant GOP establishment acknowledged the fact.
The first point to make is that the Republican establishment deserved to lose. Honestly, it is impossible to point to one single thing that the national Republican party has done this century for the mostly middle class voters who regularly support it. It has no legislative accomplishments, nor shown evidence of successful pushback on social issues. A large segment of its regular voters have experienced a massive sociological decline in wages, life chances, and life expectancy. The only significant thing the national GOP has accomplished since the millennium is starting the Iraq war. If ever a defeat was richly deserved, it was this one.
At this stage no one really knows what kind of candidate or president Donald Trump might be. He is of course a distinct underdog at this point. Like many, I can point to GOP intellectuals, not neocons, who despise him. Not because of his anti-war or anti-interventionist or anti-immigrationist stances. These are people who more or less agree with those positions. But because Trump seems to have ADD, because of his sometimes vulgarity, because they don’t trust him pay sufficient attention to the process of government to follow through. Because he too easily slips into demagoguery. And no one knows how Trump will do in this new stage. It’s likely that a year ago, Donald Trump contemplated a future of ten good years managing his golf empire and enjoying his family.
Now Trump has become a tribune for white working class patriotism, spokesman for a core group of this country, the one most neglected and dismissed by the Washington political class. For Trump personally, this must be a strange and largely unexpected challenge. To begin a campaign as what was perhaps a lark, or as a bid to be taken seriously, and to find oneself somehow thrust into the crucible of history. It is never clear which particular elections are historically decisive, but it is obvious that in this general period the entire West is facing the question of whether its basic identity will survive under the challenges of globalism and mass migration.
Of course these issues, all those related to globalism and immigration, was critical to Trump’s success. The campaign conveyed implicitly a loyalty to the Americans who are here now, not to some ineffable universalist idea of America, not to the hundreds of millions who might come if the the immigration laws were—as so many in the establishment wish—loosened further. For this, of course, he was denounced as racist.
Ditto of course with trade. Of course we’ve all read our Ricardo, and many in some ways appreciate the seemingly infinite supply of cheap Chinese manufactured goods in our stores. But these come at a price beyond the actual cost; that price, increasingly, is that larger and larger segments of the American population lack the prospects of ever finding secure employment. To those who remember, as Donald Trump does, that one of the things that made America special was that it was a country with many good working class jobs, this is a coruscating loss.
Republican talking heads are already speculating about the looming defection of GOP foreign policy hawks io the Hillary campaign, and the formation of some sort of Neocons for Hillary group is as inevitable as eventual rain showers. It is a genuinely curious thing that Clinton will run to the right of Trump on foreign policy. This could be a potential advantage for Trump, but it is far from clear that Trump will figure out how to make it so. His foreign policy talk last week showed he was still trying to figure out how to appeal to national security hawks while pushing for a less interventionist, more America First, foreign policy. But even some variant of the Obama-Kerry foreign policy would be better for America than the reflexive hawkishness Clinton represents.
Trump claims, without a great deal of tangible evidence, to have been an early Iraq War opponent. Hillary, of course, supported the war. It can only help Trump in the general election to draw out this distinction, and pound away at its continuing relevance.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.