I’ve been meditating on Frank Rich’s excellent piece comparing the Trump and Reagan campaigns (with side-forays into the Goldwater campaign) ever since I read it. It’s a must-read for anyone coming at the Trump phenomenon from where I do.
Just to reiterate where that is: I think Trump would make, at best, a terrible President, and could be the kind of President who does serious, lasting damage to our political institutions. I won’t vote for him. I don’t dislike Hillary Clinton nearly as much as Alan Jacobs does, but I’m reluctant to vote for her for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, I’ll be rooting for her to win, and to win by a large margin.
But I think the Trump phenomenon is an important one, and that he is exploiting genuinely important issues. Our trade, immigration and industrial policies should aim to promote the long-term competitiveness of the American workforce – not to maximize the profits generated by American intellectual property or American finance. Our foreign policy should aim at promoting peace between states, cooperating with other powers to address common problems and threats, and husbanding American strength to deter potential rivals from challenging our vital interests – not to maximally extend the scope of American hegemony.
I don’t believe Trump actually cares a tinker’s dam about any of the above, even though they are all issues he has brought to the fore in his campaign. Inasmuch as he cares about anything that he’s running on, it’s the right of Donald Trump to say whatever the heck he wants in whatever way he wants. I vigorously defend that right – and am appalled when his often crass, incoherent, insensitive, even disgusting speech, and those who want to hear it, are met with this kind of violence. And if the Trump campaign forces some kind of reckoning with the illiberalism of his opponents, that would be one real service he’s done the Republic.
But I still want him to go down in flames. What I don’t want is for the real issues he has highlighted to go down with him.
Which is why I’ve been meditating on the Frank Rich column. When Barry Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in 1964, in the short term it meant a setback for his cause. But even in the medium term, to say nothing of the long term, it meant the opposite. It’s hard to imagine a partisan of Goldwaterism looking back and saying: it would have been better if Goldwater hadn’t been nominated in 1964.
But notwithstanding the comparisons Rich makes between Trump, Goldwater and Reagan in terms of how they defeated the GOP establishments of their respective eras – and notwithstanding the ways in which they could be compared as people (Goldwater certainly said a few outrageous, even scary things in his day, and Reagan was rightly accused of being willfully ignorant of policy detail, not to mention presiding over a host of scandals some of which did real damage to our political institutions) – nonetheless, there are two key differences between Trump on the one hand and both Reagan and Goldwater on the other, that make me wonder whether a defeat for Trump could have a Goldwaterish silver lining.
First, both Reagan and Goldwater were widely reputed to be personally decent people, and both were respected for their fidelity to their beliefs even by those who vigorously opposed those beliefs. Their convictions did not, in either case, prohibit compromise, and both evolved over time in ways that the most rabid ideologues often refuse to acknowledge. But they were nonetheless rightly perceived as conviction candidates. Nobody can say that with a straight face about Donald Trump.
Second, and relatedly, both Reagan and Goldwater were the leaders of organized political factions seeking to dominate their political party. Howsoever they may have challenged the preexisting political hierarchy, they were engaged in normal politics. This, again, is not true of Donald Trump, who is a pure cult-of-personality candidate who has built nothing and will build nothing. (Which is a major reason why I expect him, if elected, to jettison every heterodoxy that actually costs anything in favor of the worst version of crony-capitalist Republicanism.)
For both reasons, I really do wonder whether, in the aftermath of a massive loss, there will be any way for what was worth assimilating from the Trump phenomenon to survive.
Or, perhaps a better question is: how could someone who really did care about one or another of Trump’s “issues” ensure that his defeat doesn’t lead to their utter repudiation, but instead to something more productive?
That’s the question I’m chewing on as I root for Hillary Clinton – who bears more than a little resemblance to Lyndon Johnson in both her temperament and her ambition (and, for that matter, her foreign policy) – to crush Donald Trump.