I’ve been a reader of newspaper columns since childhood (i.e., a very long time) and for much of the 1990s was a writer of one. They had far more clout before the internet rendered the supply of readable opinions almost infinite. But a regular column written in a substantial daily paper retains a cachet matched by very little in the blogosphere.
Seldom does one find in a column something especially novel; more frequently one can admire an artistry put into 800 words even while anticipating the points which will be made. But I don’t I recall, ever, being as (pleasantly) surprised by a newspaper column as I was reading Ross Douthat’s comparison of Donald Trump to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To begin with, there is a considerable groupthink among columnists. They can be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. But if one strays far from either pole of Beltway orthodoxy, one is likely to become the topic of uneasy queries from the publisher to the editorial page editor, wanting to know why the paper is giving space to someone who so arouses the ire of key advertisers and loud advocacy groups. There are, for example, no pro-Palestinian columnists for major American newspapers, though there are dozens and dozens of pro-Israel ones. Unanimity on that issue has been broken by the blogosphere, and overall national opinion has changed considerably. But not enough that there should be single regular pro-Palestinian columnist.
That is hardly the only issue where “serious” and “respectable” opinion is more or less unanimous. A more recent one is Donald Trump’s candidacy, considered equally loathsome by professional Democrats and responsible Republicans. No respectable and career-conscious journalist seems able to analyze Trump’s astonishing march to the top of the polls without palpable distaste, or at least some ponderous references to Richard Hofstadter’s theses on America’s eternal “paranoia” and “anti-intellectualism.”
Then suddenly here comes Douthat, a youngish but not new columnist for the country’s most important newspaper. He likens Trump not to Father Coughlin or Huey Long or Pierre Poujade, but—stunningly—to the most important and widely beloved American president of the 20th century.
Douthat’s central point is that Trump—with his torrents of disdain for Republicans who say whatever their rich donors tell them to say—is working on breaking the seals of Conservatism, Inc. and trying to push the Republican Party back from its newly acquired role of representing only the rich. Much as Pat Buchanan did in the 1990s, Trump is running a third-party campaign within the GOP, targeting middle-class but alienated voters. Because he is, like Franklin Roosevelt, rich, he is “a traitor to his class.”
The smart money in Washington still assumes that Trump can’t succeed and that once the field is winnowed he won’t have the organization on the ground to prevail. This may well be true. But Douthat’s point is that Trump—by elevating the issues of trade and immigration inside the GOP—is bringing to the Republican Party something it needs to survive as a significant force.
I’ve been familiar with Donald Trump for a while: I belong to a golf club he purchased after the 2008 crash. I’ve looked on with amusement at the introduction of gaudy fountains and gold-plated fixtures and observed while every bit of wall space not taken up by cool photos of classic golf swings was covered by framed copies of magazine covers featuring Donald Trump—even in the women’s locker room, my wife tells me. And yet, one can’t help but acknowledge that he kept all his promises to the members: improving the golf courses, bettering the food and the clubhouse, while keeping dues more or less manageable for an upper-middle-class membership. He’s been a stellar example of a can-do owner/operator.
During that period, Trump became one of America’s most public proponents of birtherism, pushing hard an idea which any remotely rational person knew to be absurd: that in 1961, an 18-year-old American woman in her third trimester would fly from Hawaii to Nairobi in order to give birth to Barack Obama. Birtherism was viscerally racist in its appeal, designed to undermine the legitimacy of someone I considered a quite good president. Trump’s embrace of this noxious cause (great for “base-building,” claimed his erstwhile consultant Roger Stone) was not enough to make me resign from his golf club, which would have been a costly and self-damaging gesture, but enough to prompt me to say something negative about Trump every time an occasion arose.
In short, little prepared me to like anything about Donald Trump’s campaign. But it has caught me by surprise and grown on me. Rapidly expanding legal and illegal immigration—a pressing concern for tens of millions of Americans—would not have been an issue at all were it not for Donald Trump. Conservative, Inc. had more or less agreed to suppress discussion of the issue ever since Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan were purged from National Review in the mid-1990s. Might I have preferred personally that Trump made points about mass immigration and declining American wages in the wonkish and studiously undemagogic style of the Center for Immigration Studies? Perhaps, but if he had, he and they would almost certainly have been ignored.
Then there is the matter of trade. Is there any good reason why everything Americans now buy is made in China? What about the tradeoffs, cheaper goods but fewer good jobs for Americans? Who benefits, who loses? But like immigration, free trade had become non-issue for Conservatism, Inc. and the Republican Party, ignoring its own history of protecting American business. Today’s mainstream Republicans represent only economic winners and are unlikely to know anyone who might have lost a factory job or who would take one if one was available. Donald Trump announces he would slap large tariffs on foreign-produced Fords and negotiate better trade deals for American workers—what kind of Republican talks like this?
Every inside the Beltway operator for both parties, along with every “mainstream” journalist, knows that free trade is the only way. If the Americans who once manufactured things don’t like it, let them learn to write computer code and develop smartphone apps, or, more likely, work as cashiers and shelf-minders at Walmart. Yet somehow when someone breaks the seal on the discourse and speaks as if the benefits of free trade are not a self-evident part of the Constitution, he shoots to the top of the polls.
Next week, Trump is scheduled to appear at an anti-Iran-agreement rally with Ted Cruz, an event sponsored by the ultra right-wing Zionist Organization of America. This is the problem with Trump—if his pro-American and pro-middle class economic nationalism is packaged along with deference to Netanyahu’s foreign-policy agenda, it will become more or less worthless to thoughtful people. But it is not entirely clear what Donald Trump’s foreign-policy inclinations are, beyond the tactical. In regards to one neoconservative action item—escalating the fight with Russia over Ukraine—he said that he could get along quite well with Vladimir Putin.
The greater neoconservative goal, of course, is the prevention any American rapprochement with Iran, keeping the sanctions going till they have a president willing to start a war on the country. How does Trump fit into that?
His comment on the Iran accord was that Kerry and the people who negotiated with the Iranians were incompetent—which is ridiculous, of course—but that he wouldn’t disavow the deal if he became president. This put him actually to the left of all the rest of the GOP field (except Jeb Bush), who are desperately trying to tailor their answers to please Sheldon Adelson. In another interview, Trump said U.S. diplomats got bested because “the Persians are great negotiators.” Is it plausible to note that Trump’s phraseology here, his use of the term “Persians,” connotes something other than an enemy that must be destroyed, a regime that must be “changed”? Perhaps the most frequently used neoconservative talking point about Iran is that it is a country controlled by crazy Islamic zealots, so full of hatred for the West they will start a nuclear war at first opportunity and care nothing for their own survival. In a casual off-the-cuff remark, Trump instead connects the Iranian government to a venerable 3,000-year-old civilization.
Perhaps Trump will go full neocon at next week’s rally and prove himself to be no more responsible about American foreign policy than Ted Cruz. I’m seldom an optimist, but I am betting otherwise.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.