The startling nature of Donald Trump’s political ascendancy is probably best illuminated through a sojourn back in time to early June 2015, in the days and weeks before the billionaire developer descended that now-famous Trump Tower escalator and announced his bid for the presidency. At that time, throughout official Washington and across much of the country, a conventional narrative prevailed as to what was likely to happen in the looming campaign year. Nothing particularly surprising or startling was anticipated.
When the country casts aside conventional thinking and charts out new directions, few linger over what was left behind. It seems axiomatic that, if the conventional view was wrong, it had little to teach us in the first place. And history, after all, doesn’t stop and wait for such ruminations as it moves forward with its crushing force. In such circumstances, the country naturally casts its attention forward.
But discarded conventional narratives often can teach us a lot about the state of the nation, particularly when they reveal wide gaps in thinking and perception between the political elites and the electorate at large. That was the state of American politics in early 2015, though few understood it fully at the time.
Among Republican officials and operatives, the conventional thinking went something like this: it is difficult to see how the GOP nomination can be denied to Jeb Bush. He has a famous name, widespread family connections, impressive money-raising prowess, and a pleasant demeanor. Moreover he’s well-positioned on the issues to appeal to the party’s conservative wing as well as to its moderate center. But it might be too late for the party in any event because demographic trends—fewer Republican whites in the electorate and more Democratic minorities—seem to be rendering the party obsolete. Unless Republicans can find a way to appeal to non-whites, and particularly to new immigrants put off by the party’s anti-immigrant tendencies, they will not likely elect another president. The Democrats will maintain a lock on the Electoral College.
And that meant, according to this conventional outlook, that Hillary Clinton likely would be the next president. She was smart, tested, universally known, a whiz at fundraising, and generally respected (her old reputation as a “congenital liar’’ having dissipated significantly by this time, though of course it was to reemerge later). On paper, she looked nearly unbeatable.
Thus did the elites and analysts and seers of both parties anticipate another Bush-Clinton battle, harking back to the last such battle in 1992 and keeping the country anchored in the politics that had prevailed in America throughout the 1990s and into the first two decades of the 21st century. Of course, subsequent history proved that narrative to be utterly wrong. But looking back, perhaps more interesting is what we now can see as its fundamental flaw—a failure to recognize that America was in crisis, and crisis times yield crisis politics. The campaign year of 2016 turned out to be a year of crisis politics writ large, manifest not just in Trump’s rise but also in the remarkable run, in the Democratic primaries, of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator.
As the surprise-laden year unfolded, more and more analysts cast their thinking toward the angers and frustrations within the electorate that were driving the country in entirely unanticipated directions. Elements of the crisis now were seen and probed. But few captured its full magnitude.
It was nothing less than a crisis of the old order, a crisis of the crumbling status quo. Its most significant manifestation was the political deadlock that gripped official Washington and rendered it incapable of political action. Many saw this as a problem in itself, but in reality it was merely a stark manifestation of the status quo crisis. As the old order of American politics began to disintegrate, the two parties clung ever more tenaciously to their familiar and time-tested positions, defaulting to an increasingly rigid groupthink stubbornness and shunning any thought of political compromise. Far from grappling with the crisis of the old order that had descended upon America and the world, the party elites couldn’t even acknowledge its existence.
But the country was at an inflection point. It desperately needed a new brand of politics that could break the deadlock and set it upon a new course toward its future and destiny. In such times, a gap inevitably emerges between the political establishment, guided by the lessons of the past (increasingly irrelevant lessons, as it happens), and the electorate, always ahead of the establishment in seeing the need for new political paradigms, new dialectical thinking, and new coalitions designed to bust up political logjams and set the country upon a new course.
Back in the spring of 2012, The National Interest magazine published a special issue entitled: “Crisis of the Old Order: The Crumbling Status Quo at Home and Abroad.’’ (I note here, by way of disclosure, that I was National Interest editor at the time.) In an unsigned editorial, the magazine likened the gathering crisis to the turmoil that gripped America at the beginning of the Great Depression, captured by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the first volume of his “Age of Roosevelt’’ series. Entitled The Crisis of the Old Order, Schlesinger’s book included chapters with such titles as: “The Politics of Frustration,’’ “Protest on the Countryside,’’ “The Stirrings of Labor,’’ “The Struggle for Public Power,’’ and “The Revolt of the Intellectuals.’’ Schlesinger portrayed a domestic status quo that could not hold. Thus, under Franklin Roosevelt, a new order emerged in American politics based on a far greater concentration of power in the federal government than the country had ever before seriously contemplated.
During this same time, the global status quo also buckled under a similarly severe strain. The Old Order—based on Europe’s global preeminence, British naval superiority and financial dominance, and a balance of military force on the European continent—had been destroyed with World War I, and no new structure of stability had emerged to replace it. The result was a period of flux culminating in World War II, which yielded a new order based on America’s global military reach, the strength of the dollar, and a balance of power between the U.S.-led West and an expansionist Soviet Union positioned in the ashes of war to threaten Western Europe.
The National Interest identified Franklin Roosevelt as “one of the most powerful figures in his country’s history’’ and said he essentially remade the American political structure. And then he remade the world. The result was a new order of U.S. global leadership, relative stability, Western prosperity, and global development. It was called Pax Americana, and it lasted nearly 70 years. The magazine added: “Now the new order that Roosevelt created is the Old Order, and it is in crisis, much as the Old Order at the time of FDR’s emergence was in crisis. The status quo, like the status quo in Roosevelt’s time, cannot hold. We are living in a time of transition.’’
Consider some of the domestic elements of the current crisis. FDR’s power consolidation has created over time a collection of elites that has restrained the body politic in tethers of favoritism and self-serving maneuver. Wall Street dominates the government’s levers of financial decision-making. Public-employee unions utilize their power (they can fire their bosses) to capture greater and greater shares of the public fisc. Corporations foster tax-code provisions that allow them to game the system. “Crony capitalism’’ runs rampant. Members of Congress tilt the political system to favor incumbency. A national-debt burden threatens the country’s financial health. Uncontrolled immigration threatens the country’s sense of security and, for many, its sense of nationhood. The nation’s industrial base has been hollowed out, and the vast American working class—the bedrock of the FDR coalition—is squeezed to the point of desperation.
Overseas, challenges to U.S. global preeminence are emerging from a host of quarters, most notably from China, which wants to expunge American military power from Asia. The Middle East is aflame, largely as a result of mindless U.S. interventions there. Western civilization’s European heartland is threatened from without by mass immigration and from within by waves of populist nationalism bent on destroying the postwar experiment in political consolidation. Tensions are on the rise everywhere—between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East, between the United States and Russia, between China and its neighbors, between southern and northern Europe over currency issues, between the United States and Iran. To say the world is operating today under an umbrella of Pax Americana defies any realistic conception of America in our time or the definition of peace in any time.
What seems remarkable now, thinking back to the early months of the presidential campaign season, is how seemingly oblivious nearly all the candidates were to the extent and depth of the crises gripping America and the world. Consider once again poor Jeb Bush. The media and the political class made much of his initial inability, when asked about his brother George’s invasion of Iraq, to deliver a coherent answer that incorporated any lessons to be learned from that far-reaching misadventure. But that was the least of his problems. Throughout his ill-planned and ill-fated political foray, he campaigned as if he thought he still operated in the day of his father. He spoke without force, which held him back in a time of potent political turmoil, but, more importantly, without any apparent sense of urgency, without any discernible recognition of the calamitous forces swirling around his ears.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did speak in forceful terms, but his answer was to double down on his party’s hard-right attitudes and demands—to resurrect Ronald Reagan and then move boldly beyond him to galvanize a majority within party and country. It couldn’t be done. Reagan, a highly successful president, probably deserves a “near great’’ ranking from history. But he ran the country in an era far different from today. More problematic for Cruz, the country didn’t want the same old ossified positions of right or left that contributed so much to the country’s political logjams. It wanted fresh thinking, a new cluster of ideas and positions, a new dialectic of politics capable of pulling together new coalitions that could break the country’s deadlock crisis.
As for Clinton, she not only couldn’t speak in a political idiom that showed an understanding of the underlying realities of America’s crisis politics. She actually put herself forward as a champion of the status quo and, through some unfathomable utterances, a scourge of that working-class contingent that once had been such an integral part of her party. That helped open the way for Bernie Sanders, who spoke to the realities of our time and thus resonated with large numbers of liberal Democrats deeply concerned about the plight of the working class and the growing income and wealth disparities bedeviling the country.
But of all the presidential candidates vying for attention at the start of the campaign season, only Trump demonstrated a clear understanding of the country’s status quo crisis. Only Trump busted out of the old paradigms of partisan politics and fashioned a new cluster of issues and positions. He was the only candidate whose forcefulness of expression, as crude and unsettling as it often was, reflected an appreciation for the magnitude of the crisis confronting the nation. He projected himself as a man who wouldn’t trim and wouldn’t bow or scrape to anyone—not the big-money boys who own the other politicians, not the special interests taking their financial cut at every turn, not the industrialists (like himself in the past, he would state frankly) exploiting the system of crony capitalism and pay-to-play politics, and certainly not foreign leaders taking advantage of America’s soft and accommodating national temperament. Trump became the Willie Stark of 2016, the champion of ordinary Americans—Americans who saw that the game was rigged and who hungered for a politician ready to retrieve the wayward system and return it to the people.
Further, he shunned the rigid political thinking of either party and crafted an advocacy that cut across partisan lines in various ways. He embraced traditional GOP positions in calling for drastically reduced taxes, advocating school choice, questioning climate change as a product of human activity, and urging big increases in defense spending. But he also embraced positions that went against the Republican grain—including a rejection of budget balancing through austerity economics; a call to protect entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that are generating huge unfunded liabilities; a promise to use tariffs and other barriers to counter what he considersed unfair trading practices by other countries; and a resolve to increase taxes on hedge-fund profits. None of this comported with standard Republican orthodoxy; indeed, some of it sounded a bit like Bernie Sanders.
It was this distinctive mix of policies that gave Trump his political propulsion in the GOP primaries and through the general election. But there was another factor—his often harsh, mean-spirited rhetoric that, while distasteful to many, gave others the sense of a man bent on charging through all impediments to implement his policies. Consider, for example, immigration, perhaps the most high-voltage issue of the campaign.
The problem, of course, was the large number of illegal immigrants already well-established in the country—some 11 million, according to estimates. This reality constituted a blot on the country’s political establishment, which had allowed U.S. borders to be breached on such a scale with nary a finger raised to stem it. And the political establishment had no answer for the resulting civic challenge, except to provide some form of amnesty as part of a “comprehensive solution’’ that promised secure borders as a trade-off. But this was incendiary to millions of Americans who remembered the last time this trade-off was put forward—and promptly flouted as the flow of illegal immigrants accelerated following a major amnesty program. Thus, none of the presidential candidates wanted to engage the issue in any kind of frontal way during the campaign. They would finesse it pending their election and then deal with it in a more controlled legislative environment.
Except Trump. “When do we beat Mexico at the border?’’ he asked during his campaign announcement speech, then added, “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. … When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’’ This now-famous peroration was so stark and brutal that many considered it politically disqualifying, a sign that this crude figure would flame out quickly on the campaign trail. But for many, tired of political elites talking endlessly about the border problem without any discernible intent on actually attacking it, Trump seemed to be the only politician who actually took it seriously. When he said, during the first debate, that the issue wouldn’t have received serious attention at that forum except for his having forced it into the campaign discourse, he was probably correct.
That’s the view, at least, of Harvard’s George J. Borjas, one of the country’s leading immigration economists. “A really good question to ask,’’ Borjas said in an interview presented in TAC’s last issue, “… is would he have gotten traction if he hadn’t shocked the system that way so early on? What he said, you can disagree with it strongly. But … it really provided an incredible shock by introducing into the debate something people don’t usually talk about very often.’’
We know now that Trump’s willingness to grab hold of the immigration issue in his bold, even nasty, way resonated with white working-class voters in states that previously had been considered Democratic strongholds—particularly Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which provided his Electoral College victory margin. It was this kind of rhetoric, combined with his eclectic mix of issues and positions, that rendered feckless the conventional wisdom back in early June of 2015 that said inexorable demographic trends favored the Democrats in 2016 and would continue to do so indefinitely into the future.
But running for president is not the same as being president, and now Donald Trump faces a governing challenge that he may or may not be capable of meeting. The New York billionaire emerged the winner in the crisis politics of 2016 by convincing just enough voters in just the right states that he would be a bold and effective manager, willing and able to take on entrenched political elites throughout the political system to break the deadlock of democracy and create a winning new status quo for America. This will not be an easy task, and Trump manifests some traits of personality and temperament that could impede his chances for success.
One is his tendency to advocate often contradictory policies that seem to reflect a disjointed and incoherent worldview. He says he would like to foster a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians but nominates as ambassador to Israel a man whose vocal support of Israeli settlements on the West Bank would preclude any such agreement. He says the United States should cease getting into Middle Eastern wars but brings into his inner circle men who seem to be spoiling for a fight with Iran. He says that, in Syria, we should concentrate first and foremost on defeating the Islamic State, or ISIS, but he seems bent on introducing tensions into U.S. relations with Iran, which also is fighting ISIS. He even suggested that, had he been president when Iranian naval forces detained American sailors who had drifted illegally into Iranian waters, he would have shot the Iranians out of the water within their own territorial seas. He decries the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the country’s actions in bringing down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi but suggests we should have seized the oil of both countries—that is, from countries that, by his lights, we should have left alone.
Second, Trump seems to lack a facility for getting below the surface of things. On the campaign trail, he often was sharp and crisp in attacking policies he didn’t like or in carving out his primary policy positions. But he seemed to lack the political vocabulary to get below the surface in ways that would allow him to engage in what might be called explanatory political discourse, the kind that provides narrative to the political conversation. Though often brilliant in operating upon the political surface—in seeing more clearly than most, for example, the nature of the American crisis or in crafting a provocatively effective message for the times—he often seemed incapable of giving meaning and context to his political positions. That wasn’t a problem on the political stump; in fighting for legislation, however, it could prove limiting. As scholar Aaron David Miller writes in his book on the presidency, The End of Greatness, “The notion that the president’s job is to create a story or a compelling narrative in order to teach and inspire is absolutely on target.’’ Certainly, the president’s rollout of his initial executive orders on refugees and immigration reflected his inability, or disinclination, to explain his actions to the American people as he proceeds. There was no compelling narrative here at all.
And, third, it isn’t clear that Trump possesses the political temperament to deal effectively with the kind of politics that inevitably emerge when the country struggles to move from an established era to a new and often frightening new day. The country is split down the middle—between those clinging to the era of globalism and those who despise it; between those who want to control immigration and those who think such efforts are tantamount to racism; between those who believe that radical Islamist fundamentalism emanates out of Islam itself and those who think such thinking is bigotry or Islamophobia; between those who view Trump’s election as necessary and those who consider it a threat to the common weal. These divisions, and many more, will complicate Trump’s effort to break the nation’s deadlock crisis and move the U.S. into a new era of consensus and internal stability. This will require an appreciation for the holdouts, those disinclined to buy Trump’s message or join his cause. Trump, after all, is a minority president; he captured only 46 percent of the popular vote, 2 percentage points below Clinton’s total. He can’t forge any kind of effective governing coalition with just those who voted for him. He will need to build on his base, and that will require more than just the political will and swagger he demonstrated in the campaign. It will require also large amounts of guile, persistence, deviousness, cajolery, and an appreciation for the sensibilities of the collective electorate—all applied in just the right doses at just the right time. So far, some of those traits have been notably lacking.
Trump’s mandate, defined by himself as well as events, is to generate economic growth at traditional levels, expand jobs sufficiently to bring discouraged workers back into the workforce, defeat ISIS and then bring America home from endless Middle Eastern wars, foster peace and relative global stability through strength mixed with creative diplomacy, establish an American consensus on the national direction, and maintain a civic calm within the American polity.
That’s a tall order. He might succeed. He might fail. Either way, the American people, in their collective judgment, will maintain an unsentimental view of it all. If he succeeds, they will reward him with their votes, and a new coalition might emerge. If he fails, they will fire him. And then the crisis of the old order will continue and deepen until, somehow, at some point, the voters manage to select a president who can get the job done.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.