One of the unsought pleasures of being caught up for nearly two weeks in the drama of my father’s dying has been that I have been able to be either fairly clueless about events in the outside world, or excused from having to write about them. Sadly for us all, I missed the Dreherbait of Caitlyn’s Dating Crisis (men or women?), and missed having to come up with an opinion on the way the media covered Vester Flanagan’s racist murders, and the recent spate of cop-killing apparently motivated by racial hatred.
The last real-world news event that I paid serious attention to before Dad’s sickbed became the center of my world was Donald Trump’s campaign speech in Mobile. The libertarian Jeffrey Tucker was present at a July speech Trump gave, and wrote that the man talked like a fascist — a word he meant not as a slur, but as a description of the historical phenomenon:
Whereas the left has long attacked bourgeois institutions like family, church, and property, fascism has made its peace with all three. It (very wisely) seeks political strategies that call on the organic matter of the social structure and inspire masses of people to rally around the nation as a personified ideal in history, under the leadership of a great and highly accomplished man.
Trump believes himself to be that man. He sounds fresh, exciting, even thrilling, like a man with a plan and a complete disregard for the existing establishment and all its weakness and corruption.
This is how strongmen take over countries. They say some true things, boldly, and conjure up visions of national greatness under their leadership. They’ve got the flags, the music, the hype, the hysteria, the resources, and they work to extract that thing in many people that seeks heroes and momentous struggles in which they can prove their greatness.
He wrote that in July, and I only discovered it last night when my son Matthew sent it to me. But that account accurately describes the speech I heard on TV in Mobile. It was so transparently empty and manipulative that I laughed several times at the shamelessness of it all. Yet, that reaction is what Trump and his partisans expect from people like me. Trump has been a vulgar joke for so long that many of us keep expecting the crowd to wise up to his shtick. But they don’t, and his popularity stays constant. Personally, the most remarkable thing to me is how about 20 percent of Evangelicals embrace Trump. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes that for all his vices (from an Evangelical point of view), at least he’s not paying them lip service, pretending to be something he’s not:
Everything that might register as an obvious lack of affinity with evangelical values—his inability to name a favorite Bible verse, his open Christmas-and-Easter attendance patterns, his ranking of the Bible as only a smidgen better than his own book—might be coming off as a sight better than the same old GOP pitch. Before joining his campaign, Trump’s national co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote in an emailthat “’[Trump] left [him] with questions about [Trump’s] moral center and his foundational beliefs,” adding that Trump’s “comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal.’” And it might be, but Trump is brazenly straightforward about the whole affair, routinely supplying very little religious window dressing for what is primarily a revanchist campaign against the un-American, the un-patriotic, and the effeminate.
Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors for evangelical attention have compromised their credibility with Christian voters. In September of last year, Ted Cruz inexplicably took pot shots at Middle Eastern Christians gathered to protest violence against their countrymen because, in Cruz’s view, they were not sufficiently supportive of Israel. Mike Huckabee has busied himself making off-color remarks about the Holocaust and ingratiating himself in the most public way possible with the Duggar family, now marred by a child sex abuse cover-up scandal along with confessions of infidelity. Trump, for all his filthy dealings, has at least never painted his deeds with a veneer of Christian righteousness.
Well, that’s a theory. I doubt very much that Cruz’s ugly stunt at the gathering of Middle East Christians will hurt him one bit with most Evangelical voters. It’s probably more accurate to say that Evangelical voters are just as thoughtless as the rest of us when it comes to their politics. That is to say, their religious convictions are no vaccination against the bacillus of Trumpism. Catholic voters’ political preferences are distributed no differently from those of the general population’s. Evangelical preferences are distributed (at least at this point) than the general Republican electorate’s.
The Schadenfreude I’m taking out of the Trump phenomenon is how much grief the Donald is giving to the Republican Party. Ross Douthat took up this theme in his column over the weekend.
So far he’s running against the Republican establishment in a more profound way than the Tea Party, challenging not just deviations from official conservative principle but the entire post-Reagan conservative matrix. He can wax right wing on immigration one moment and promise to tax hedge fund managers the next. He’ll attack political correctness and then pledge to protect entitlements. He can sound like Pat Buchanan on trade and Bernie Sanders on health care. He regularly attacks the entire Iraq misadventure, in its Bush-era and Obama-era manifestations alike, in a way that neither mainstream Republicans nor Hillary Clinton can plausibly manage.
And he’s coming at all these issues, crucially, from a vantage point of privilege — which his critics keep highlighting as though it discredits him, when in reality it lends his populism a deeper credibility.
The idea is that Trump, as a member of the One Percent, knows how the dirty deals are done, and doesn’t mind telling you so. Plus, he will not be played by the system, but will get in there and fight for you. More Douthat:
In a healthy two-party system, the G.O.P. 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.
If you want to know what Trump’s positions are on the issues, you won’t find them on his website; the “Positions” category is taken up by one issue only: immigration. And to be honest with you, there’s a lot there to like. But when you hear Trump on the stump talking about this stuff, it can be unnerving, the way he whips up spite. Plus, it’s all wrapped up in classic fascist rhetoric of the Great Man Who Will Restore National Greatness. Trump doesn’t even have a platform, only a personality.
As Ross says in his column, Trump is not going to be the GOP nominee, but how he loses the nomination matters. Is there any one of the Trump competitors who can credibly and sustainably stand up to the GOP’s donor class? This weekend saw Scott Walker pathetically trying to ape Trump by calling for the consideration of a wall between the US and Canada. Not only is that a spectacularly dumb idea, it just goes to show how these regular Republicans don’t know their own minds, and seem to believe that the same old three-verse anthem of Free Market/Strong Defense/Family Values can be made to sound fresh again in a post-Wall Street Meltdown, post-Iraq, gay-marriage world.
For all that’s wrong with him, and for as crude as he is, Trump is tapping into something real and legitimate. I don’t want him to be the Republican nominee, and I certainly don’t want him to be president. But the creative destruction he is wreaking on the Republican Party and its elites is no bad thing.