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After Trump

What I find fascinating about the punditocracy’s constant commentary on the Trump Phenomenon is this: Nothing about that phenomenon is difficult to understand. In fact, it seems to me that thoughtful commenters have reached a remarkable level of consensus about Trumpery. Almost everyone now understands that Trump’s constituency is comprised largely of people who have been ignored by the Republican establishment; that they are angry about how peripheral they have become to to professional politicians and to American society in general; that Trump effectively channels that anger; and that the more outrageous and offensive his rhetoric is the more convinced they become that he will speak for them and their concerns when no one else will.

But that doesn’t mean that no serious questions remain. Here are a few that I’m thinking about:

First, why did so few people see this phenomenon coming? Was it unpredictable, or was it perfectly predictable for anyone (on the political left, right, or center) who bothered to pay attention to that obscure-but-fairly-sizable constituency?

Second, how might the little society populated by politicians, political operatives, lobbyists, donors, and journalists—who, even when they disagree politically, share a Lebenswelt—develop a better understanding of the people who support Trump?

Third, is the GOP going to make a serious effort to win those voters back, or will they assume that Trump is a one-off and that they won’t have to worry about another similar figure arriving on the scene to siphon off voters they think are their rightful property? (Not incidentally, a similar question may be asked about how the Democrats will deal with Sanders supporters.)

And most important of all: to what extent is Trump a one-off, and to what extent does he represent a constituency that will remain relatively coherent for at least the next couple of election cycles?

That last question breaks down into several others. That constituency can only remain coherent if it can raise up a prominent figure to speak on its behalf: is that possible? After all, who else has Trump’s combination of celebrity and financial independence? It’s hard to imagine that even Trump’s wealth would have been sufficient to keep him in the public eye had he not already been famous; and it’s hard to imagine how a famous person who decided to run for President could sustain a truly renegade campaign if he (or she?) were dependent on donors.

If the GOP establishment is thinking along these lines, then they just might decide to ignore Trump’s voters, assuming that from now on those weirdos won’t have a representative and will simply stay home on voting day. I would prefer them not to reach that conclusion, but I can’t say with confidence that they’d be irrational to reach it.

Similarly, I can’t say that the Democratic leadership would be irrational to ignore Sanders supporters, in the belief that once this brief insurrection is put down they’ll fall back into line—even though another Bernie would be far easier to conjure than another Donald, the Dems strike me as a more unified party who have a better chance of rallying the troops in time of need.

So while it’s tempting to see this election as portending big changes in the American political landscape—and Lord knows I long for big changes in the American political landscape—I suspect that it’s still more than likely that we’ll be faced with cookie-cutter candidates on both sides for the foreseeable future. To paraphrase Damon Runyan, the race is not always to the rich, nor the battle to the deeply-entrenched, but that’s the way to bet. Even with The Donald around.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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