[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
I had intended, until a few weeks ago, not to have a single post on the US presidential campaign before the new year, as whatever happens prior to the Iowa caucuses is invariably overtaken by events, neither here nor there, and soon forgotten. I may be a political junkie but only up to a point. But then there was Donald Trump. Whatever one may say about The Donald, he’s certainly made this presidential campaign—at this early stage, at least—the most interesting in as long as I can remember—and it is, BTW, far more interesting than anything happening politically in France these days (not even this compares)—not to mention highly revealing about the Republican party base.
À propos of this, Michael Lind has a spot-on article in Politico Magazine (September 3rd) on “How Trump exposed the Tea Party.” The lede: “The proof is in: the GOP base isn’t small-government libertarian; it’s old-fashioned populist.” Money quote
The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party [which Trump has galvanized] for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them[selves] and against government for Not-Them[selves].
Pour mémoire, Lind’s argument was made four years ago by Harvard social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, in their (excellent) book on the Tea Party phenomenon.
Conclusion: The “small government” discourse of the GOP is a lot of hokum. It’s eyewash; as I wrote in my last Trump post, Republican voters, including Tea Partiers, don’t care about the size of government, as rightist pollster Frank Luntz said himself 2½ years back. They just don’t want government benefits going to the “wrong” people.
On the GOP’s Trump conundrum not being Trump himself but rather those Republicans who support him, see MoJo’s David Corn (September 3rd), “The GOP’s problem is not Donald Trump: It’s their voters.” See as well NYT contributing op-ed writer Thomas B. Edsall examine “What Trump understands about Republicans.” Edsall thus begins
Donald Trump’s success is no surprise. The public and the press have focused on his defiant rejection of mannerly rhetoric, his putting into words of what others think privately. But the more important truth is that a half-century of Republican policies on race and immigration have made the party the home of an often angry and resentful white constituency — a constituency that is now politically mobilized in the face of demographic upheaval. (…)
Trump is going directly after those Republican voters who seek to protect what some scholars call “compositional amenities” – the comfort of a common religion and language, mutually shared traditions, and the minimization of cultural conflict.
The territory Trump has ventured onto is fertile ground for his brand of demagoguery. (…)
Transfer this to France and you have the hardcore base of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party down to a tee: a base that has been pulling France’s mainstream conservative party further to the right for the past decade and that Sarkozy strives to flatter and indulge… And then there’s Marine Le Pen, whom Sarkozy strives to mimic…
The Trump phenomenon is not only a hard right one, though. Christopher Caldwell, the unhackish senior editor of the otherwise Republican party hack rag TWS, has an interesting report (September 7th issue) from the campaign trail in Iowa, in which he asks “What’s the deal with the Trump?” Entre autres, Caldwell observes that a certain number of those who have attended Trump rallies and otherwise shown an interest in his candidacy are independents and even Democratic party voters, c’est-à-dire, Trump is not only attracting support from the Tea Party/hard right GOP base. His appeal goes well beyond that.
Caldwell makes a number of valid points, one of them this
One might compare Trump’s rise to the anti-immigrant populisms on the rise in Europe, but the parallel is deceptive. European immigration, unlike American, appears to be turning into an outright military threat [AWAV: this is nonsense]. The parties that focus on it often are suspicious of the European Union and have ideological affinities with old right-wing movements. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he is not an ideologue. (“I’m fine with affirmative action,” he recently told the Los Angeles Times.) The European radicals he most resembles are those freelances who combined (or combine) truth-telling and piss-taking: the Dutch firebrand Pim Fortuyn, assassinated on the eve of the 2002 elections, the radio host and UKIP leader Robert Kilroy-Silk, who rose and quickly fell two years later, the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who still leads the Five-Star Movement.
In French terms, I’ve said it before and will say it again: Trump is a mix of Nicolas Sarkozy (for the brutality of his political persona, rank demagoguery, absence of core principles or morality, and careening all over the right side of the political spectrum in changing his positions on a dime), Jean-Marie Le Pen (for his flamboyant, megalomaniacal macho showmanship and oratory, brutal personal style, and general demagoguery, particularly on immigration), and Bernard Tapie (the brash, flamboyant businessman and TV entertainer dabbling in politics—from center-left to center-right—to further his ego and personal interest, and who, like his pal Sarkozy, is devoid of principles and morality).
Continuing with French parallels, the Trump phenomenon may perhaps be viewed as less Tea Partyish or reactionary than a sort of downmarket Bonapartism à l’américaine: a providential, nationalist, charismatic strongman leader who is generically conservative but devoid of ideology—there’s no fascism here or doctrinal rupture with the existing order—whose positions can lurch from the far-right to the almost center-left, and whose appeal consists entirely of his outsized persona and promise to uphold or restore national grandeur (the Bonapartist strain on the French right was, in the 20th century, incarnated by Charles de Gaulle but I won’t insult the great general’s memory by equating Trump with him). And there’s not a shred of libertarianism or “small government” blather in it.
MoJo blogger Kevin Drum has a post (September 5th) telling conservatives “Sorry…you deserve Donald Trump” and in which he links to a lament-rant by the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg against Trump and his Republican trumpenproletariat (great neologism) supporters. Goldberg’s jeremiad, “No movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative,” is a doozy. This bit is particularly noteworthy
If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.
Wow, that’s awesome! No wonder conservative ideologues are so disoriented and distraught at the Trump phenomenon. It is hardly surprising that some are even darkly suspecting that Trump may be, as National Review columnist John Fund wonders, “a double agent for the left.” E.g.
Indeed, all that hanging around Democrats really rubbed off on him. In a 2000 book, he declared “we must have universal health care” and said it should look a lot like Canada’s system: “Doctors might be paid less than they are now, as is the case in Canada, but they would be able to treat more patients because of the reduction in their paperwork.” As recently as last year, Trump was still praising single-payer medical systems overseas.
At the same time that he was plumping for single-payer health care in 2000, Trump called for a one-time 14.25 percent net-worth tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth of over $10 million. He has also called for a 20 percent tax on importing goods. All this has led talk-show host Glenn Beck to declare: “Donald Trump is a progressive. He’s not a conservative.”
A progressive or, rather, a moderate Republican, as the NYT’s Josh Barro suggested in a post last month on the NYT’s The Upshot blog? Whatever the case, the bottom line—and it’s kind of scary—was laid out by journalist Conor Lynch in Salon three days ago: “The shocking truth about Donald Trump: He’s actually the least terrifying GOP candidate.” Ex-GOPer Bruce Bartlett said much the same thing in a social media comment today: “Honest to God, if forced to vote for one of the wankers now running, I would vote for Trump in a minute.” Personally speaking, if I were ordered to choose among the candidates in the large GOP field, it would be a toss-up between John Kasich and Trump. Scary and shocking indeed.
UPDATE: Paul Krugman, in his Labor Day column, says that “Trump is right on economics.”
2nd UPDATE: Differing with Krugman, Wall Street executive and contributing NYT opinion writer Steven Rattner, in his August 14th column, laid waste to “Trump’s economic muddle.”
3rd UPDATE: Michael Tomasky has a review essay in the September 24th issue of the NYRB—and that is well worth the read—of Donald Trump’s 2012 book Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!