It’s now axiomatic, even among many of the people who loathe Donald Trump, that the rise of this boor to the front of the Republican Party’s primary candidates is the fault of the GOP itself. The party, this argument goes, has failed the people, and they’re angry.
Since finally achieving control of both chambers a year ago, they’ve failed to stem illegal immigration; they’ve failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act; they’ve failed to rein in an imperial presidency. They’ve done nothing but slap backs and raise money. Trump might not be a perfect tribune, but he’s only expressing the view of people who feel ignored by elitists and machine politicians.
This Republican hair-shirting is ridiculous. The GOP is hardly to blame for Trump’s rise. I was a Republican for 33 years, and once worked for a GOP senator. For many reasons, (including the night Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary) I am now an Independent. While quitting the party was a tough decision for me, that doesn’t mean I want to see the GOP implode and hand a virtually uncontested election to Hillary Clinton. Real elections are essential to any democracy, and an egomaniac is now short-circuiting one of ours.
Donald Trump’s Appeal
Instead, I think Trump’s rise has been fueled by three things: the rise of a ghastly celebrity culture, an unfocused but intense anger at President Obama, and the low political literacy of a substantial number of American voters. None of these things are within the control of the Republican Party or any other, and if the GOP tries to “learn the lessons” of the Trump campaign, it will torpedo its chances of producing a competitive candidate in 2016.
First, let’s remember that Trump is not exactly a surprise candidate: he’s been lurking around the fringes of presidential politics since at least the late 1990s. His emergence now is opportunism enabled by a television presence he could only dream about 15 years ago. He shot ahead in early polls for the same reason that popes, presidents, and first ladies tend to lead in “most admired person” polls: because people know who he is. Hit a low-information voter with a pop quiz and ask them if they support a guy who’s in their living rooms every week or the governor of a state they’ve never seen, and it’s no contest.
More than ever before, Americans now venerate celebrities because they’re celebrities. Once upon a time, we admired actors, athletes, military heroes, and others for some demonstrable ability. Now, we stare glassy-eyed at talentless freak-show attractions like the entire Kardashian family with no idea of why we’re doing it other than the puerile voyeurism that sustains so much of reality television.
Trump’s exploitation of his fame isn’t a partisan problem, it’s a symptom of broad cultural dysfunction. I have no doubt that Caitlyn Jenner could enter either the Democratic or Republican field and pick off some measurable percent of votes just by showing up.
Second, voters are angry, across the political spectrum. As Jay Cost noted recently, the president is actually among the more unpopular chief executives in modern history, especially once you look outside the confines of Democratic Party loyalists. So, sure, a lot of conservatives are angry at President Obama. (So are a lot of progressives, which is why Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds like a series of nightmarish Pete Seeger tribute concerts.) Yes, a lot of conservatives are mad at the GOP, too. It’s not heresy even among the Republicans I know—they still talk to me despite my apostasy—to slam the party for getting tangled up in its own petty divisions, clumsy moves, and often feckless leadership.
Donald Trump Is the Symbol of Selfie Nation
The rage of the Trumpkins, however, is far beyond any pedestrian impatience with parties and presidents. Watch them on social media. Read their Facebook pages. They’re mad about everything. They hate everybody, mostly for not respecting them enough—or something. Loath as I am to credit Maureen Dowd for finding this, she nonetheless picked up a gem of a comment from novelist Walter Kirns that I think is spot-on: “Trump,” he tweeted after the debate, “is simply channeling the bruised petty enraged narcissism that is the natural condition of Selfie Nation.”
My Federalist colleague Neil Dewing captured it even more succinctly in a phrase I’ve been stealing from him for weeks. Trump loyalists, he said, are people “who fetishize their outsider status.” That is, they embrace being the underdog because it gives them a sense of importance and specialness that comes from believing they are in an ongoing struggle with The Man or The System or The Cartel. Thus they love it when The Donald says things like “everybody is stupid,” because that’s how they feel all the time.
This obsession with the stupidity of everyone else is pretty ironic, since the Trump surge is itself rooted in a child-like stupidity that relies on taking seriously the kind of nutty bumper stickers Trump hauls off. “I’ll make Mexico pay for a wall! I’ll scare Putin!” These are not actual political positions: they are the kinds of things the guy next to you in a dive bar says after a few shots and beers. If Cliff Clavin did meth, he’d sound like Trump. That’s not Cliff’s fault, but if you sit there stroking your chin while thinking, “Hey, that drugged-up mailman has a point,” then you’re the idiot, not him.
You Hate Us, We Love You
To really get the full flavor of this stupidity, you have to ask a Trump supporter what he or she thinks Trump would do differently than any other GOP candidate. That’s when you get some really impressive deep thinking, in non-sequiturs like “he has balls” or “he’d change everything.” Combine this with the false sense of personal connection bred by reality TV, and the effect is lethal. A guy in a New Hampshire focus group last month actually pointed to this babbling, foul-mouthed, billionaire New York real estate and casino baron and said: “He’s just like us.” That’s the kind of dumb that would be prohibited by international agreement if Iran made it in a centrifuge.
That last point illustrates an appalling paradox. Trump’s supporters are resolutely oblivious to the fact that they are cheering on a wealthy landlord who hobnobs with the very elite—like the Clintons—they hate. They’re so mesmerized by Trump’s middle finger that it never occurs them that this is a man who is known for how he openly detests ordinary people just like them. They want to believe he’s on their side, when in fact he wouldn’t deign to set foot in their homes if he were on fire and they had the world’s last bucket of water.
The people who think Trump is going to send all the Mexicans home while threatening Chinese leaders with the old ring-a-ding-ding if they don’t knock off the trade malarkey are hopeless, and beyond argument. There are, however, people who support Donald Trump who are competent human beings, who love their kids, are nice to their neighbors, and who hold jobs and run businesses. Some of them are our friends and relatives. For the people who support Trump for reasons other than because they think reality television is reality, the problem is not a generalized stupidity but an abysmal lack of political literacy.
It doesn’t take a very long conversation with a Trump supporter to realize that, in the main, these are people who have no idea how their own government works. They are flatly ignorant of the basics not only of the Constitution, but of how things occur in Washington on a daily basis. The changes these people demand are beyond anything any party can deliver, politically or even legally.
The Tea Party had the same problem shortly after its inception. Some Tea Party candidates got elected by promising things that were literally impossible within the limits of the Constitution. (The House, amazingly, cannot remove the president of the United States on its own, as I tried to explain to angry Tea Party types many times over the past years.) In short order, that movement produced Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Allen West, and many others on the political stage whose stock in trade was either pristine ignorance or pure rage.
The Tea Party could never deliver what it promised, because no one can. Neither can Trump, but his supporters are too politically illiterate to know it. Trump, for his part, seems either not to know or not to care, but just try to explain things like “the separation of powers” to Trump’s fan base and you get outbursts about “business as usual” and confident predictions of how The Donald can change all that. Spoiler, Trump fans: short of martial law, he can’t do most of what he’s promised you. Those stupid Founders—stupid, because everyone is—saw to it.
The GOP Field Has Some Real Contenders
Finally, let’s consider the current GOP field. I don’t have a favorite, and I wouldn’t share it with you if I did. I thought there were credible presidents among many of the people on stage during the first debate. I thought most of them said interesting things, although I make no secret of it that I think it’s time for the no-hoper gaffe machines like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee to pack it in. Warts and all, it’s the best GOP field in years, and a reasonable amount of ideological diversity in its ranks. (Certainly more than the process among the Democrats that has now forced them all to mortgage their consciences a year too early to a woman who’s under federal investigation.)
So here’s my parting comment to the Trump fanatics: if you can’t find someone better than Trump in this field, it’s because you don’t want to. A female CEO, a hard-right black doctor, several senators and governors, people from every region of the country—if you think they’re all part of some vast Washington conspiracy, then it’s solely because that’s how people like you think.
The GOP cannot accommodate you, and neither can any other party, because you don’t want to be accommodated, you want to be angry. Trump vents that anger for you, and you’re not going to let anyone take that away from you, because it makes you, in some perverse way, feel good. That’s your right as an American, but that’s not anything a political party can help you with.
As for the GOP, I have one recommendation as someone who, whatever my status today, once worked among you all on the Hill and wants to see you field a real candidate in a real election in 2016: get serious about ostracizing Trump. Follow Erick Erickson’s lead, and declare him to be too far over the line for any conservative party worthy of the name. Yes, force him into the third-party candidacy with which he’s already blackmailing you. See if he really has the guts for it.
Trump has gone too far, and made his supporters go too far along with him, ever to climb down from the things he’s said. After this week, he’ll never support your nominee, and neither will his people. They can’t, not now. The sooner you get this over with, the better a chance you’ll have to run a real campaign later.
And remember: it’s not you, it’s him.