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Donald Trump Hangs The Elephant


You have to admire the theatricality of this moment, as Donald Trump fisks and then flings the New York Times over the heads of a cheering crowd. The poll numbers from serious organizations are consistent, and they illustrate Trump’s staying power and the desire for an outsider candidate. But it is not just theater: as Matt Lewis notes this morning, contained within Trump’s enduring appeal are the seeds of a conservative crackup.

Trump’s support is solid despite the simple fact of his policy positions in favor of higher taxes, gun restrictions, single-payer, partial-birth abortion, and recent past as a Hillary-donating, Obama-voting Democrat. None of these things can hurt Trump, because none of them matter to his supporters, and because the chief argument against them requires you to believe in the Republican Party as a vehicle for something different than the Democratic – a fact that is no longer an item of belief for many voters.

When the talking points coming out of Mitch McConnell’s mouth are essentially identical to those coming out of the White House – an agenda divorced from the priorities of a significant portion of the electorate, of trade and reauthorizations and appropriations and device tax repeal and governing – why should they believe any different? Why should such a party continue to exist if it exists to serve the people who donate, not the people who vote? What use is such a party to the people? Why not dissolve it and create another?

This goes back to the whole argument about why the Republican Party exists. Frustrated GOP presidential candidates are responding to Trump’s rise by saying loudly: “He’s not a Republican!” And the people are responding: “So? WTF is that?” Republicans who say “Trump’s damaging the Republican brand” are saying it to a bunch of people who don’t care – and in fact, think America needs a candidate who really doesn’t care about the “Republican brand”, whatever that is.

Ross Douthat has more on this appeal, and Trump’s unique role as a traitor to his class, noting that where The Tea Party demanded essentially a return to the fiscal conservative roots of fusionist Republicanism, Trump offers a much bigger break with the past:

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.

Christopher Caldwell’s piece notes the appeal of his economic message.

Trump is in the early stages of deploying a powerful and popular protectionist platform. He does not use the word “protectionism,” preferring to call it free trade managed by people who know how to negotiate deals. But his voice takes a vengeful tone when he describes his trade policy. He has promised to enlist some of the toughest negotiators in New York to lay down the law. (“I know people who are so nasty, so mean, so horrible,” he says, “nobody in Iowa would want to have dinner with them.”) About the parent company of Nabisco, which is closing a plant in Chicago and moving production to Mexico, he says, “I’m never eating Oreos again—ever!” It sounds like an implicit threat to mobilize voters around boycotts and other forms of economic pressure, a tactic that has been limited in recent years to progressives’ agitating on gay marriage and other social issues.”

Protectionism is actually at historically low levels of popularity – but this is another issue where Trump is able to appeal to a group of Americans who do not share such majority views. Back to Caldwell:

Paradoxically, his own braggadocio puts him in a good position to attack the information-age plutocracy. Talking about how filthy rich the filthy rich are is one of Trump’s favorite subjects, much as beautiful women like to deplore the role beauty plays in human relations. At a press availability before the speech in Dubuque, Trump made a shocking allusion (in ways that few but the initiated will have understood) to the carried-interest deduction that enables rich investors to limit their tax liability. “I know a lot about hedge funds,” he said. “I know a lot about how they’re taxed.”

And he was serious about it. Byron York reports Trump is now about to go on the attack against Wall Street and carried interest as well as high earners generally to lower taxes for the middle class – something that, to fiscal conservative Republicans’ consternation, typically polls quite well. Such calls are part of a trend that has more in common with the European experience than the American – just read Tony Blair on Jeremy Corbyn for more comparisons. And the headlines here are in keeping with the idolatrous nature of such emotionally driven hero worship typically unfamiliar to the Republican experience: “First-time voter, 92, gets to meet her savior: Donald Trump.” (Somewhere, Andrew Breitbart turns.) When considering such messianic comparisons, it’s possible that in the person of Trump, as Don DeVine suggests, that fatalism is finally getting its due:

Because of America’s two-party system and the dominance of individualistic libertarians and social conservatives in one party and left-egalitarians and interest-group liberals in the other, we forget the basics. As the late great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky taught us years ago there are four fundamental political types: egalitarians, individualists, social conservatives, and—the ones we forget about—what he called “fatalists.”

We tend to forget the fatalists because they tend not to vote. They view the world as foreign, chaotic, ephemeral, dangerous, on the edge of falling into bedlam. He used the analogy that their world is like a marble rolling unsteadily on a glass surface, rolling and pitching who knows where. Government has some control but is run by an untouchable, all-powerful elite acting in its own interest. Such a world can only be tamed by something enormously powerful and masterful, and only during a crisis. Then a strong central government supported by angry, patriotic nationalists and led by a popular Napoleon on his white horse can arrest the anarchy. Trump’s autobiography is titled Think Big and Kick Ass.

This is not to say that Trump is any likelier to take the Republican nomination. It is one thing to tell a pollster you support Trump – another entirely to stand in an Iowa gymnasium for eight hours to back him. But as Douthat notes:

[I]t matters a great deal how he loses. 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.

Ross is too smart an analyst to exaggerate here. Parties can die, just as elephants can hang. They do so very rarely. But sometimes, parties just evolve into something that no longer recognizes its past as representing anything historically valuable in guiding its future. The Democratic Party did this within many of our lifetimes. Perhaps it is the GOP’s turn now.