Donald Trump’s schoolyard taunts, disinterest in policy, and tenuous relationship with the truth have frustrated millions of Americans. But his campaign’s turn to violence—his encouragement of vigilantism, his campaign manager’s manhandling of a reporter, and his threats of unrest if denied the nomination—has been of an entirely different order. Violence erupted again Tuesday during a Trump rally in Albuquerque, where anti-Trump protesters reportedly threw rocks at police, leapt on police cars, and screamed profanities. So far, Trump’s response:
The protesters in New Mexico were thugs who were flying the Mexican flag. The rally inside was big and beautiful, but outside, criminals!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2016
This spectacle has been especially unnerving to conservatives. Yes, Trump’s far from conservative on policy, and his lack of curiosity, prudence, and discipline give him the least conservative disposition imaginable. But the insurrection he’s been fomenting is a threat to the larger conservative enterprise.
Conservatives aim to preserve. We see wisdom in the institutions and traditions passed down to us. We appreciate gradual adaptations. But Trump channels resentment, stokes fury, employs menacing tactics, and portends disorder. Alongside Bernie Sanders’ matter-of-fact advocacy of revolution, Trump is contributing to the most seditious campaign of our lifetime. If millions of Americans believe the current order is so deeply flawed, if the traditional means of redressing frustration have failed, if radicalism and rage are the answers, then what exactly is the role of conservatism in this moment?
There is an answer, but it requires a different understanding of this era. It obliges conservatives to rethink some of our responses to Trump’s campaign and to have empathy for his supporters. But it also underscores the importance of one of conservatism’s core, but recently neglected, principles: decentralization. Most importantly, it suggests a new role for the conservative in times of social unrest.
We must recognize that we’re in the throes of a political riot.
A Riot Is the Language of the Unheard
When Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he captured generations of experience: When people feel powerless, they can act out violently and in ways inscrutable to others. Researchers have found that helplessness can lead to aggression and extremism. A pioneering study on the Watts riots identified powerlessness as a contributing factor. The Kerner Commission appointed by President Johnson to study late-1960s unrest found the same.
But civil unrest isn’t limited to America or cities. The assassination of Julius Caesar set off riots. Citizens have rioted over food shortages across the globe and the centuries. Whether it’s the 1773 Boston Tea Partiers infuriated by their lack of self-government or 1992 Los Angeles rioters inflamed by Rodney King’s beating, we generally see, in the words of Columbia University professor Tory Higgins, “a long period prior to the riot of feeling that you’re not in control of your own life.”
This catalog isn’t meant to absolve criminality but to surface that when individuals act inexplicably belligerent, it behooves us to ask, “Are they feeling powerless?” A RAND survey found GOP primary voters were 86 percent more likely to support Trump if they believed “People like me don’t have any say.” As Associated Press reporter Nick Riccardi noted, the “biggest predictor of Trump support is feeling voiceless.”
Conservatives hostile to Trump should ask, “Is our response to his candidacy alleviating or exacerbating his supporters’ sense of powerlessness?”
We Know Society Is Disintegrating
To many, Trumpism is a rebellion against factors beyond their control. They can’t get into the boardrooms of multinational corporations or force the economy to create manufacturing jobs. They can’t stop illegal immigration or hobnobbing between politicians and lobbyists.
But there are even bigger forces beyond their influence. In 1999, Francis Fukuyama’s “The Great Disruption” discussed how economic and societal changes were increasing family dysfunction and undermining social institutions. Robert Putnam’s 2000 “Bowling Alone” explored our weakening civil society. Bill Bishop’s 2008 “The Big Sort” explained how Americans had become geographically, socially, and politically Balkanized. Charles Murray’s 2012 “Coming Apart” showed how all of this destabilized working-class whites.
Conservatives instinctively reply, “Show personal responsibility!” when social forces are blamed for individuals’ challenges. But the gumption of blue-collar workers can’t unwind the advantages the “creative class” enjoys in today’s economy. No amount of elbow grease will stop the national trend of “assortative mating,” marriage patterns that are consolidating wealth and power. A laid-off worker’s moxie can’t stop well-off families from cosseting themselves away in “Super-Zip” communities.
These forces have had a disproportionately adverse effect on Trump’s base of working-class males. In “The End of Men,” journalist Hanna Rosin lists some of the ripples. Parents now favor having girls over boys. Men suffered the vast majority of Great-Recession job losses. Women now occupy a majority of managerial and professional jobs and acquire most undergraduate and graduate degrees. Marriage rates are falling at least in part because a husband is seen by some as superfluous.
But what has continuously aggravated this sense of powerlessness is that the government has proven impotent or worse. The limits of state power have been on full display—the inability to prevent the financial crisis, police our borders, understand ISIS, or administer Obamacare. Just as 1970s leaders reigned over Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and a “crisis in confidence,” our era has suffered a “Decade of Mistakes by Experts.” But the unhumbled state’s appetite for power swells: growing budgets; expansive new proposals on climate change and preschool; and, perhaps most insidiously, a rapacious administrative apparatus.
University of Texas professor Ryan Streeter wrote of the scholarly concern over the ever-widening regulatory state: Murray’s “By the People,” Jay Sekulow’s “Undemocratic,” and Phillip Hamburger’s “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?” We should add Johns Hopkins’ Steven Teles’s research on the growing complexity of government action; University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio’s argument about the federal government sprawl into state, local, and nonprofit activity; and the Brookings Institution’s Philip Wallach’s “The Administrative State’s Legitimacy Crisis.”
Sapped of power by all of these factors, many of our fellow citizens self-organized in the aptly named Tea Party movement. But little seemed to change. The angry upshot is the political analog of the medical condition “John Henryism,” when disadvantaged individuals exert great energy to improve their condition but repeatedly fail and suffer ill health. Indeed, Princeton’s Anne Case recently wrote of the spike in “deaths of despair”—suicides, overdoses, alcoholism—among white working-class Americans.
The Personification of a Petition for Power
It is in this context that we might place two of the most infuriating elements of Trumpism: his unapologetic bellicosity and his preposterous policy proposals, like making Mexico pay for a wall and erasing trillions in debt by coercing China to accept better trade deals. Trump is purely the personification of a petition for power.
Many movement leaders have admirably opposed Trump’s proposals and admonished his campaign’s recklessness. But the Trumpism-as-riot lens reveals that in two ways we’ve come up short. First, there’s been hardheartedness aimed at his supporters. National Review’s Kevin Williamson infamously wrote, “They failed themselves… Nothing happened to them.” Their “welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” are the causes, not the effects, of suffering. His colleague David French agrees: the white working-class are “killing themselves and destroying their families.” No John Henryism here; “Millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying.” Conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted, “A lot of Trump voters have failed at life and blame others for their own poor decisions.”
In hindsight, we might’ve done more to show we were listening to, in the words of Michael Brendan Dougherty, the “distress signal” underlying Trump’s campaign. In this vein, it’s worth wondering if even House Speaker Paul Ryan’s well-intentioned speech asking for political civility was received as “please use your inside voices” by people screaming to be heard.
Conservatives’ other shortcoming was mishandling efforts to deny Trump the GOP nomination. Trump proved a damnable good fit for these truculent times and no one figured out how to appropriate the legitimate elements of his style or substance. Instead, our response enabled him to say, “The elites can’t beat me so they’re cheating.”
The zeitgeist was captured by his supporter who told the New York Times, “I like the way he just won’t take nothing off of nobody.” Nevertheless Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio offered the buoyant, forward-looking, and inapt “Right To Rise” and “A New American Century.” Despite a year of opportunity, 14 other candidates couldn’t do much better. The head of Bush’s spectacularly unsuccessful super PAC offered a sour-grapes riposte: “Trump is a stupid vote.”
GOP Doubles Down on What the Rioters Hate
Similarly, despite continuous prodding, the GOP field never devised a rival economic agenda. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry smartly argued, “Conservatives can and should try to accommodate Trump supporters while sticking with our basic philosophy of government.” Conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued for adopting the sensible parts of his “populist critique,” which requires economic “soul-searching.” Nevertheless, his competitors’ economic plans would’ve been standard fare in the 1988 primary.
The point is this: Trump’s supporters voted for more pugnacity and a different economic approach. Conservatives instead did the precise thing guaranteed to make powerless people apoplectic: We made it look like Washington- and New York-based insiders were scheming. There’s a massive problem when the Times reports that a conservative clique secretly gathered to plan Trump’s demise at “a private club in Washington” and a conservative talk-show host writes about “Manhattan-based editors” leading the anti-Trump campaign. It fits Heritage Action’s Michael Needham’s clever observation about working Americans: DC elites “don’t hear them from the quiet car on the Acela to a New York City fundraiser.”
Had conservatives taken more seriously the sense of powerlessness among Trump supporters, the counterinsurgency would’ve been led by individuals with impeccable non-establishment credentials, assiduously avoided association with the Acela corridor, and convened at the Nebraska home of Trump-antagonist GOP senator Ben Sasse.
Decentralization Could Be the Gift of Powerlessness
Although the Trumpism-as-powerlessness lens should give conservatives pause as we look back, it also gives us a gift as we look ahead. The straightforward solution is to give more people more power; the way to do it is decentralization.
Not only will this begin to address the fundamental grievances of Trump voters, it also offers an organizing principle for today’s conservatism more broadly. Even prior to Trump’s disruption, there were different visions for the Right’s future. Some “reform conservatives” argued for greater attention to middle-class concerns.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks advocated for an aspirational, free enterprise-focused conservatism to help the poor. Some Tea Party backers wanted explicit limits on government. Although all of these have merit, none perfectly fit the political moment. Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein argued convincingly that it is “wishful thinking” to believe such tacks could redirect Trumpist energy.
But as former Bush White House aide Yuval Levin recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “a decentralizing conservatism of bottom-up solutions” should be the “constructive next phase of the American right.” It would make use of America’s diversity and fragmentation by “empowering problem-solvers throughout American society.” In the new Almanac of American Philanthropy Karl Zinsmeister, a former domestic policy advisor to President Bush, wrote of our nation’s enduring “polyarchic culture” of distributed power that produces a “riotous patchwork” of independent yet interconnected individuals and organizations.
Both strike the same chords as Alexis de Tocqueville’s astonishment at America’s “innumerable multitude of little undertakings” and Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of society. Ronald Reagan’s similarly themed 1980 nomination speech seems to have predicted and countered Trumpism: “Trust-me government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man…(but) the trust is where it belongs—in the people.” Similarly, Speaker Ryan has smartly lauded the power-distributing concept of “subsidiarity.”
The Right Needs to Get Its Hands Dirty
Decentralization should even appeal to conservatives ambivalent about voters’ purported powerlessness—those who believe personal agency could make a positive difference. Indeed, Stanford University’s Raj Chetty recently found that the poor’s behaviors (smoking, overeating, lack of exercise) contributed more to their decreased life expectancy than their lack of access to health care did.
Likewise, finishing high school, delaying childrearing, and working full-time decrease one’s chances of living in poverty to nearly nothing. Given the countless geographic, cultural, and personal factors contributing to all of this, a wide variety of community-based efforts are certainly most promising.
Making this very point is the most sanguine and under-appreciated article of the year, The Atlantic’s “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together.” James Fallows searched for towns demonstrating “economic and cultural resilience.” Although national news is downcast, “the closer (observers) are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.” He found countless examples of “revival and reinvention” being advanced by local elected officials, business leaders, and neighborhood activists. Among these locations’ commonalities are their focus on practical problems, not national issues; their reliance on entrepreneurialism; and their belief in their community’s unique “civic story.” This is barn-raising, not a national five-year plan.
But let’s not lose the forest. If conservatives believe decentralization-as-empowerment is the proper reply to Trumpism that says something profound about social unrest more generally. That is, a riot—literal or figurative—shouldn’t be seen exclusively, or even primarily, as an invitation to reestablish order in the name of preservation. Instead, it’s evidence that our principles of liberty, popular sovereignty, and distributed authority may have been abridged.
But whether it’s Benjamin Franklin’s reaction to the Boston Tea Party, Burke’s to the French Revolution, or Barry Goldwater’s to the Harlem riots, the conservative’s reflex is to view uprisings suspiciously. But maybe our first response should be to seek out the powerless. Has an otherwise-just order been warped such that a group of people are now precluded from controlling their own fates? Or, worse, does the normal functioning of the current order naturally prevent a group of people from attaining the power necessary to lead satisfying lives?
If conservatives are smart, we’ll use Trump’s campaign to better understand the dispossessed citizens who have supported him. If we’re wise, we’ll use it to develop a new role for the conservative in a riot.