While there is much that could be said about Donald Trump and his noisy and surprisingly durable campaign for the Republican nomination, one might start by praising him for his odd and clumsy political ingenuity. Although it is painful to admit, Trump is ahead by doing what more sensible candidates have thus far failed to do–namely, to tap into what Charles C.W. Cooke has called “the collective insanity … [marking] the conservative movement over the last month or so,” the naivete of conservative populists who prefer Trump’s egomaniacal bluster to Cruz’s principles or to Rubio’s reforms.
In other words? Trump has galvanized the GOP’s “entertainment class,” and for that reason more than any other is he popular among otherwise sane analysts.
But Trump’s popularity should not detract from the overall embarrassment that his campaign has proven to be. The candidate himself is as insolent as an Occupy Wall Street protester, and as childish as the fifth-grade bully whose complaints amount to nothing more than the age-old indictment of “she’s mean!” Trump’s bid ought to be immediately self-destructive: in the course of several months, the guy has managed to attack Megyn Kelly for being a female journalist, to callously dismiss John McCain’s military heroism, and to generate absurd conspiracy theories about the Mexican government.
However, even more astoundingly, Trump has done all these things largely without political consequence–because his last name is Trump, and because some people get a kick out of his absurd brand of performance art. So why is he succeeding?
Astoundingly, some followers have managed to begin admiring Trump’s hideous public persona. They tend to sing an especially puerile praise of their buffoon that he is good on immigration, and that his rhetorical bluntness is enticing in its rejection of today’s politically correct culture. While this is absolute poppycock, it more importantly reveals that some on the Right suffer from profound hypocrisy. When certain Democratic politicians like Joe Biden or Howard Dean or Hillary Clinton make horrendous gaffes, conservatives never commend them for their terseness or their candor. They don’t necessarily site personal offense, either, but they are the first to call out those politicians for language that is stupid and dangerous.
Conservatives generally understand that there isn’t anything inherently admirable about dumb arguments covered up in incoherent rhetoric, but many have forgotten this when it comes to Trump. Donald Trump’s own policy ignorance–such as his idiotic ranting about forcing Mexico to pay for some wall while America deports millions of American-born Mexicans, the cost of which would be astronomical–seems to be given a pass.
Some on the right have praised Trump’s claim that he will get the job done because he deals with people all the time, but this claim is at best a blisteringly dull assertion. Trump may deal with politicians frequently, but he seems to have a particular penchant for cozying up to Democrats the likes of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. Surely that is no reason for conservatives to elect him to the presidency.
Even more mind-numbing with regard to the Trump phenomenon is that the billionaire businessman is, by and large, running for the wrong party’s nomination. His economic policies have few differences from those offered by many progressives, and his party history is that of a squishy, left-leaning opportunist whose principles lay in the bank. This opportunism is reflected in his lack of principled economic stances. In Trump’s own words, conservatism entails “a strong country with very little debt,” but when it actually comes to issues of fiscal restraint, Trump wants to preserve Social Security “without cuts,” to invest in lavish amounts of public infrastructure, and to maintain the Left’s welfare state by instituting a progressive tax system.
On trade, Trump is indistinguishable from his clownish socialist counterpart, Bernie Sanders. Sanders, like Trump, rants and raves against China and Mexico and wishes to impose economic protectionism in order to help “the workers.”
Trump’s dubious history of supporting pro-choice initiatives and single-payer healthcare are equally troubling, especially considering that he speaks about the federal government as if it would, under his imperial presidency, be his own personal marketing machine–a toy through which he might assert himself in virile fashion over Congress and the American people with executive fiat and privilege.
Despite all of these serious concerns, the tendency to support Trump never cared about substance in the first place. Support for Trump thrives on petulance: his supporters call the silliest and most unreliable voice on stage “refreshingly blunt,” and heap praise on emotional appeals which are little more than theater. The name “Trump!” asserts itself as some disturbingly cultist symbol, one that speaks to the most crude and the most pliable among us.
Nevertheless, Trump is (for the moment) still winning, and the GOP must work to stem its tide. But until realism and decency reassert themselves, we will continue to witness the descent of the 2016 election into the realm of reality TV. We will be forced to watch the Donald’s ridiculous provocations obscure true conservatism and prevent more eloquent ambassadors of our ideas from advancing them.
Donald Trump is, in short, the ultimate self-indulgent showman, and to act as an arrogant impediment is his primary prerogative. The conservative base, however, has given him the proverbial floor– and that is their mistake.