It takes some time, but eventually even political pundits can understand the way the public mood has shifted. That’s why there was no flurry of predictions of doom for Donald Trump when he joked that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Anyone expecting anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth to hurt his standing in the polls must have been asleep for the past six months. Even the dullest-witted analysts have realized that the conceit of Trump’s popularity is rooted in his willingness to make remarks that are outrageous and silly as well as others that are vicious, deceitful, and cruel. A lot of voters, maybe even a clear plurality of Republicans, think there’s something marvelous about a candidate with no filter. But though his talk of “shooting somebody” was, by Trump’s standards of vile comments, quite innocuous and clearly intended as a joke, it actually tells us something important about the critique of the GOP frontrunner.
Last week’s special edition of National Review about Trump was devoted to the proposition that the candidate is not a conservative. The contributors are clearly right about that. On issue after issue, Trump’s record is not merely inconsistent or those of an election year convert to conservatism but brazenly untethered to any set of principles. Trump has gone far to the right on illegal immigration and has touched a nerve with those who view it as a symbol of everything that is wrong about the Obama administration.
Yet what appeals to Trump’s supporters is not so much the substance of his views as the attitude. His anger and contempt for political convention are viewed as the only possible answer to Washington dysfunction. Moreover, as he has not been shy about pointing out, his backers seem to have faith in him as a leader. They believe the Donald can figure out all problems by hiring smart people or making a good deal. Mostly, they just seem to think his lack of a connection to anything that can be labeled a part of the political establishment is a good idea.
In other words, what we are talking about is not a conventional political candidacy but a cult of personality that has been shrewdly promoted by a man who, whatever his other failings, is a master manipulator of the press and a genius at marketing. Other politicians who have better qualifications to be commander-in-chief thought the key to winning the presidential nomination would be a function of proving their conservative bona fides or putting forward a positive vision of how conservative principles can be put into effect. Trump understood that what a lot of people wanted was to be freed of the burden of political correctness and to give a metaphorical finger to the media and the political class.
That was a brilliant piece of analysis on his part, and he has put it into effect not only by attacking political correctness but also by launching nasty attacks on his rivals. Sliming other Republicans has thus become as integral to the entertainment provided by the Trump campaign as his over-the-top comments about immigrants or willingness to create religious tests for entry to the United States.
But, contrary to what many of Trump’s critics initially thought, the problem here isn’t only that what he said was wrong, it’s that his rapid-fire volleys of insults are a substitute for the conservative and constitutional principles that NR discussed. Cults of personality are, after all, not about ideas — let alone the ideas that founded and guided this republic for nearly two and a half centuries. It is about loyalty to an individual. That is why so many of those rallying to Trump’s banner don’t care about his lack of consistency or his support for or even interest in conservative ideas. The point is, in a republic guided by constitutional principles, no thinking citizen would think of supporting a candidate regardless of his positions. Even Ronald Reagan, the most popular figure in the history of the modern conservative movement, was driven by ideas, not blind faith in his judgment.
Moreover, we ought to be troubled by the pushback by some of those backing Trump against his critics. Much of the reaction to the NR symposium seems to come out of a sense that is somehow wrong or outrageous for anyone to question Trump or to be so small-minded as to demand that he demonstrate some fluency in conservative ideas or loyalty to its principles. This is, again, the stuff of a personality cult, not a conservative movement. As NR’s Kevin Williamson aptly wrote, Trump appears to be the perfect candidate for an era of “post-literate politics.”
The counter-attack against Trump’s critics is also an indication of how this same spirit illustrates the worst aspects of social media. Of course, all of the contributors to the NR symposium have been assaulted with the worst sorts of insults and threats from the Trumpkins. To even point out the bizarre willingness of those who control the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account to retweet something from a known racist and anti-Semite — as I did last week — is to provoke a predictable avalanche of racist and anti-Semitic comments from those claiming to be Trump supporters.
Trump has good reason to celebrate the loyalty of his followers. But the political health of the country is called into question when a frontrunner for the presidency doesn’t have a healthy fear of the good opinion of the electorate. The essence of democracy is accountability and a politician who thinks he can do or say anything is not someone who can be trusted with the reins of power, let alone nuclear weapons. Trump’s boast about being able to “shoot somebody” may seem like a good rejoinder to the intellectuals who are carping about him not being a conservative and a demonstration of how impotent their complaints may be. But it is also evidence that they are right.