For nearly eight months, Donald Trump has been the dominant force in American politics. His colossal stature dwarfed his Republican presidential competitors, who are themselves figures of some prominence. The national political culture has been caught in the celebrity candidate’s orbit since last summer. Every American political actor on both sides of the partisan divide has been compelled to define themselves vis-à-vis Trump. This dynamic is what made the real estate mogul’s absence in Thursday night’s presidential debate so dramatic.
Trump became a phantom – present but simultaneously diminished. It was a window into the prospective campaign that Republicans salivated over in early 2015; a field of articulate, charismatic, accomplished candidates, most of whom would be fit to lead their party and the country. Those two Trump-less hours were fleeting. The figure at the top of polls of a splintered GOP electorate is once again the dominant force in American politics. But last night served as the control experiment to determine not just how the GOP field performs in Trump’s absence, but what Trumpism and the strain of populism to which he appeals represents.
When will the GOP finally confront the issues raised by Trump? It’s a question many have been asking, but Washington Free Beacon’s Matt Continetti posed it better than most. In reviewing the Republican candidates’ performance last night, he observed that this debate deserves an asterisk. Its impact cannot be fairly judged, not without the party’s unquestioned frontrunner on the stage. In fact, Trump’s absence, and the manner in which he seemed quickly forgotten by moderator and candidate alike is a metaphor of sorts for the perilous state in which the Republican Party finds itself.
What I find interesting is that none of the candidates on the debate stage have figured out how to respond to the issues driving Trump’s ascent. Trump focuses on four things: immigration, trade, political correctness, and a corrupt and inept system. These subjects cross partisan lines and are responsible for the unusual nature of the Trump coalition. But because Trump’s views on immigration and trade and political correctness and campaign finance are so askance from the Republican mainstream, the other candidates barely touch him.
Continetti is right. At some point in the very near future, the GOP will need to confront the forces that led to Trump’s dominance over what is, nevertheless, still a severely fractured electorate. Should the party undertake that project in earnest, one terrible conclusion we might reach is that conservatism isn’t all that popular. In the abstract, the self-starter beholden to none is the ideal to which all aspire. The notion that everyone makes for him or herself their own lot in life by virtue of their individual capacity for industry remains America’s dominant philosophy. It is one of the reasons why the United States is and remains an exceptional nation. The programmatic philosophy of the GOP has, however, fallen out of favor – even among conservatives.
There was no champion for ethanol mandates and taxpayer provided subsidies last night. There was no candidate promising the preservation of the current unsustainable entitlement state. Candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee who have in the past embraced that viewpoint were drawn into Trump’s orbit at his competing telethon-style event. The notion that health insurance should be a government-provided utility was anathema to the GOP candidates on that stage, but that isn’t so for Trump or his supporters.
There is, however, another reason why Republican partisans and coastal elites resist confronting Trumpism and the values espoused by Trump supporters, and it has very little to do with conservatism. In order to understand the appeal of Trump, it’s valuable to actually listen to what his supporters are saying. In service to this worthy project, New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman’s stunning series of interviews with Republican-leaning voters in Iowa is revealing. President Barack Obama’s supporters hate – I mean, positively despise – the notion that the last seven years of anemic economic growth, disasters on the world stage, and the pervasive sense of American decline has anything to do with the rise of Trump. But to read these interviews with Trump supporters is to be privy to a damning indictment of Barack Obama’s presidency. They are also a tragic distillation of the resentment many Americans feel toward insurmountable global forces beyond their control.
“Our system is so backwards. Nothing has been working for the past eight years. Something big has got to change, so people are safe and financially okay,” said the 24-year-old mother, Allison Doyle. “If it’s banning Muslims … I don’t know. I think Trump would make an awesome president.”
Merchon Andersen, a 50-year-old contractor who voted for Barack Obama, who has been on and off unemployment for most of the last decade, and who struggles to afford her ObamaCare payments, exemplified not only the nation’s economic but cultural anxiety. “There’s something wrong,” she noted, after chafing at the privileges afforded her Muslim co-workers. “It’s harder to be a Christian now in America. We’re now the minority, and I’m hoping Donald can bring us back to being the majority again.”
“I used to be a Democrat,” confessed business owner Jamie DeLancey. “Everybody is scared when they’re going down and not going up. I’m sick of being scared.”
It would reinforce the biases of the nation’s comfortable classes to dismiss these people as, individually, culturally insensitive, hopelessly embittered, economic refugees. There may be something to that, but it is an also overly simplistic view. Surely, the oppressively kitschy Trump rallies, complete with tween cheerleaders who sing devotionals about the candidate, indicates to the dispassionate observer that this is a revisionist movement. A return to robust GDP growth and a spike in the labor force participation rate is not going to ease this anxiety. This is a movement that would force America to revert to a form familiar to those who lived through the late 1980s. It demands the calendar cease its interminable progress, and insists upon the return of a world that is never coming back.
In Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende’s indispensable multi-part analysis of the social dynamics that led to Trumpism, his final installment is particularly insightful. Cosmopolitan America, he observed, has little or no use for traditionalism. Those who subscribe to the value systems and behavioral norms embraced by much of the country are, it seems, often looked down upon by those Americans who gravitate toward positions of political and cultural influence. “Democrats are openly suspicious, if not hostile, to these voters, while Republicans at best hold their noses on cultural issues if it advantages them (but they will go to the mattresses for unpopular tax cuts for wealthy Americans),” he noted. “…Trump is a creation of the Republican establishment, which is frankly uncomfortable with many of its own voters, and which mostly seeks to ‘manage’ them.”
The internal contradiction within the GOP coalition might be irreconcilable. It is one thing to pursue and enforce border security and responsible immigration reform, but it is quite another to be openly hostile toward and suspicious of minorities. Many a Trump supporter not so concerned with respectability among the Beltway class will tell you how they really feel about that matter. It is incumbent on Republican political and thought leaders to listen. Republicans can shout their support for a conservative program of governmental reforms and supply-side prescriptions for economic growth until they are hoarse. That platform ceases to be compelling to a substantial subset of the GOP voting coalition when it is forced to compete against reparative justice and taxpayer subsidized support structures – but only for the right recipients, of course. It must be noted that this remains the view of a minority of the minority, but that still amounts to many millions of Americans. Political commentators are probably correct to note that the GOP will not confront Trumpism because they won’t like what they see. Those commentators might be wrong to think a responsible political party could ever realize the changes Trump backers are demanding. That is, unless responsibility itself is the problem.