An exchange on the BBC after the Nevada caucuses had given Donald Trump 46 percent of the vote said it all. A perfectly pleasant BBC interviewer asked a political consultant (as best I recall): “But how are the Republicans going to deal with Donald Trump?”
“Well, at present they’re voting for him,” he said.
Now, that might not continue. It’s always an error to suppose that the future will be nothing more than a continuation of the present. Extrapolating current trends gets both economists and political pundits into big trouble. Besides, Trump is a phenomenon, like a comet, and sometimes they just cross the sky and disappear in a welcome blaze, like, for instance, a tax-returns scandal. Even without that, he has high negatives in national polls, which means there’s a real risk of his being denied the nomination or imploding after getting it.
On the other hand, it’s equally mistaken to assume that everyone not voting for Trump is consciously voting against him, in a way that isn’t true in the case of other candidates. In reality, it’s very unlikely that if either Rubio or Cruz dropped out, his votes would transfer en masse to the remaining one. That’s a general truth of politics, but it also seems to be confirmed by the evidence of current polls that Trump is making inroads into all sorts of voter categories where no Republican has gone lately. Trump’s boast of this progress doesn’t automatically refute it.
To reduce any tension (and also to enable us to concentrate on questions more important even than the horse race), let me declare my hand. Though I’m not enthusiastic about any of the candidates — after Reagan and Thatcher, anyone else is a letdown — my sympathies are with Ted Cruz, for the pedestrian reason that I agree with him more on most issues than with the other candidates. If he were to be eliminated, I would almost certainly prefer Trump to Rubio (for reasons that will emerge later). And though it’s just possible that I would endorse a worthy third-party conservative if nominee Trump were shown to be even more of an unguided missile than hitherto, I cannot see myself casting a vote for Hillary Clinton — not least because, as a British citizen with a green card, I don’t have a vote to cast.
It’s obvious that this election cycle is about Trump rather than about the other candidates.
So I don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over this and can attempt a certain detachment. But it’s obvious that this election cycle is about Trump rather than about the other candidates. He has come from nowhere and surged ahead of the pack. My suspicion is that he didn’t originally expect to be a contender for long and was surprised when he established a strong lead. But he overcame his surprise and began to do things candidates do – put out position papers, etc. – while sticking to his unique style of campaigning, namely riffing entertainingly on the day’s news, jabbing opponents with sharp verbal sticks, and treating his audiences like neighborhood friends.
In addition to staying ahead and winning actual votes with these tactics, he has also fostered a big rise in Republican-primary turnouts (accompanied by falls in Democratic numbers), created a supportive new political constituency based initially on the white blue-collar working American, and dramatized the gap between these “ordinary Americans” and a new upper class of highly educated meritocrats. Like many others, Charles Murray above all, I’ve been deploring this gap in understanding and sympathy between these two large groups and predicting that it would shortly produce a massive convulsion in American politics. It’s always a surprise when a prediction is fulfilled, but Trump is that convulsion.
Convulsions are by nature disruptive. They violate expectations, overturn the conventional wisdom, break up existing coalitions, and in general disturb and inconvenience people who have learned how to manage the system (and how to write about it). It takes time to grasp the new post-convulsion political landscape. Let me therefore ask and answer a number of obvious questions about the Donald convulsion.
Q: Isn’t he awfully crude and vulgar?
A: At times, yes. But we have been living in a crude and vulgar culture for about 30 years or more, maybe since the Sixties. Culture shapes politics more than the other way around. Consider how politicians have been lining up to appear on comedy shows and sitcoms ever since a frozen and embarrassed Nixon appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The politicians have become more embarrassed as the culture has grown more vulgar (and more willing to embarrass them). Given the leftward tilt of show business, Republicans and conservatives (me included) have inevitably come off worse in this contest. Trump is a successful graduate of show biz, however, and completely confident in his ability to survive and win in this environment. He has shown he can do so against Republicans, and Hillary is even more of a waxworks model than most of us are.
RELATED: The Destroyer Cometh
Q: But doesn’t he have only a passing acquaintance with the truth?
A: And sometimes not even that. Trump tells falsehoods loosely and spontaneously in a sort of stream-of-consciousness lying to boost his prospects, win over doubters, crush opponents, and save his face. Details can be found all over the Internet. Most of them strike me as trivial. But none of the three leading Republicans have been exactly models of truth-telling in this campaign. So the relevant question then becomes “Compared with whom?” Let’s compare Trump’s boastful and evasive untruths with the very different lies of Marco Rubio on various immigration bills he has tried to sell to conservatives (as detailed by John Fonte on NRO on Wednesday.) These amounted to a long campaign of deliberate mendacity intended to deceive allies on a matter of the greatest public interest so that they would unknowingly support what they really oppose. It’s a matter of taste whether or not frequent spontaneous untruths are preferable to a single important calculated deception. Neither should be regarded lightly, and they would usually be punished in the court of public opinion. But in a crowded field of Democratic deceivers, Hillary is the last person who could make lying the basis of a plausible attack.
RELATED: Trump, Lies, and Bankruptcy
Q: So why does Trump get support from such large numbers of voters?
A: Because he expresses their point of view, speaks in an everyday language they understand, sympathizes with their feelings of neglect and loss of worth, and does all these things with a weird kind of boastful, entertaining self-confidence. Different analysts stress different aspects of their plight. Charles Murray argues that the liberalism of both parties has undermined the moral basis of their family life, social cooperation, and productive work habits, in Murray’s idea of the working-class enclave of “Fishtown.” Walter Russell Mead sees them as Jacksonian patriots who regret that their country and their patriotism have both been devalued. And Clive Crook describes how they sense the condescension and snobbery that a new, credentialed, and self-conscious upper class feels toward the rednecks of flyover America. These different analyses — all much richer than sketched out here — reinforce one another. Trump’s response to all of them is “Make America Great Again.” It’s a disarmingly simple slogan. Because his audiences identify their own decline with America’s, it addresses all their complaints in one.
At first it seemed that Trump was addressing a relatively limited and cohesive group — a declining white working class. But as his rhetoric resounded and as voters responded to him in polls, it became clear that his appeal was to a much wider swath of American life. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru wrote after New Hampshire: “He also swept nearly every demographic category. He won young and old, men and women, independents and Republicans, first-time voters and returning ones, moderates and people who call themselves ‘very conservative.’ He carried every education group, albeit with a narrow margin among those with advanced college degrees.”
Trump is reshaping U.S. politics. He is now a hero to the working-class core of his supporters and admired more provisionally by the rest.
The same effect was even stronger in the South Carolina results. There is clearly a larger pool of voters discontented with the mainstream parties and with the menu of policies and attitudes they offer than we realized before the election season woke us up. Explaining the motives of this highly variegated group can only be guesswork at this point — we’ll learn more as the voting proceeds – but it does suggest that the economic insecurities of Charles Murray’s Fishtown and the resentments of flyover America are widely shared beyond the white-working-class core of Trump’s vote. Globalization has struck the bourgeoisie. Increasing legal immigration levels and extra H1-B visas for occupations for skilled occupations mean that computer programmers are quite as likely as low-paid restaurant workers to see immigration as a threat to their jobs and pay levels. And they are more likely to be vocal about it.
My further guess is that Trump released these energies almost by instinct. He heard certain punchlines going down better than he had expected, realized that he had hit a chord or two, played them up, improvised a larger pitch around them, and found himself surfing a vast wave of patriotic discontent to national popularity. He didn’t need consultants to tell him how to react. Whatever the truth of that, Trump is reshaping U.S. politics. He is now a hero to the working-class core of his supporters and admired more provisionally by the rest. He has drawn a large, new, and diverse constituency into the Republican party. And he can’t easily be separated from them.
Q: Doesn’t that put the GOP in a bind?
A: It certainly does. Ideally, Republicans would like to keep Trump’s constituency without Trump. He is a high-risk candidate both because of his wayward personality and his high negative poll ratings. His chances of winning the White House are currently in the low 40s. As nominee he might well suffer a major defeat. Bad though that would be, the Trump followers would not then be alienated from the GOP. As with Goldwater people after 1964, they might inject both numbers and new energy into the party. There is even a possibility that Trump, who surprises everyone regularly, might win. On the other hand, an establishment “set-up,” either at the convention or by a forced marriage of Rubio and Cruz in later primaries, would drive the Trump people out of the party, maybe into a third party, more likely back into political apathy.
Ideally, Republicans would like to keep Trump’s constituency without Trump.
The set-up most likely to produce that self-destructive result would be one that put Rubio at the top of the ticket. Rubio is the poster boy for the liberal immigration policies that Trump launched his campaign by opposing. He incarnates the theory that the U.S. economy can be be endlessly stimulated by importing cheap labor to hold down costs. So, as Mickey Kaus has pointed out, his nomination would be a sign to the voters, including the Trump people, that the GOP’s brief flirtation with the idea of raising low incomes by tightening the labor market by reducing immigration had been defeated inside the party. Senator Jeff Sessions would be down, the donor class back, and the GOP’s new converts out — or at least heavily discouraged.
That might be a nightmare too far. Establishments no longer have the power to choose presidential nominees in backrooms (if they ever did). It is the voters who will choose the nominee, and as matters now stand, they will probably ensure that Trump exercises enough influence on Republican policy to make a difference, whoever heads the ticket.
Q: Since Trump is not a conservative, won’t that mean that the GOP ceases to be a conservative party?
A: Well, it’s complicated. Trump is certainly not a conservative and never has been. That has been confirmed in the primaries by his support for eminent domain and nationalized health care. On the other hand, many members of Republican administrations since 1981 have not been conservatives in the “movement” sense of the term either. In two-party systems, the main parties are large ideological coalitions. Trump or any other leader would have to remember the convictions of his conservative majority when making policy.
Most Republicans, of course, are conservative in other senses; for instance, they have a preference for a quiet life without too much upheaval, or more politically they often want to conserve existing institutions such as Social Security even when they opposed their original establishment. They have changed their minds because they now think of these new institutions as part of the existing political landscape (see Samuel Huntington’s 1956 article for a highly sophisticated version of this theory), and they accept that voters don’t want to lose benefits to which they have become accustomed. Sure, they could remain steadfast and lose elections, but somehow they don’t. Conservatives in practice accept that their realism about human nature shouldn’t (or can’t) stop at the door of the voting booth.
What there is of Trump’s conservatism seems to be of that kind. And that seems also to be true of “ordinary” conservatives outside Washington, as several writers such as Rod Dreher have pointed out. They tend not to have highly consistent ideologies but to tolerate contradictions within a broadly conservative outlook. One very likely effect of a GOP conservatism influenced by Trumpery, therefore, is that it will remain conservative but in a less consistently ideological way. It is likely to be more spasmodically interventionist in economic policy, more concerned with directly protecting the interests of Americans (and especially the voting groups who have surged up to back Trump), more anxious about how to solve the problems identified by Charles Murray in Fishtown without spending too much more on them, more protective of entitlements, and more loudly patriotic in general. As a fully paid-up Thatcherite, I will find a lot of this irksome and mistaken. It will remind me of the pre-Thatcher Tory party and its bumbling resistance to economic rationality. And I’m beginning to feel grouchily that I want to hear a little less about American exceptionalism until the U.S. manages not to lose a war.
All that said, just how bad will a Trumped conservatism be?
Let’s take the idea of small government. When we discuss this, the movement conservative tends to think in terms of lower taxes, lower spending, less regulation, more competition, and so on. In fact we haven’t managed to achieve most of these things, but our commitment has probably restrained the increase in government somewhat. A Trump conservatism would probably weaken that resistance, resulting in long-term losses in efficiency. But when most Americans think of big government, they think of overbearing, intrusive, and even hostile government with all its regulations, agencies, and self-righteous liberalism on everything from gun ownership to sex in college. A Trump conservatism would probably try to reverse much of this to reflect the social common sense of his core supporters and his own public image. That would probably run up against too strong a resistance from the bureaucracy to achieve very much; but it would make him popular, annoy the Left, cost relatively little, and curb what most flyover conservatives think of as big government.
Would there be any “landmark” policies with the name Trump on them? Well, that question answers itself.
Would there be any “landmark” policies with the name Trump on them? Well, that question answers itself. I can envisage a vastly enhanced program of space exploration to showcase America’s technical exceptionalism. That would be expensive, but it would be the kind of government spending that most Americans, except serious leftists, instinctively like and it might achieve some technical and psychological spin-offs. Of course, for Trump’s self-respect there would have to be a substantial initiative to rescue the inhabitants of Fishtown that was neither too expensive nor simply a diluted liberal program. Since conservatives have done almost all the serious thinking on how to restore self-reliance in communities broken by welfare, crime, immigrant competition, and recession, a Trump administration would find itself calling on scholars like Murray for instruction. So that is one area of policy that would experience a move to the right. And given that Trump’s rise to power has been riding on the back of the immigration issue, he could hardly avoid bringing in quite significant changes in immigration policy to reduce the numbers of immigrants, both illegal and legal, and to switch from family reunification to a skills-based policy.
This is very much a piebald policy mix, but, as Mark Steyn has asked, is it any worse than promulgating a manifesto that could have been written by Adam Smith, but then scrapping it in negotiations with Obama and voting through his budget?To give a further paradoxical twist to the argument, the above immigration policy would tighten the labor market and, if sustained long enough, might even foster the prosperous middle class needed for such policies as the privatization of Social Security. For one of the internal contradictions of Kemp-style ideological conservatism was the attempt to combine mass immigration with the scaling back of entitlement programs: Keeping wages down through immigrant competition is incompatible with moving away from state welfare entitlements to market provision: Not many people would be able to save enough. More widely, mass immigration builds up a large new constituency for state welfare programs of every kind. As a New York Democrat once remarked, the Republicans have a choice: They can either change their policy on immigration or their policies on everything else. Trump stumbled on that insight earlier this year; it may have transformed American politics forever. Or not.
The preceding speculations are castles in fairyland and will vanish when you turn the page. Their purpose is merely to suggest that a Trump GOP would be different from the existing one but not to the dangerous degree that some alarmed colleagues believe. Of course, it would be better if Ted Cruz were to outflank Trump on immigration and other issues of practical patriotism, win on that basis, offer Trump and Rubio powerful positions in the campaign (and, in due course, the administration), and keep the new latest batch of New Republicans inside a much bigger GOP tent.
How? Well, in the immortal words of John Cleese, that’s a purely technical question that I can’t possibly be expected to answer.
– John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.