Politics & Policy

The Cult of Donald Trump

Trump speaks at a rally in Dallas. (Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty)

Poke even gently at a supporter of Donald Trump’s and he will scoff at you as if you were a moron. “You just don’t get it, do you,” he will sneer. “You don’t understand. We are just sending a message. The GOP Establishment has let us down. This is a revolt.”

As it happens, Trump’s critics do grasp the appeal. What they do not do, however, is act upon it in this manner. The temptation to deliver a bloody nose to one’s ideological enemies is a human and comprehensible one, by no means limited in its allure to the disgruntled part of the Republican primary electorate. But temptation and reasonable conduct are two separate things entirely, and they should always be treated as such. Can one understand the instinct that is on display? Sure. Can one look beneath the surface and do anything other than despair? I’m afraid not. Such as they are, the explanations provided by Trump’s discordant choir are entirely risible and easily dismantled. Great, you’re annoyed! But then what?

Were Donald Trump a staunch conservative but a little “rough around the edges,” his being used as a cudgel might make some sense. “We’re tired of your failure to deliver change,” his defenders might say, “and we’re tired of the impotent sheen that accrues to your preferred candidates. So we’re going to put in this guy and see if he does any better.” But Trump is not a staunch conservative — in fact, he’s not even close. Rather, he’s a self-interested narcissist and serial heretic whose entirely inchoate political platform bends cynically to the demands of the moment. While he has been running for president, he has praised single-payer health care, advocated campaign-speech restrictions, backed raising taxes, endorsed funding Planned Parenthood, and suggested that the entitlement crisis should be pretty much ignored — all positions that would have sunk any other hopeful. This matters. Why? Well, because his champions are contending that, because they are disappointed that Republicans often cave to progressivism while in office, they would be better off electing an outspoken progressive in the first instance — a preposterous position if I ever saw one. Leaving to one side that “caving sometimes” is better than “being an obvious fraud” (and it really, really is —  an America without the flawed Republican party over the last decade is an America with higher taxes, card check, a carbon tax, gun control, no Justice Alito, a public option, universal pre-K, “free community college,” etc.), one has to ask this: If a large part of the Republican base really wants to “stick it” to the man, shouldn’t they choose an emissary with whom they agree?

#share#A similar argument is forwarded when it comes to immigration, the ascendant Trumpite theory being that the mass influx from Mexico will inevitably turn America over to the left, and that stopping it is therefore an existential necessity. Again, though, whatever one thinks of this claim per se, backing Donald Trump in an attempt to forestall such a scenario is downright silly. Even if one presumes that Trump is earnest on the question of the border — and I sincerely doubt it — it should be rather obvious that one does not seriously attempt to check the rise of progressivism in America by electing a man who is friendly toward it. A key gripe of the Republican base is that the government grows and grows and grows, and never retrenches an inch regardless of who is elected or why. This is a fair observation — one, in fact, that I have made myself. But do you know what’s worse than the possibility that demographic change will shift the American psyche over time? I’ll tell you: Hillary Clinton in office in 2017; Joe Biden in office in 2017; Donald Trump in office in 2017. If you have a wall with holes in it you hire a builder, not a demolition company. There will be no point at all in slowing the number of people crossing the border if, in Washington, D.C., the powers-that-be are free to dismantle the republic piece by piece.

#related#Other hastily assembled excuses include “he’s not a politician” — actually, he is now, and he should be treated as one; “he fights!” — yes dear, but for what exactly?; “he says what he thinks!” — yes, but you hate what he thinks; “Jeb!” —  isnot the question at hand; and “he must be successful and accomplished and trustworthy because he’s rich,” which for some inexplicable reason did not get Mitt Romney off the hook three years ago. At times, it really can feel as if the whole thing is a cult and his apologists are members of a select group that simultaneously believes that it is in possession of the sole truth and suspects that that truth is too silly to explain at length. In this sense, talking to a Trump fan can be a little like talking to a Scientologist: to prod and to probe is to watch the eyes flicker and the lights switch on, and then to witness a reflexive doubling-down on the faith. How quickly does “Trump 2016!!” go to “I just like that he’s different.” How fast is the transition between “Go! Go! Go!” and “at least he says what he thinks.” Somewhere, deep down, the paucity of the argument is well understood. If one could only break through the machismo and make them understand . . .

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