Politics & Policy

Republicans Resonate with Fed-Up Americans

Trump speaks at a rally in Dallas, September 14, 2015. (Tom Pennington/Getty)
After two decades of disaster, the GOP has some highly plausible candidates.

Republicans find themselves at the confluence of two powerful political streams, a fortuitous occurrence complicated by the fact that the streams are colliding, as if rolling inexorably toward each other from two mighty sources diametrically opposite.

The Republicans have a lock on that vast mass of sensible Americans disgusted with the incompetence, trumpery, cowardice, corruption, and chicanery of the last 20 years: the Clinton scandals; the George W. Bush malapropisms and fixation on democracy even where (Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt) the democratic preference was the suppression of democracy; the huge current-account deficits (about $10 trillion in that time); trillions of dollars and scores of thousands of casualties and almost the whole conventional military capability of the United States mired in Middle Eastern wars for no gain except the removal of Iraq from Kuwait; the housing bubble; the worst economic crisis in three whole generations; official evasion on every major issue from abortion to immigration to chronic wealth inequality; sleazy, rapacious politicians; crumbling public education; insane and rabidly partisan health-care reform; and a justice system that fattens the lawyers, terrorizes the nation, and fails to prosecute big-business crooks. The media are filled with tired mythmakers, screaming extremists, and pretty-faced disseminators of feel-good pap. Racial prejudice has almost evaporated in the electorate, but the cry of the racial victim has grown louder, and crime rates are increasing as courts and politicians are finally looking into the coast-to-coast shooting gallery many local police forces have been operating, especially in the rubble heaps of America’s decayed urban core.

These have been bitter and horrid decades, politically, for Americans, who like to believe what they are singing when they incant the splendid anthems about “the land of the free” and “sweet land of liberty.” For many months Senator Marco Rubio could not utter two paragraphs in a public place without declaiming that the United States is “the greatest country in human history.” Of course, in some ways it is, but in many ways, Donald Trump is also correct that “We can’t do anything right. . . . We’re being swindled by everybody. . . . We’re a laughingstock. . . . Our foreign policy is a disaster run by dummies.” The greatest nation in history has become, to borrow a phrase from the great Peggy Noonan, in another context, also a “bumsquat Egypt” type of country, and Americans are right to be mad as hell about it. Rubio cannot really dispute the accuracy of most of what Trump says, and the old chestnut that “America’s greatest days are ahead of it” is little heard in this campaign and would not resonate well even with what is left of Norman Rockwell–style Americans, wherever, in the bowels of the country, they may now reside.

Donald Trump has the charm of an Archie Bunker, straight-talk style and wit, with the credibility of an educated and successful businessman and promoter and showman.

The Economist, in its uncomprehending British sobriety, knowledgeable but laboriously serious, objects to Trump’s sexual references — not just his (outrageous) imputation of menstrual discomfort to the irresistible Megyn Kelly, but also his references to Democrats as “impotent” — as well as such an unceremonious debunking of the foreign-policy establishment as the description of them as “dummies.” But the Obama administration is impotent, and Secretary of State John Kerry is a “dummy”; that is exactly what he is — that is le mot juste. Donald Trump has the charm of an Archie Bunker, straight-talk style and wit, with the credibility of an educated and successful businessman and promoter and showman.

I must, and am pleased to, disclose that he is a friend, a loyal friend in past difficulties, and I know him to be a generous man, a marvelous raconteur, and a very positive person whose use of superlatives is part of a generally positive nature. While he is not a public-policy expert, his views on policy questions that he is informed about are sensible, and generally quite fluently formulated. The Trump phenomenon has demonstrated the perfectly understandable impatience of the American public with a succession of partially or almost wholly failed presidencies, and the concurrent failures of the old Democratic congressional leadership and the Gingrich, Pelosi–Reid, and Boehner successors to it. The steady degeneration of the criminal-justice system into a sadistic parlor game of despotic prosecutors will eventually cause Americans to wonder where its coequal judicial branch has been as the Bill of Rights has been run through the shredder. The American people have turned the rascals out and not replaced them with better rascals again and again.

But Donald Trump’s insouciance in non-stop media sessions is going to produce some negative results, starting with his reflections on the appearance of the (perfectly presentable) Carly Fiorina — which he did not intend to be physical disparagement, but he should have chosen his words more carefully. His absurd complaint that Jeb Bush answered in Spanish a question put to him in Spanish was completely uncalled for; even the Archie Bunkers are not know-nothings. They dislike ostensible Americans who don’t speak English, not English-speaking Americans who also speak other languages (as have many presidents and presidential candidates, including both Adamses, both Roosevelts, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mario Cuomo). And the other candidates for the Republican nomination who have never held public office, but who have a less belligerent and more precise technique in interviews and debates, Ms. Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson, are likely to start cutting seriously into Donald’s share of the anti-complicit, non-politician vote.

The other torrent pouring into the maelstrom of the Republican nominating process is the strong group of Republican office-holders, most of them relatively new, with substantial records of accomplishment against precisely the problems that most irritate and discourage the voters: a stagnant economy, administrative incompetence, irresponsible public-sector unions. Governors or former governors Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, and Scott Walker all have solid track records of producing results in many fields well ahead of the rest of the country.

The United States went through a long and barren post-Watergate desert of inferior candidates — not just McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, George W. Bush, Kerry, Obama, McCain, and Romney, but also teeming throngs of utterly implausible aspirants such as the Republican crop of four years ago — Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain — who all flamed out after revelations from their past or sudden attacks of foot-in-mouth disease, and were obviously completely unsuitable. This year’s group, which includes the capable Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, as well as Rubio, and the others already mentioned, is not without handicaps. Walker may have trouble selling his “aggressively normal” persona, and Christie, who could have won four years ago, is having a hard time getting through the Fort Lee fiasco (where some of his aides closed two lanes of the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan because of a dispute with Fort Lee’s mayor), and a few other manifestations of the rough-and-tumble, crime-ridden New Jersey system. And we would probably want some comfort about why Christie failed Romney’s vice-presidential ethics test. But as a group, these Republicans are competent, proven, refreshing, and well-spoken, and the largest group of serious candidates we have seen from either party since the national media and the same Democrats who gave us Vietnam crucified Richard Nixon and his extremely successful administration for the political equivalent of jaywalking. The United States has never got back to a mighty display of great candidates such as the ones who ran in the terrible year of 1968: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, and lesser figures including Eugene McCarthy.

The irony of this race is that these Republican candidates are not the sort of office-holders and presidential aspirants against whom Trump, Fiorina, and Carson are whipping up public anger. The torrent of public rage generated by 25 years of deteriorating misgovernment has produced the Trump–Carson–Fiorina majority in the Republican party and the Bernie Sanders revolt against the Hillary Clinton concept of simply being owed the White House, despite infamous falsehoods and a mediocre term as secretary of state in the most unsuccessful foreign-policy administration in the country’s history, following an unexceptional term in the Senate and two terms as a dignified First Wronged Woman of America.

The candidates of rage are likely to lose ground, at least as a group, to the candidates with a political track record and a reasonably specific program.

Bernie Sanders, an outright socialist from the tiny state of Vermont, is 120 degrees of the compass from the mainstream of America that is answering the trumpet of Donald and the others. In all the confusion and the cacophony of pompous reassurances that the trumpet will go silent and fall from parched lips long before the election, and the competing shrieks of alarm that a Trump sign will be installed on the roof of the White House on Inauguration Day, the non-stop, groaningly vulgar, and expensive American presidential-election system is being vindicated. The early jockeying for the Republican nomination has produced a tidal wave of anger at America’s decline and misgovernment, in almost vertical descent from the supreme triumph of the victory of the United States in the Cold War, which left it as the only truly great power in the world.

This wave of atmospheric and psychological fury will yield to more serious policy analysis and evaluation of the ability of the candidates to address the precise issues that most engross the nation, as the country enters into the primary process. The candidates of rage are likely to lose ground, at least as a group, to the candidates with a political track record and a reasonably specific program. The Republicans will produce a strong candidate, and the vice-presidential nomination could go to one of the pyrotechnic candidates surfing the avalanche of resentment against those tainted by participation in what is widely construed to be a corrupted and ineffectual political process. The vice-presidential nominee is more likely to be Dr. Carson or Ms. Fiorina, who would be more reliable team players than Donald, who would not be interested in being vice president anyway. In addition, Carson, an eminent and articulate African-American brain surgeon, and Fiorina, an accomplished businesswoman and cancer survivor, would each have a particular appeal to large sections of the electorate.

With today’s group of Republicans, the country is halfway back. Hillary Clinton, though less predestined than she seems to believe herself to be, is a serious candidate. Joe Biden is a bedraggled airhead, his balloon of amiability punctured only by some of his more egregious misdeeds, such as his sadistic assault on Robert Bork. But no one with an IQ in triple figures could imagine him as a competent president of the United States. Bernie Sanders is a crypto-Marxist kook. The best that is visible on the Democratic side as a rival to Hillary is Jim Webb, author, former senator, Reagan’s Navy secretary, and an independent man of integrity. But he has not got any traction so far. If he does, and if he or one of the promising Republican candidates proves an effective president, we might soon be hearing again that the country’s best days are ahead, and that could even be true.

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