Politics & Policy

Followers, Yes. Leaders?

Trump applauds from the stage following Mike Pence’s speech, July 20, 2016. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
What’s happening in Cleveland

There are some pretty good Donald Trump parody accounts on Twitter, and there must be a German word somewhere for the strange, queasy feeling you get when you realize that you aren’t looking at one of them.

“Beyond parody” used to be an insult. In the case of Donald Trump, it is simply the fact.

Trump, confronting the micro-scandal surrounding the Third Lady’s recent Republican Convention speech and the stolen Michelle Obama lines contained in it, replied: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!” More publicity than any speech in the history of politics? Among those who might disagree with this assessment are Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Vladimir Lenin. But, in any case, the publicity is a result not of the speech’s substance or style, but its dishonesty.

Does that matter? Not to Trump.

That Trump should be a partisan of the “all publicity is good publicity” faction is not surprising. Before Trump became a tabloid celebrity in New York for his tawdry adultery and subsequent divorce(s), there were about 22 people on Earth who gave a damn what a Donald Trump was. There is no denying that he is a kind of idiot savant when it comes to self-promotion: He took an episode that would have made a normal, functional adult human being want to keep his head down for the next 40 years or so and parlayed it into a series of successful licensing agreements, a reality-television program, and, now, the Republican nomination. One cannot fault Trump for that any more than one faults L. monocytogenes for causing literiosis or raccoons for digging through your trash. It’s what they do.

But we should not fail to diagnose accurately what those third-rate rodeo announcers leading cheers of “Lock her up!” in Cleveland are, and what the symptoms of the infection will be.

#share#Everyone had a good laugh earlier in the week when Clare Malone, writing at FiveThirtyEight, relayed a story involving my colleague Yuval Levin, whose excellent new book, The Fractured Republic, argues that the Right and the Left both are paralyzed by nostalgia for a misunderstood post-war economic and political order. When Malone asked members of the Republican Freedom Caucus what they thought about Levin’s argument, the answer was a sneer from Representative David Brat of Virginia: “We’re supposed to respond to this guy? How many followers does he have?” Malone: “There was silence for a moment; it was difficult to discern whether he meant Twitter followers or policy acolytes.”

All publicity is good publicity. All followers are good followers, and they’re the only thing that really matters. It doesn’t matter what’s being said — it only matters that people are talking about you. Etc. That those views are childish and borderline insane does not mean that they are not useful. Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian all are rich for the same reason, and Trump is the Republican presidential candidate for the same reason that he’s rich. He is the parasite, and we are the host, because we, as a culture, have agreed to be the host. Maybe we did not set out to do that, but that is what we have done, in much the same way that while nobody ever sets out to become a drug addict, nobody becomes one exactly by accident, either.

#related#“Populism” isn’t much more than a polite term for mob rule, but it is the mood of the moment, and Republicans are, to their discredit, embracing it with great energy. They may even make something of it. But they’ll lose something, too. The presence of followers does not, as it turns out, imply the existence of leaders, properly understood. Political liberty under the rule of law is a fragile condition, and it requires us to be better than this.

The polls change, but the final facts do not.

“How many followers does Yuval Levin have?” Joseph Stalin once asked a similar question about the pope. Representative Brat, who is an educated man, must know how that turned out in the end.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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