Faced with the emergence of a more civil and presidential President Donald Trump on Tuesday night during his address to a joint session of Congress, Democrats reacted with incredulity and not a little apprehension. They may be right that the unscripted Donald Trump seen on Twitter, the one who emerges in offhand conversations or even in campaign-style rallies in front of his faithful followers, is a very different person from the poised man reading from the teleprompter in the House chamber.
But there’s more to the Democrats’ reaction than the fact that Trump exceeded the very low expectations that some pundits and members of the public have for him. Trump’s ability to behave and speak like his predecessors is important not only because it produced his best news cycle since taking the oath of office. It’s also an indication that the driving force behind the “resistance” to his presidency can be undermined more easily than even some of his supporters thought. His liberal detractors hope that Russian ties or immigration bans will spark a genuine resistance that will make Trump’s presidency an ongoing fiasco, but the truth about the reaction to Trump is that it is rooted far more deeply in class than in issues or ideology.
The billionaire baffled both Democrats and his Republican-primary opponents because they were unable to fathom his appeal. Trump is a unique figure in American political history, but the nature of his singularity is not necessarily appreciated. He appalls people on both ends of the spectrum because his behavior and statements are not what we expect from our political leaders. His vulgarity, lack of impulse control, and willingness to ignore the truth and to spew abuse at anyone who criticizes him are — in the context of normative conduct among our power elites, let alone polite society — abnormal. His stubborn refusal to conform to conventional ideas about how leaders should behave still shocks those who consider themselves the gatekeepers of American politics.
It isn’t so much that Trump is wrong on the issues in the eyes of those gatekeepers; it’s that they think his behavior makes him unfit for the presidency. While we give lip service to the notion that class distinctions shouldn’t matter, what is truly galling about Trump is that he won’t bow to the expectations of the powerful; instead, he has refused to assimilate into their culture. When they suggest that democracy is failing or accuse of Trump of being authoritarian or even anti-Semitic, what they are really doing is voicing dismay at the way he breaks the rules they hold sacred. What they are not doing is credibly asserting that he is a threat. But Trump’s refusal to live by the behavioral rules of our governing class heightens his appeal to many Americans who are sick of conventional politicians and the culture that produced them. He is a living, breathing rebuke to the deadening hand of political correctness that has gained such a grip on public discourse for just about everyone except Donald Trump.
Americans pride themselves on the social mobility of their society and on the fact that caste isn’t determinative, even though income and background remain powerful forces. But no matter their origin, the people who run the country — in political posts, the government bureaucracy, and the media — are generally highly educated and conform to certain standards of conduct rooted in the history and culture of elite institutions.
But Trump didn’t come to politics through the usual paths of law school, issues advocacy, or low-level political involvement, during the course of which standard-issue politicians learn how to behave in the manner we expect from members of the governing and chattering classes. He comes from great wealth and attended elite institutions, but he is the product of outer-borough New York, with its chip-on-the-shoulder sensibility, and the rough-and-tumble of the real-estate business. He spent the decades before his presidential campaign running a high-stakes business that placed him in the unorthodox worlds of the gaming industry and entertainment, not the corridors of political power. His niche was in celebrity culture, where people who more or less own permanent space in the gossip pages of New York tabloids, as Trump did throughout much of his adult life, might mix with those who run the country and sometimes donate to their campaigns but are not considered their peers.
Trump’s refusal to live by the behavioral rules of our governing class heightens his appeal to many Americans who are sick of conventional politicians and the culture that produced them.
It might seem odd to claim that a billionaire who lived in a gold-plated Fifth Avenue penthouse has more in common with blue-collar Americans than with the country’s elites. But this is exactly the way Trump is perceived; it is also the way he acts. Despite the vituperation against his immigration policies or the effort to inflate alleged Russian connections into a new Watergate, it is this class factor that is at the heart of anti-Trump sentiment.
If you are a member of our educated professional classes, Trump’s manners and statements appall you no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. They might also lead you to believe that his refusal to abide by the accepted rules of public discourse constitutes an encouragement of bigots — the tiny number of Americans who dwell in the political fever swamps and think Trump’s intemperate statements echo their own hate. But the belief that Trump is “dog whistling” to hate groups makes his critics largely blind to their own misjudgment: They cannot distinguish between, on one hand, their disgust with his manners and, on the other, policy disagreements with Trump, even though he is advocating either traditional conservative beliefs or populist stands that are likely to generate significant support across the political spectrum.
Tuesday’s speech to Congress was not the beginning of the “pivot” that pundits have talked about since he started running for president. Trump will always be Trump in that he will never entirely conform to the cultural norms of the governing class, and its members within the media and the bureaucracy will continue trying to undermine him every chance they get. Yet his performance illustrates that he can also play the Washington game. And he can play it in a manner that could marginalize those who are still convulsed by the mad rage he generates in those who are offended by his conduct.
Stories about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia help Democrats keep the national conversation focused on the administration’s illegitimacy. As long as such stories are front and center, Democrats can avoid confronting the source of their anger at him. Yet the shock when he speaks in a way that reassures the country that he can govern — as he did in Congress –unnerves his opponents because it illustrates that he can transcend class differences. And it’s Trump’s non-elite class affiliations that make them think they can eventually cast him out of power without having to appeal to the voters who put him in the White House. Unless the Russia stories become a genuine scandal that undoes his administration, a few more such presidential moments point the way to a Trump presidency that could be more successful than either his liberal or conservative critics could have imagined.