Some explanations for Donald Trump’s success emphasize his focus on supposedly working-class issues – namely, immigration and trade – after a refusal by the GOP “establishment” to address them. When the Wall Street Journal condemns his “crude assessment of the economic relationship with China” and sneers that his “pander[ing] to his party’s nativist wing… may have endeared him to one or two radio talk show hosts” but will prove an electoral disaster, the editors only underscore the base-to-establishment gap.
Except I just did that thing where I tell you the quote is about one person and it is really about someone else. Those criticisms were leveled by the Wall Street Journal, but in 2012, at Mitt Romney.
From early in the primaries, Romney took the unheard-of stance that China cheated on trade and should be aggressively confronted. He even called for retaliatory tariffs against continued currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.
Similarly, on immigration, Romney was far to the right by the standards of either the 2012 or 2016 GOP fields. While his use of the phrase “self-deportation” was certainly inartful, the position was similar to the one Ted Cruz has since staked out. (Though Cruz may have shifted bizarrely rightward in the last 24 hours.) He stood by it right through the general-election debates with President Obama. The post-2012 effort by the GOP to reposition itself on immigration was not an extension of the Romney approach, but rather a reaction.
Trump’s unique resonance isn’t about some other policy issue either – for instance, Trump’s tax plan is far friendlier to the wealthiest households than was Romney’s. It can’t be about business background or governing experience. It can’t be about previously held, more liberal policy positions. And long before Trump rolled out “Make America Great Again,” Romney was traveling the country in a bus emblazoned with “Believe in America.” Indeed, as one columnist noted at the time, “Romney might have been tempted to use this slogan: ‘Let’s make America great again.’ But that was already used by Ronald Reagan in 1980.”
The real difference is that Romney held himself each day to the highest standards of decency and felt keenly the burdens of leadership, while Trump is an entertainer committed to delivering whatever irrational blather of insults, threats, and lies will earn the most retweets. Sometimes the blather may take the form of a “policy” proposal like mass deportation or a ban on Muslims, but that is still part of the show – not a suggestion for how to run the country.
The Trump phenomenon does not deserve elevation to the level of some reasonable response, needed movement, or well-earned comeuppance. It is best regarded as some combination of nihilistic joke and authoritarian fantasy. Yes he has “tapped into anger,” but let’s stop pretending it is a rational anger at problems ignored. Look at what is actually different about Trump, and ask what makes those things so popular.
The sad irony is this: the intelligentsia’s confidence that Trump would fade was in fact a strong sign of their respect for the judgment of the Republican base. If you are looking for the people who truly disdained those voters, find the pundits who predicted from the beginning that this guy might actually win. Yet by flocking to him now, Trump voters are ensuring they will be a punchline –sometimes feared, but never respected – for years to come.