Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Candidate Narcissus

(Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
Does Donald Trump believe in anything but himself? Do his supporters care?

When asked by their detractors whether they might deign to explain themselves, it is fashionable for supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential bid to characterize their charge’s rise as an inevitable reaction to the impotence of the Republican party. The GOP, it is proposed, has for almost three decades now failed to effect meaningful conservative reform, and it is therefore time for a change. Trump, they insist, is the man to bring it about.

Insofar as it presumes that dissatisfaction with the established political class has created a vacuum into which a would-be savior might try to step, there is a kernel of truth within this diagnosis. But as a justification for the ascent of Trump per se, it is wholly insufficient. The modern-day Hippocratic Oath features as its central tenet a deeply conservative injunction: Primum, non nocere, or “First, do no harm.” As anybody who has made this commitment comprehends well, sometimes the medicine is worse than the disease. Does the Republican party have problems? Certainly. Are there any circumstances in which Donald Trump could be considered the best antidote to them? Not on your life. To suggest that Trump is the best remedy for what ails the GOP is as if to suggest that an axe to the chest is the best remedy for what ails a man with bronchitis.

Why? Because Trump is in no meaningful sense a conservative. We are now approaching the serious part of primary season, and the man remains a mess: He is still praising single-payer health care as a worthy idea; still boasting about his cynical use of post-Kelo eminent-domain rules; still crowing that he has bought and sold politicians of both parties; still occasionally promising to fund the “good” parts of Planned Parenthood; still expressing (usually) support for progressive taxation; still endorsing campaign-finance reform and knocking Citizens United; still recommending a foreign policy in comparison with which the acquisition of oil seems a legitimate casus belli. He has taken to speaking about the Hispanic bloc that he once declared crucial to the GOP’s future as if it were a fifth column of the most pernicious kind. And he endlessly flip-flops on crucial questions — sometimes, impressively, within the same interview. In the course of a single discussion with Sean Hannity in August, Trump managed to endorse both a staggered income tax and a flat tax.

Inexplicably, such heterodoxies and inconsistencies have done nothing to damage his popularity. Whereas in 2008 Mitt Romney was crucified for his expedient conversion to the pro-life cause, Trump’s sudden journey from staunch pro-choicer to champion of the unborn is received as a sign of maturity. Whereas Chris Christie’s softening on the question of gun control has been rejected as too-late pandering, Trump’s vocal support for the sort of measures that drive NRA members into a frenzy has been dismissed as a mere trifle. Whereas Marco Rubio is distrusted for having supported the Gang of Eight’s ill-fated “comprehensive” immigration bill in 2013, Trump’s prior endorsement of a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants is ignored.

This double standard applies uniformly. Trump supporters will happily slam Mitch McConnell for his failure to repeal Obamacare; they will take shots at John Kasich for his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio; and they will spit out Mitt Romney’s name, insisting that it was his role in bringing health-care reform to Massachusetts that kept millions of conservatives away from the voting booth in 2012. But when Donald Trump favorably cites Scotland’s crumbling nationalized health-care apparatus, his fans don’t care. Had any other Republican candidate pleaded guilty to even 10 percent of the heresies that Trump cops to daily, rightward-leaning voters would have yelped. The Donald? He skates.

Trump’s supporters explain away his heterodoxies with two contradictory observations. The first is that his policy positions are in fact irrelevant because “he fights!” This doesn’t cut it, for against what, exactly, does the pugilist intend to struggle? Without a clearly defined purpose, assurances of bellicosity ring hollow. Alas, Trump’s apologists have blithely inverted the usual process: Instead of seeking a salesman to promulgate their carefully considered ideas, they have selected their representative without reference to his message and then permitted him to define it post hoc.

For Trump’s most fervent supporters, conservative principles have been rendered an afterthought, a series of emphatic assurances having taken their place. Forget the details, man; Trump’s strong! Sure, he’s making it up as he goes along; but he’ll kick Congress in the ass! Stop the whining; this guy’ll make the country great again! And did anybody mention that he’s rich?

If one takes it seriously, the strongman ideal to which Trump aspires is a deeply unconservative one. The United States is exceptional in large part because the Constitution fragments power and ensures that no one person can garner too much influence or control. If, as seems to be the case, the Trumpites really want a leader who, leaving politics and philosophy aside, seeks to embody the manly virtues, to upend the existing order, and to make those dastardly elites pay for their perfidy, they should consider whose example they want their candidate to emulate: Do they hope for Ronald Reagan or Benito Mussolini?

Or perhaps the better comparison is Roderick Spode, the comical would-be dictator of P. G. Wodehouse’s caustic imagination, who, from a position of great wealth and social privilege, spends his days vainly trying to lead a cabal of half-hearted “black shorts” to power and to glory. All style and no substance, Spode’s recipe for the restoration of British greatness relies upon a mixture of nonsensical appeals to native virtue and a deep-seated hatred of anybody with the temerity to mock him. Spode’s speeches are all mock machismo and ersatz patriotism: He hopes to prohibit the importation of foreign root vegetables, to issue all newborn citizens “with a British bicycle and an honest British-made umbrella,” and to usher in “the compulsory scientific measurement of all adult male knees!” Spode, you see, is suspicious of foreign knees, and of anyone who sympathizes with them. “Not for the true-born Englishman the bony angular knee of the so-called intellectual, not for him the puffy knee of the criminal classes. The British knee is firm, the British knee is muscular, the British knee is on the march!” Those foreign knees? Losers, all of them.

The second objection that is leveled against Trump’s detractors is that he is in fact popular because of his policies — at least in one key area: immigration. This conceit is a touch more complex to refute than the other, for there is an element of truth to it. Not only within the Republican party but across the political spectrum, voters are indeed vexed by the status quo. They see the Obama administration’s lax attitude toward border enforcement — and the media’s relentless attempt to suppress any outrage beneath a barrage of euphemism — and they want someone to listen to their disgust. Thus far in the campaign, the most effective conduits of this (often righteous) anger have been Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Again, though, we should refrain from mistaking the diagnosis for the remedy, for while one can easily make a case against the immigration status quo, one cannot so easily translate that case into a credible apology for Trump’s preferred reforms. There is no chance whatsoever that Mexico is going to pay for a 2,000-mile-long wall, and the suggestion that the United States should tear up NAFTA and open a trade war in order to force it into doing so is preposterous and illiberal. There is no chance that the INS will agree to bury the Constitution and deport not only illegal immigrants but their natural-born-citizen children, too, as Trump has suggested it should. And there is no chance in hell that Congress will be interested in setting up the unconstitutional police state that would be necessary to round up 11 million illegal immigrants, monitor all financial transfers between the U.S. and Mexico, and interpose itself effectively in those areas that attract illicit labor.

Moreover, Republicans do not actually want the government to do any of these things. In July, the polling firm Gallup revealed that only 31 percent of registered Republicans hoped to send all of America’s illegal immigrants home, as opposed to 68 percent who supported either a path to citizenship or the issuing of temporary work permits for those already here. That silent majority to which Trump is allegedly speaking? It’s not there — at least not for his policies.

This shouldn’t greatly surprise. There is nothing much there at all. Donald Trump is no conservative. He isn’t even principled enough to be confused about his principles. He’s an entertainer and a salesman, and his show rests not upon ideas but upon ego and performance art and resentment and nihilism and a love of the limelight that would have made Narcissus blush. Pull down the curtains, Republicans; there’s nothing of value here.

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