It’s almost impossible to fathom what an unusual candidate Donald Trump is. Put aside his lack of political experience (except for his serial flirtations with running for president over the years). Never mind his violation of nearly every rule of thumb of politics: Always shoot up, never down. Avoid throwing reporters out of your press conferences. Pretend you don’t care about the polls. Maintain tight message discipline. Don’t wear hats! Disregard his constant feuds with nearly everyone, his blatant self-contradiction on basic policy questions, and his general outlandishness.
Consider only these facts: Trump has been leading the polls for the Republican presidential nomination for months, and he basically never says “freedom” or “liberty.” He gives no indication of caring about the Constitution. He talks only sparingly about the federal debt. He has, in short, ignored central and longstanding conservative tenets that seemed to have become only more important in the tea-party era — and he has not only gotten away with it, but thrived (so far).
How is that possible? Trump is truly a different kind of political phenomenon. He is supposed to be an outrageous right-winger, but he draws support fairly evenly across all factions of the Republican party and is heterodox or indeterminate on key policy questions.
It is tempting to dismiss him as merely a buffoon, given his routinely buffoonish behavior, and to dismiss his supporters as ill informed and misguided. This is, indeed, the approach taken by many of his journalistic critics and a few of his rivals. But their denunciations of Trump and the Trump phenomenon have frequently been overwrought, taking the momentary enthusiasm of a large fraction of a party to stand for the enduring convictions of the whole.
They have also frequently been unfair to Trump’s supporters. It is important to understand Trump’s draw. If he is wholly unsuited to be the Republican nominee for a myriad of reasons, including that he isn’t a conservative, there are nonetheless lessons to be gleaned from his meteoric, madcap rise, ones that can make the other candidates better and the GOP more appealing.
The most elemental reason for Trump’s rise is that over the decades he has built a nearly universally recognized brand associated with toughness and success, and many Americans worry that we are running out of both. Trump’s business is being famous — and he’s really good at it. To be a media fixture for some 30 years in New York (the media capital of the world), always finding the next new thing even when the last thing hasn’t worked out so well, is no small feat. It speaks to a shrewdness, a drive, and a shamelessness that few can match.
When Trump brought these attributes to the Republican presidential race, it was like the ace major-league pitcher’s getting sent down to Double-A on a rehab assignment, or an accomplished Broadway actor’s showing up at the community theater. He had skills no one else could hope to match and was bigger than the stage. What is an unassuming midwestern governor compared with the star of a long-running TV program, the builder and marketer of skyscrapers with his name on them, and the “author” of multiple bestsellers?
As soon as he got in the race, Trump became the missing Malaysian plane of American politics. He meant easy viewers and clicks (and, as with the plane, CNN was the most obsessed of all the networks). Cable TV carried his rallies live and in their entirety, as if he were already the nominee — except a real nominee has to share the attention with another nominee, and Trump didn’t. He had it all to himself.
He careened from one controversy to the next, constantly transcending the last flap with a new one, as he fed the news cycle and depended on limited attention spans to wipe away any memory of what had come before. You didn’t like that first debate performance? Well, let me tell you something about Megyn Kelly. You didn’t like the second? Let’s talk about whether President Obama is a Muslim. Trump may not have been consciously pursuing a strategy of distraction, but his endless provocations constituted one regardless.
Many of those provocations were witless, gross, and unworthy, if not of Trump, then of anyone with a modicum of respect for himself or others. But at his best Trump can be funny and refreshing. Giving out Lindsey Graham’s phone number was hilarious, if juvenile. Kicking Jorge Ramos out of his press conference and then bringing him back for a full and frank exchange was great showmanship. The helicopter rides for kids at the Iowa State Fair were a delightfully Willy Wonka–esque escapade.
None of this will or can be replicated by anyone else. The other elements of Trump’s appeal are less sui generis.
By the normal rules of American public life, his campaign announcement, with its careless implication of widespread criminality among Mexican immigrants, would have been the end of him, or at least ended in his shame-faced retreat. We all know how it goes: A social-media campaign. An outraged press corps. Boycotts, or threats of them. Then the target inevitably gives in. We’d seen the dynamic play out in the months prior to Trump’s announcement, when the State of Indiana quickly buckled to a pressure campaign over its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and, less significantly, when a British scientist who wore a shirt that feminists deemed offensive apologized, and groveled, and cried.
Trump is an enormous rude gesture directed at this PC norm in American life. When he didn’t back down but doubled down, when he didn’t quail in the face of Univision’s dropping his beauty pageant but sued the network for $500 million, Republicans wanted to stand and cheer. It wasn’t just the spiritedness of it, it was the feeling that Trump’s steadfastness in the face of the onslaught meant that the Left’s cultural power was a little less sweeping than had been thought.
Among the most consequential forms of political correctness — in the sense of the use of social pressure to suppress the expression of widespread and legitimate viewpoints — has been the failure of leaders in almost any field of American life to give voice to discontent about mass immigration. While Trump’s has hardly been an issue-driven campaign, this topic has been important to it. Trump is, to be sure, an opportunistic restrictionist. After 2012, he scolded Mitt Romney for his allegedly hurtful rhetoric about “self-deportation.” That didn’t suggest that Trump would soon enough become the nation’s foremost advocate of unhyphenated deportation.
Trump clearly went where the energy was after the flap over his announcement. He had hit a rich vein. Immigration is one of the issues on which the elites in both parties are most out of touch with popular sentiment. Very few Americans want more immigration, but politicians in both parties have favored “comprehensive immigration reform” that entails it — and have rarely debated its merits. Most measures to enforce the immigration laws, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly popular.
Trump has wandered around the map on immigration — as on most issues — but his basic thrust of more border security (the famous “Trump wall”), a crackdown on sanctuary cities, an end to the abuse of birthright citizenship, and an emphasis on the interests of American workers is popular even if politicians don’t talk about such priorities, at least not in his stark terms.
Since immigration policy has been one long string of false promises from the political class (one assurance after another on enforcement hasn’t been met), Trump’s can-do braggadocio strikes a chord. The less he sounds like most politicians, the more credible and plausible he seems.
Trump also had excellent timing. He arrived at a moment of angry discontent with American institutions — and especially of conservative discontent with the Republican leadership in Congress. There are limits to what any Republican Congress could achieve with President Obama in the White House, of course, but Republicans encouraged voters to think that everything would, in some unspecified way, change for the better after they won a majority in 2014. It didn’t. And the congressional party’s post-2014 agenda of “regular order” wasn’t going to inspire anyone besides a few subcommittee chairmen. The leadership has been unimaginative and hasn’t advanced or even articulated a bold conservative policy agenda. House speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell came for many Republicans to exemplify what’s wrong with politics.
One way to view Trump is as the complete rejection of McConnell. The Senate leader is the ultimate insider and an institutionalist. He is circumspect, thoughtful, well informed on both policy and American history, and a quiet man who is always in control of himself. Trump is none of the above. But in the current environment, his contempt for every political piety, his ignorance of the political process and policy, and his impolitic statements are a powerful credential. They certainly beat having successfully governed anything.
So Republicans of many stripes have had reasons, especially months before any actual voting, to cheer him on. If your top voting issue is immigration, then the candidate who made it his signature issue was bound to be attractive. For Republicans who had grown exasperated or infuriated with their party’s leadership, not even Ted Cruz could better represent a rejection of it. Cruz, after all, has been in the Senate. For voters who mostly tune out politics, Trump was a star, and a relentlessly entertaining one.
But while Trump’s appeal to various groups may be understandable, he makes a terrible champion for Republicans, and especially for conservatives. By the standards we typically use to evaluate candidates — their records, their views, their popularity with the general public, their experience, their temperament, their character — Trump should be dismissed out of hand. No candidate is perfect, but large numbers of conservatives have never before supported any candidate so obviously deficient in all of these respects.
That Trump has a long history of liberal positions that extends even into the fairly recent past should not by itself be disqualifying. Conservatism has always welcomed converts. But conservatives have also expected some demonstrated commitment to their principles, some action that advanced their causes, before seeking to elevate a convert to high office. When Mitt Romney ran for the Senate in 1994, for example, he tried to distance himself from Reagan-era conservatism. He later moved right. But even on his least conservative day, Romney was arguing for a smaller government and lower taxes (and for an end to Ted Kennedy’s career). Trump, by contrast, has done essentially nothing for any conservative cause prior to deciding to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
For that matter, the evidence that Trump is actually a convert — that he is today a conservative — is scant. In part this is because he is so cavalier in describing what he would do as president. Usually he simply assures us that he will have the best people working on an issue, that they will come up with terrific plans, and that the results will overjoy us. In itself this patter suggests that he respects neither the presidency nor his supporters. But it’s also telling that he rarely specifies that these great people will be conservatives, or that conservative principles (assuming he can name any) will guide them. Even the suggestion that Americans would be freer, or their government smaller, for his efforts is absent from his shtick. His contempt for the political class is rooted in conceit, not conservatism: They haven’t governed well because they’re supposedly not as smart as he is. Other candidates denounce crony capitalism as a betrayal of the national creed. Trump tells us how good he is at it.
Even on immigration, Trump cannot be trusted to maintain a position over the span of a day. He wants native-born Americans to get high-tech jobs, according to his “white paper”; he wants to import high-skilled immigrants to do them, according to his interviews. He wants to build a wall, he says, unlike other Republicans; he might erect a bunch of barriers instead, he says, just like everyone else. His policy document doesn’t mention mass deportation; he can’t stop talking about it. And he has never even sought to explain how he went from blasting Romney after the 2012 election for being too harsh toward Hispanics to suggesting today that a lot of Mexican immigrants are rapists.
Which brings us to another reason Trump would be a disastrous champion for conservatives: He taints and discredits the important cause of controlling immigration, and would do the same to conservatism generally in the unlikely event that he became the nominee. Deterring illegal immigration and reducing legal immigration would serve the rule of law, promote national cohesion, and help both native-born and immigrant low-wage workers. This agenda is routinely dismissed, however, as an expression of nostalgia for a whiter country — or worse. Every time Trump suggests that people who have come here from Mexico are mostly drug runners and murderers, he makes it easier to think that legitimate conservative concerns about immigration are tantamount to racism.
Trump’s discarded wives and his habit of making gross sexual insults of women also make it easier for liberals to campaign against Republicans’ supposed “war on women.” Perhaps one or two of Trump’s comments were not as disgusting as they have generally been taken to be: Maybe he didn’t mean to suggest that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions because she was menstruating. But look at the whole pattern — his repeated attacks on her as a “bimbo,” his slam of Carly Fiorina’s face, his description of other women as pigs — and it’s clear that these bits of ugliness are not gaffes so much as a way of life.
Trump responds to this kind of criticism by casting himself as a brave dissenter from political correctness. Here, too, he discredits a worthy cause. Conservatives and some honorable liberals have stood up against the oversensitivity and censorship of legitimate political viewpoints that has spread from college campuses over the last three decades. Trump appears to confuse simple decency with PC. Republicans should not embrace this confusion by cheering him on.
But while Trump is not a conservative and does not deserve conservatives’ support, Republicans can nonetheless learn from him. Most politicians cannot hope to match Trump’s flair for the dramatic and should not try to compete with him in displays of narcissism or contempt. But politicians have been known to cultivate excitement and glamour — think of Reagan, or Bill Clinton, or Obama. These qualities have been missing from Republican politics for a long time. Republicans could, without going the full Trump, stand to be a little less apologetic and defensive under media criticism.
For weeks, Trump simultaneously stayed on top of the polls and promised to raise taxes on rich people. His eventual proposal on taxes bore no resemblance to that promise, which is a good thing: The federal government needs to slim down, not be given more sustenance. But the fact that Trump’s polling did not suffer even a modest drop after his soak-the-rich comments should tell other Republicans that the priorities of the donors they meet at fundraisers are not the same as those of the voters whose support they need. Cutting taxes is generally desirable, but Republicans need not base all their economic and budget policies on slashing tax rates on the highest earners.
Trump’s Republican rivals should change their approach to immigration, too. They don’t need to endorse his quixotic campaign to end birthright citizenship. But more of them ought to acknowledge that experience has raised deep and justified doubts about promises of immigration enforcement following an amnesty. The best way to allay this concern is for enforcement to come first. Only later, after establishing that granting legal status to illegal immigrants here will not lead to a greater influx of illegal immigrants, should an amnesty be considered. Republicans should acknowledge, as well, that the country has no pressing need for a vast expansion in the number of people doing low-skilled labor. Such a policy should have no place in any immigration compromise.
A Republican party that promised fewer tax cuts for the rich and less cheap labor would have less to offer some of its top donors, but it would have a stronger connection to its voters. Many of those donors, being wise investors, would accept the trade.
Even Trump’s failure to discuss freedom and limited government contains a lesson for other Republicans, who can hit those notes too monotonously. The rhetoric of national strength is also powerful and must be part of the Right’s song sheet (preferably without Trump’s plonking bombast — the point is to advertise national confidence, not insecurity).
Trump’s support has drifted downward of late. It may be that this reality show is beginning to lose its interest. But the attraction of a large minority of Republicans to him, even if it proves momentary, has a grim parallel in the experience of European conservative parties. In many countries, the Right has split in two as respectable parties eschewed nationalist themes, especially support for tighter restrictions on immigration, and new parties arose that picked up those causes in an irresponsible way.
Trump is unlikely to be the Republican nominee and will probably not even be a serious threat to Republicans as a third-party candidate next year. But he has exposed and widened the fissures on the American right. If conservatives are to thrive, they must figure out how to respond creatively, sensibly, and honorably to the public impulses he has so carelessly exploited.