Given that there appear to be about 17 Buckleyite conservatives left in the smoldering ruin of the Republican party presided over by Herr Trump, let’s pause and take a moment to reflect on how impressive it was that we happy few managed to get so many of them to vote with us for so long.
Forty-odd years of marshaling these millions of Trump voters to the causes of lower taxes, freer markets, and strong global leadership? That’s nothing to sneeze at, people. Let us recall our modest policy victories fondly as the Trump goon squads level their T-shirt cannons at us — the Trump-goon-squad weapon of choice is the T-shirt cannon, you see — and the rhythmic chants of “You’re fired!” fill the air.
If I sound like I’m condescending to Trump voters it’s because I surely am. I have never pretended to be free of elitism, and in some matters I am a proud snob. But the relentless fervor of the Trump plurality in the GOP has left me feeling dangerously like Pauline Kael, the New Yorker critic who, lore has it, was shocked by Richard Nixon’s victory because she didn’t know anybody who had voted for him.
There are a lot of us chatterers who are only too late coming to realize, like Stephen Stills, that there’s something happening here and what it is ain’t exactly clear. I just read David Brooks, for instance, lament at column length that maybe he doesn’t understand the American people as well as he thought he did. And while I hold to the only slightly self-deluding conviction that my origins are surely earthier and more picaresque than Brooks’s, I know exactly what he means.
Nor is my bewilderment limited to my conception of the abstracted “ordinary American.” Even more confusing is the susceptibility of people I know, admire, trust — even love — to the Trumpian phage.
Jonah Goldberg has described this abiding, confusing alienation of watching one’s friends and peers succumb to Trump as akin to living through Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s apt.
I only really use Facebook, unlike Twitter, to keep up with friends and family. And so I usually keep it free of politics. But I recently posted a perfunctory announcement — one I was sure was redundant — that I counted myself among the Never Trumpers. Several members of my immediate family quickly responded with comments of this sort: “Really?” “That’s surprising, why not?” “Curious to hear your reasons.”
Et tu, Auntie Marge?
Truth is, in my darkest moments, I wonder whether they were right about us all along.
There’s a certain class of left-of-center commentators who relish Trump not because he will midwife the third Clinton presidency — though I’m sure they don’t mind that bit either — but rather because he seems to prove a central plank of their theory of the GOP: that the rank and file are kept in thrall of economic policies they don’t support by the elites’ half-hearted and insincere prosecution of the culture war. And that as soon as the curtain is pulled on the latter, the jig is up for the former.
So as we movement conservatives shout from the rafters that Trump’s policies (such as they are) are statist and anti-market, as we warn that his most ardent supporters are motivated, to put it charitably, by white identity politics, these commentators reply: “Precisely.”
Is that us? Is the market for conservative ideas really so small, and the pull of racial grievance really so strong? I don’t think so. I don’t think most elites are so insincere about culture, or that most Republican voters are so indifferent to limited government. I’ve written before that Trump’s coalition is too stochastic, too ideologically helter-skelter, for there to be some neat ideological explanation of the facts we’re seeing unfold on the ground. (According to most exit polls, they favor amnesty, for goodness’ sake!)
Maybe it’s just that people are easy marks. That just like the femme fatale and the gigolo, the mooch and the Yes Man and the quisling, con men such as Donald Trump exist for strictly Darwinian reasons, because there is a niche that they expertly fill, a flaw in our B.S. detectors that they expertly exploit.
Indeed, a big part of what pisses me off about Trump is how easy it is for him. How little he’s had to sweat. How little he’s even bothered to try to make it look good. His campaign manager is caught on tape manhandling reporters and protesters, and Trump responds, “Nope, didn’t happen,” and everyone just sort of nods and says, “Okay, good enough for us.”
But I don’t think my Auntie Marge is a mark. I think she’s a deeply generous, deeply Christian woman of intelligence and industriousness, a great mother and a patriot. And so too must most Trump supporters be decent.
But if Trump isn’t the result of a coherent ideological revolt or a confidence game executed at spectacular scale, that leaves us with the possibility that Trump’s popularity is rooted — as the Free Beacon’s Andrew Stiles has put it — in the fact that he’s Donald Trump. That Trump is sui generis, and people either dig his style or don’t. That it isn’t really political at all.
Of course, supposing that Trump is the product of forces outside the usual dominion of politics makes him no less frightening or portentous a political force. Anton Chigurh, the dread-inspiring force at the center of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, shows us that there is as much evil in the cold inertia of the universe as there is in any mustache-twirling mastermind.
When Chigurh asks a young woman to call a coin toss for her life, the victim protests. “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” Chigurh replies with a pitiless logic: “I got here the same way the coin did.”
Maybe Donald Trump did, too.