Magazine October 10, 2016, Issue

Trump as Centrist

Finding the ideological core within the bluster

The Trump campaign, which limped into the end of summer beset by fading poll numbers and an erratic candidate, appears to have stabilized in recent weeks. Trump still trails Clinton as we head into the debates, but her lead has narrowed to its pre-convention levels. Nonetheless, the GOP’s path to the White House remains narrow. To win, Trump will have to carry three of the following four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. That difficult task means that Republicans still have good reason to look beyond November and ask what the future holds should Trump lose.

Much discussion takes for granted that the GOP will be changed utterly by Trump. Commentators have therefore focused either on Trump’s ideological heresies or on the likely electoral residua of his defeat. Will the GOP embrace an anti-trade stance? Will Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric drive Hispanic voters to the Democrats for a generation? These are pertinent questions, but they overlook the ideological core of Trumpism, which is likely to be his greatest legacy. And yes, there is a core.

Donald Trump changes his mind. Frequently. He can swing from one position to its opposite in the span of a single staccato sentence. His grasp of and interest in policy can charitably be called thin. Yet despite the inconstancy of his declared commitments, Trump adheres to an ideological bedrock. Surprising as it might seem, there is a “there” to Trumpism. And that “there” is here to stay. Fortunately for Republicans, the substance of Trump’s ideology will prove less onerous than his personal unpopularity. The worst thing the party can do is overreact to the vessel of Trumpism and overlook the bottled lightning that continues to propel him.

Trump has essentially run a third-party candidacy inside the Republican party, with a third-party agenda to match. Like all third-party types, Trump fixates on “the system.” Peel back the sound and the fury and Trump stands for a broadly “centrist” amalgam of good-government reform. Our elites are corrupt, says Trump, so we have to get money out of politics. Special interests entrench themselves by playing institutional games, says Trump, so let’s smash through barriers to action that are imposed by process. “I alone can fix it!”

Trump’s process fixation comes at the expense of substantive policy commitments. Bring up a meaningful issue involving national security or economic policy and Trump’s promises become notably vague. “It’ll be great,” Trump says. “Buh-lieve me.” Trump’s centrism is thus observably not conservative. He does not specify the aims and ends of mankind, cares little to describe what a good society might look like, and skirts hard ideological fights. America must be made safe, prosperous, and great again. But ask how, and, with the reliability of a migratory bird in winter, Trump returns to fixing “the system.”

Trump’s imprecision on substance, paired with his fixation on process, has gotten him mislabeled as either a populist or a moderate. “Moderation,” a blanket term for several different political attitudes, fits Trump poorly. Burkean moderation, on policy matters, views all grand plans skeptically. America has few if any Burkeans left, but wherever they are, they must disdain the grandiosity of Trump’s various walls, bans, and deportation plans. Dispositional moderates, on the other hand, who treat politics as an elevated business, put a premium on decorum. We can disagree without being disagreeable, after all. Mitt Romney’s persistent disdain for Trump can be attributed, at least in part, to this habit of mind. Lastly, ideological moderation stands in for a considerable mixture of partisan orthodoxy and heterodoxy, usually based on some pre-political principle. Trump obviously falls into none of these categories.

Nor is Trump a populist. Indeed, Trump’s centrism derives from two premises deeply antithetical to populism. First, every centrist earnestly believes that the American people are united. Sure, the United States is a country of more than 300 million people with an almost endless variety of values, material interests, cultures, and histories. Yes, we span a continent. Nonetheless, insists the centrist, our disagreements are more figments than facts. On 90 percent of the issues, perhaps even more, we are one. Second, at the core of centrism sits a radical distinction between political passion and political interest. Passion leads to conflict, polarization, gridlock, and mutual animosity. Interest leads to reasoning, negotiating, and ultimately consensus. No problem is too great to withstand dispassionate bargaining over interests. No distrust is so implacable as to resist brokering. If we can get the passions out, and the interests in, we can “get things done.”

The populist embraces political passion. He views the patrician pretensions of dispositional moderates as naïve, and Burkean anxiety about unintended consequences as cowardly. The centrist, by contrast, pines for enlightened and public-spirited elites empowered to set aside the provincial bigotries of faction and hash out a reasonable plan. The populist perceives a genuine struggle between the many and the few and embraces movements, parties, and associations as instruments of the struggle. The centrist’s bone-deep belief in national unity produces a powerful hostility to entities that divide the public into categories. Political parties? Pernicious faction. Organized groups? Corrupting special interests. Centrists may pay lip service to Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for voluntary associations. Yet in every concrete application, associations, in their view, become tribal bands that awaken empty rivalries and blind voters to their shared condition. For the centrist, these intercessors, these “labels,” prevent We the People from collectively realizing our natural unity through the prudent judgment of our betters.

Trump is admittedly a peculiar vessel for this interests-over-passions, unity-over-conflict mentality. But make no mistake: It is the foundation of his candidacy and the most durable part of his appeal. In substance, Trump could not be farther from a true populist such as William Jennings Bryan. Trump never promises to crush disposable elites. Quite to the contrary, Trump’s brief has always been that the particular set of elites running America today have failed to do their job as elites. They are weak, stupid, and ineffective. Trump promises to be a better, tougher, more successful elite. He’s “a negotiator,” after all. This is why Jon Huntsman Jr. rushed to endorse Trump but a vanishingly small share of Bernie Sanders’s supporters has done likewise. Trump preaches a changing of the guard, not a political revolution.

Nor does Trump, at least by his own lights, regard a subset of Americans as the enemies of his constituents. This is because Trump errantly views race in America through the binary lens of midcentury. Before the Immigration Act of 1965, well over 90 percent of the country was either white or black, with Hispanic and Asian Americans composing small, geographically concentrated populations. Today, the racial landscape of America is much more diverse, and growing more so. There are roughly equal numbers of Hispanic and black Americans. The 3.3 million Muslim Americans cross all racial lines. The old binary cannot comprehend this development. Rather than abandon the binary, however, Trump instead appears to regard non-white and non-black racial groups as fundamentally alien, as perpetual immigrants. Thus, Trump’s bogeymen are, at least in his own narrative, suspicious foreign types rather than homegrown fifth columns.

Trump is wrong, of course, on the question of the Americanness of these groups, but this mistaken insistence on a racial binary distinguishes Trump’s centrism from populism. In high finance, Bryan saw a large, domestic enemy of the common man; Trump instead rails against an alien threat to the body politic pouring into America from abroad. Bryan probably genuinely thought bimetallism would bring prosperity, but he loved free silver because it would soak the eastern rich and relieve the western debtor. Trump likewise probably believes in protectionism as economic policy, but he embraces it chiefly as a defense of the American worker against the machinations of other nations. Mexicans and Muslims, in Trump’s view, simply amount to the vanguard of foreign interests that too often come at the expense of America’s economic well-being, national security, and domestic tranquility.

Trump is simultaneously the least articulate and the most politically successful avatar of centrism in at least a century. To the centrist, politics is not the means of solving social problems: Politics is the problem. As a result, centrism fixates on governing processes as the key to unlocking the popular will. Centrists presume popular agreement and then look for aspects of the political process that are actively impeding this posited agreement from coming into full bloom. It is hardly surprising that the centrist embraces the process-centered anxieties of Right and Left alike, advocating campaign-finance reform, the elimination of gerrymandering, the enactment of anti-voter-fraud laws, and term limits in turn. The centrist exploits the misperception, shared by as many as three-quarters of Americans, that corruption is widespread in the political system. A healthy skepticism of government and a low tolerance for self-dealing are political virtues. Yet attempts to operationalize this skepticism have been self-defeating. Our last crack at campaign-finance reform, in 2002, has been an unmitigated disaster, hamstringing the parties vis-à-vis outside groups. Meanwhile, money continues to pour into our elections because, when big government touches every sector of the economy and social life, every interest that can will hedge against adverse electoral outcomes. More starkly, Congress’s approval rating was just north of 40 percent when the campaign-finance law went into effect. Today, it is barely in double digits. That is not a coincidence.

Similarly, checking “ideological extremists” by eliminating gerrymandering is a centrist fever dream, as political scientists Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden have shown in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. Using automated redistricting simulations, Chen and Rodden find that asymmetries between the popular vote and the number of legislative seats each party holds can be explained largely by patterns of human geography. Put simply, Democrats cluster together in cities, whereas Republicans are more geographically dispersed. As a result, Republicans win seats with large shares of Democratic voters, while Democrats win urban seats with next to no Republican voters in them.

As for voter fraud, it is a serious crime, and voter intimidation is even worse; prudent measures that help reduce their likelihood enjoy broad support for good reason. Let us not, however, indulge in the idea that the outcomes of American elections hinge on criminality, that the system is “rigged.” It is not.

Kicking out complacent officeholders by imposing mandatory legislative term limits is a popular proposal. According to Gallup, fully three-quarters of Americans support the idea. Yet I can think of few institutional reforms that would be as disastrous. A politician will be a careerist whether term-limited or not. The career legislator seeks reelection, an aim that at least tangentially tethers him to the concerns of his constituents. Term-limited representatives, anxious to secure their post-political careers, act as the handmaidens of the powerful. Individuals regularly cycling in and out of different offices have to rely on the labor unions, large corporations, and party bosses that can secure their future. Small wonder, then, that every state with draconian term limits has seen its state legislators bought and sold by powerful and persistent interests.

The most powerful argument against term limits from a conservative perspective ought to be the Obama presidency. Term limits inevitably empower the chief executive in a divided system, as legislative rookies are easily bribed, bullied, or bamboozled. Imagine what the Obama administration might have been able to do had it been able to buy off, cajole, or simply hoodwink members of Congress. Since 2010, the president has seen his ambitions constrained and often outright stymied by Republicans in Congress. Forced to rely on executive orders, his agenda has narrowed and can be more easily overturned in the future. An inexperienced Congress would have been a sitting duck for the imperial presidency. Thank heavens for “career politicians.”

An escapist desire to eliminate politics always appeals to elements in both parties. People tend to dislike politics — something those of us who do politics full-time forget at our peril. Usually the public is sleepily content to let us politicos bicker in the neoclassical playgrounds we reserve to ourselves in the capitals of every state. However, every now and again, the public is aroused to pay attention to politics. This happens when it becomes convinced that the bickering no longer serves a function, when “the system” stops “working.” We tend to call the public’s reaction “politicizing” or “mobilizing.” In many cases, it is more accurate to say that the masses have had their latent hostility to politics activated. Get the anti-political tinder dry enough, and all that’s needed is a spark to get people mobilized. Trump has provided the spark.

Centrism’s flash-in-the-pan flammability makes it a frequent target for opportunists. Its disgust at and suspicion of the system make its adherents vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Small wonder, then, that a paragon of crony capitalism such as Trump can seize the mantle of reformer and do-gooder. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, the antechamber of patriotism is reform.

If Trump passes from the scene, the greatest risk for conservatives will be over-correcting to his candidacy and fruitlessly fighting the last war. The Republican party was uniquely vulnerable to a hostile takeover in 2016. In recent years, two different sets of political organizations have shared the name “Republican” for purposes of branding and ballot access. Beyond that, these parties have been institutionally distinct. One of these, a more orthodox conservative party, combined the tax-revolt ethos of the Tea Party with the social conservatism of the religious Right. The other, a center-right, more classically liberal party, brought together foreign-policy hawkishness with high-income tax cuts aimed at sparking economic growth.

Our campaign-finance regime, which empowers outside groups vis-à-vis party institutions, helped create parallel establishments in these cohorts. Each national establishment, in turn, had a base located in the state parties. Both of these parties-within-a-party struggled to settle on a nominee until well into the balloting. Ted Cruz eventually consolidated the orthodox-conservative branch, but his weaknesses as a candidate meant that he struggled to push out Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee. The center-right party bounced from Chris Christie to Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to John Kasich but never settled on a candidate. Meanwhile Trump shot the gap. His jihad against the establishments of both Republican parties allowed him to draw support simultaneously from insurgent forces within both the orthodox-conservative and the center-right parties. Trump brought with him a cohort of working-class whites who had long voted Republican in general elections but were entering the primaries for the first time. Fed up with conditions generally, they embraced Trump as he pitched his candidacy against the system.

This situation is unlikely to replicate itself. Moreover, casting off the foundations of the Republican party’s political achievements since 2008 would be unwise. On matters of policy, the orthodox-conservative and center-right networks are more closely aligned ideologically today than has been the historical norm for the Republican coalition. To take just one example, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal use scores, derived mainly from roll-call voting, to track how closely members of Congress vote together. Their scores show unambiguously that the Republican coalition has reached an unparalleled coalescence. Because of that coalescence, Republicans held historic majorities at the state and federal levels before Trump entered the picture. The few Republican incumbents who have lost primaries this cycle have done so for reasons independent of Trump.

Many of Trump’s voters are not particularly conservative across the board, and they do not trust the GOP. The Republican party should not abandon conservatism for their sake, but the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 “autopsy” effort, the Growth and Opportunity Project, went too far in attempting to narrow and delimit the ideological commitments of the party. A party that aspires to represent at least half of a massive, diverse country cannot realistically expect internal quietude and widespread agreement. Indeed, Republicans can afford to be more open to disputatiousness on such major issues as trade, infrastructure, and immigration to help bring Trump’s voters into the fold. Disagreement in a party is fine and even healthy. Heterodoxy does not amount to heresy. Internal squabbles and even tough primary fights invigorate more than enervate.

Trump’s centrist insurgency is real, and it is not going away. Political scientists Jennifer K. Smith and Julia R. Azari make clear in a forthcoming article that the ideas underpinning centrism have been part of American political life for a long time. Centrism has a diverse and geographically dispersed constituency. It is unlikely to disappear, and at least for now has taken up residency in the Republican party. Conservatives are going to have to learn to live with it, and learn how to turn it toward conservative ends.

Fortunately, the demands of centrism may not be overly burdensome. While most centrist prescriptions are canards, they stem from reasonable, even virtuous, foundations. Conservatives can and should seize the cause of good government, while steering it away from damaging and imprudent institutional reforms. Above all, we need to recognize that the public does not trust its political leaders. Hillary Clinton’s presidency would do little to reassure Americans that their government is anything other than a giant conflict-of-interest ring. For Republicans, opposing a manifestly corrupt Clinton administration would present an opportunity to gain back the public’s trust. Of course the GOP would be perfectly capable of squandering such an opportunity, if it chose to fixate on the wildest and weirdest Clinton conspiracy theories. There would be ample genuine material without delving into the fever swamps.

Some of the most die-hard Trump cultists, and especially the alt-right white nationalists, should be condemned and excluded from the party. But the lion’s share of Trump supporters understand the need for political leaders even as they distrust the system those leaders inhabit. Most simply want to see competence where now they see only posturing. Part of this is a simple communications problem: Republicans have done a poor job of advertising their successes to the public, a situation made discernibly worse by certain corners of conservative media.

However, Republicans should own up to the lack of trust within the party. To build trust with the public, conservative leaders need to refocus on how politics affects Americans day in and day out. Talk less about Ronald Reagan and more like Ronald Reagan, connecting conservative policy goals to the material lives of voters. Why will tax reform improve life for Americans? How will we fix an unsustainable entitlement regime without dramatically upending long-held expectations? How do our commitments abroad keep Americans safe at home? If these questions cannot be answered clearly and simply, then conservatives need to ask whether we should be pushing the particular policy prescriptions in question. Republicans must not come across as cruelly indifferent to the economic well-being of average Americans or cavalierly reckless in using force abroad. Trump may well be a disaster at the ballot box in November, but if he causes Republican leaders in Washington to reconnect with the regular concerns of their constituents, all might not be lost.

– Mr. Thompson is a partner at the Applecart political consultancy.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


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The Week

‐ Honestly, the thought of her becoming president makes us feel a little faint, too. ‐ Hillary Clinton abruptly left a 9/11 commemoration at Ground Zero, stumbled off a curb, and ...

Crass Couture

Will we look back on Trump's tenure as an era of refinement and elegance because he said “Excuse my French” after he dropped the effenheimer?
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Biden as Paradox

It is now conventional punditry that should Joe Biden win in November, his vice president, in 1944-style, will sooner rather than later become president. Biden, to reboot and secure the identity-politics base, thought he had to discriminate by sex and race in advance by selecting his vice president. But given ... Read More

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Cardenas Ortiz-Sandoval’s mother, Guadalupe, died last month. Cardenas, 22, helped to plan her funeral. She was told by mortuary officials that the state of California would not allow more than ten people to attend her mother’s graveside service. Some family members were forced to stay home. Lifelong friends ... Read More

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