So Trump’s campaign has left stage 1, which was: The campaign is ridiculous entertainment by the Redneck Mussolini, but soon the clown will disappear and the real candidates will take center stage.
Now we have stage 2: Trump is going to be around for a while, and we should think about his appeal seriously and sympathetically. Stage 2 is better, because it replaces contempt with thought. And those who feigned contempt (like virtually every Republican public intellectual) were, from the beginning, really scared. That’s why they were and sometimes continue to be rather hysterical.
Stage 2 is strange new respect not so much for Trump but for his growing number of supporters. Straussians are saying that Trump is pure “spiritedness,” or is all about “patriotic zeal.” But, as Peter below points out, that’s not true. Trump isn’t a warrior. He’s a womanizer. And he’s really funny. He’s excellent at mocking the politically correct pretensions of his critics.
So Pete says he’s the voice of despair. The members of our oligarchic ruling class don’t offer a real solution to the problem of the rapidly eroding “social capital” of the lower half of our middle class; they’re not about to step up, really, to help those who, at this point, don’t have the wherewithal to live dignified relational lives. Arthur Brooks can sleep well at night because he believes that capitalism is the best system for the poor. There’s a lot of truth there, but it’s not the whole truth. And Trump is at least somewhat right that opening the borders to upgrade the lives of all the workers of the world has to be at the expense of the American citizens who work. From this view, Trump is the candidate of loyal, struggling members of the sinking American middle class who feel betrayed by what some call the emerging realities of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. Now some would say that’s resentment fueled by envy, but everyone really knows that some are getting hit really hard in the world where the cognitive elite dominates like never before and where, as Tyler Cowen says, “average is over.”
So Peggy Noonan — a very mainstream and, well, sensible and very poetic Republican critic — writes this morning (in the Wall Street Journal!) of a hardworking Hispanic-American citizen she knows who’s all for Trump. Not only that, he tells her that for loyal American immigrants Trump is “the man.” Now, I don’t see much evidence that Trump himself is blessed with the virtue of loyalty; he’s the anti-oligarchic oligarch. He outing the other oligarchs for who they are, allegedly with great astuteness. He knows them, because he’s one of them. But what Peggy was aiming to show us is that Trump’s success isn’t mainly about “white-identity politics,” it’s about “American civic-identity politics,” an identity not to be confused with zealotry. I’m the first to admit that’s an important distinction.
Now, there might be a stage 3, where all the public intellectuals switch over to Trump. I’m nowhere where near there yet, and I’ll even add that the critics are now somewhat romanticizing his appeal. I still see him as a demagogue flying by the seat of his pants, and I’m close to completely agreeing with Pete that he knows he’s going to lose.
Here’s another thing Trump has done: He has suggested that all the other candidates are clueless, politically correct morons who lack the toughness required to defend our country and its citizens.
Here’s another just emerging trend: Critics of all ideological stripes are starting to take that bait and saying, “Well, the truth is that Trump wouldn’t be worse than this or that candidate.” That’s how bad the other candidates are. Thanks to Trump, all the Republican candidates especially now have to prove they’re not spineless idiots. That’s hard to do, and that’s why they’re all (save Ben Carson) languishing in single digits.