Well, here I go. I’ve avoided this moment for the better part of eight months, but I think the time has finally come. I can no longer avoid talking about Donald J. Trump and his campaign for President of the United States. When he first announced that he was running back in June of last year, I figured he would dominate the news cycle for most of the summer and then peter out sometime in the fall. At the time, I simply couldn’t imagine that Republican voters would stick with a candidate who was so lacking in any real policy knowledge. I started to have grave doubts about that assumption when September rolled around and Trump was still going strong. It wasn’t until Christmas that I finally realized how wrong I was. The New Year came without any perceptible slowing of Trump’s campaign momentum, and here we stand on the brink of the Iowa caucuses with America’s crassest business mogul sitting pretty as the favorite. Donald Trump is here to stay, folks, and I’m ashamed it took me this long to wake up and realize it.
I think the reason I made this mistake (aside, of course, from the fact that I simply didn’t want to believe a Trump candidacy could be viable) was that I misdiagnosed the underlying political climate that enabled Trump’s rise in the first place. After the 2014 midterms, I naively believed that the 2016 presidential race would be a choice election. I envisioned that the American people would be presented with an opportunity to determine whether our nation should continue with the gradual expansion of an activist federal government favored by the Obama Administration or to stop this bloating in its tracks and move toward reducing the apparatuses of state in size for the first time in two decades. Looking back, I realize how hopelessly grandiose that notion was, and I’m not sure what made me think that could ever be the case. I suppose I was fixated on the idea that the Republican Party was merely one chess piece away from being able to roll back the excesses of the Obama years and that the American people would at least be interested in giving the GOP a fair hearing to make its case in an open presidential election.
I was gravely mistaken on two fronts. First and foremost, I was downright foolish to believe that the Republican Party had any interest in downsizing our government (or even slowing its continual growth) in the first place. Since taking complete control of Congress, Team Red has managed to do precisely nothing other than reach a budget deal that increases the deficit and signals the final death of sequestration—the one true government-shrinking initiative undertaken in Washington since the Gingrich years. My second mistake was believing that the American people wanted an ideological, conservative-versus-progressive battle in 2016. (I use the term “progressive” rather than “liberal” here because the latter no longer accurately describes the ideological bent of today’s Democratic Party.)
In regards to my second mistake, I find myself in the same boat as the media and the Republican establishment. As usual, I think Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics gets it exactly right when he writes that Trump’s rise is not a symptom of the GOP’s usual establishment-versus-Tea Party struggle over ideological conservatism, as I once thought, but rather a populist revolt against the Republican Party’s incessant kowtowing to corporate interests and hopelessly out-of-touch coastal elites. (The Democratic Party, you may notice, is going through a similar struggle at the moment.) Donald Trump isn’t Barry Goldwater; he’s Pat Buchanan. And that miscalculation is ultimately why, at this point, I firmly believe there is nothing the Republican Party can do to stop Trump’s nomination. There’s simply nothing they have to say that Trump’s supporters want to hear.
But it’s not Trump’s enduring popularity that frustrates me so much as does the fact that this is a sign that Trump’s supporters feel just as betrayed by our two major political parties as I do. As Trende writes, Trump voters are not staunch Republican partisans, nor are they strict ideological conservatives. They don’t really care all that much whether or not a particular candidate is a uniform conservative. They just want a candidate who doesn’t talk down to them, who won’t steal their jobs through globalist free trade pacts, and who will prioritize easing their tax burden over that of Wall Street. And, honestly, I don’t think these are such terrible things to want, even if Donald Trump truly is a terrible candidate to support.
And that’s why the Republican Party is so very wrong to try and pull voters away from Trump by attacking him for not being conservative enough, as the writers at National Review have attempted. Nobody who is currently a Trump supporter will read that litany of attacks and agree with it (nor will they likely make it all the way through such a monster post in the first place). They probably won’t even care. Laura Ingraham, writing for PoliZette, is spot on in articulating the problem with this line of attack:
“By refusing to make room for [populism] within conservatism, NR risks creating the impression that the revolution brought about by George W. Bush — in particular, his belief in open borders, his effort to create a permanent U.S. military mission in the Middle East, and his notion that trade can never be regulated, no matter how unfair — is now a permanent part of conservatism that can never be questioned.”
Truly, I cannot imagine a worse trajectory for today’s Republican Party to take than a retreat back into the policies of the Bush years, and yet—as I’ve written before—that’s exactly what they seem to want to do. And in the process, they want to alienate the blue-collar populists of the Trump faction—yet another voting bloc that could be willing to join the Republican coalition but has instead been shown the door by clueless party elites. And besides, what right does a party that has shown absolutely no commitment to conservatism have to attack anyone’s conservative credentials? This is arrogance of the highest degree.
Am I being a hypocrite by criticizing the Republican establishment for making the same incorrect assumptions about Trump supporters that I did? Maybe, but I at least take solace in the knowledge that I actually want an ideological battle in 2016 and I want that battle to involve an inclusive, practical brand of conservatism. I may not like Trump or his supporters, but the more I learn about them the more I realize that we do have a few important things in common: a distaste for party bosses, a distrust of globalism, and disdain for crony capitalism among them. In many ways, they and I feel similarly abandoned, even if we see the world in very different ways (I, for one, find Trump’s racial demagoguery and reductionist foreign policy positions to be rather disgusting). We are both fed up with the Republican Party, albeit for different reasons. Where they see a lack of concern for the little guy, I see a lack of conservative principles. But, at the end of the day, I don’t see why we can’t have both. It seems, however, that the GOP would rather have neither. And that is why, above all else, I’m still with Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist in saying that, when it comes to Donald Trump, I hate everybody.