I used to do Traveler’s Guides to the US elections, but I stopped when US politics got even more depressing. However, the rise of Trump seems to demand some effort, especially since I think it’s widely misinterpreted.
A lot of people are outraged over Trump, and for good reason: he’s a bad man. The thing is, they’re outraged for different and in fact completely opposed reasons. Liberals hate him because he’s a blowhard racist and proto-fascist. Conservatives hate him because he’s not extreme enough.
Now that Trump has won 10 states and has a large delegate lead, it’s evident that he’s not going away by himself. The Republican establishment is in a tizzy— today Mitt Romney is giving a speech attacking Trump. I see too much of the narrative that Trump is somehow the crazy outlier and that one of the establishment candidates would be more moderate.
This is absurd: the other candidates are even crazier and Trump’s support is greatest among (Republican) moderates. The most dedicated evangelicals, the scrap-the-gummint libertarians, the nuke-em-all neocons, all hate Trump because he is less committed to their orthodoxy than the other candidates. Very conservative and Tea Party voters prefer Cruz.
This doesn’t mean Trump is actually moderate, just a foul-mouthed Bush Sr. If elected, he would do bad things. But these are precisely the bad things that any Republican candidate would do, and which he would do because he agrees with the GOP Congressional leadership: pass a huge tax cut for the rich, name a neo-Scalia to the Supreme Court, repeal Obamacare, ignore climate change, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall on the border, reverse gay marriage, restrict abortion, be aggressive abroad, and return to torture.
(Whether he or any GOP president would actually be able to get those things passed is another issue. The Republicans have 24 Senate seats in contention— won during the 2010 election, which was far friendlier to the GOP. The Democrats only need 5 seats to take control of the Senate.)
When the other candidates criticize him, it’s always from the right. Cruz has called Trump’s immigration policy “amnesty”, and he and Rubio have pledged to immediately deport DREAMers (i.e. children and students). Cruz isn’t just against illegal immigration, but wants to reduce immigration period (hey, who needs a growing economy?). When Trump stated, accurately, that Bush didn’t keep us safe from terrorism and ignored warnings about Osama, Rubio was outraged and blamed 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Trump has claimed he could produce an Israeli-Palestinian deal, while Cruz and Rubio assert the standard GOP line that it’s impossible to negotiate with the Palestinians. They attacked Trump in the last debate for not being sufficiently callous about universal health care. Both want to reverse the Iran deal, so Iran can go back to developing nukes. For Rubio, austerity budgets and giveaways to the rich are not enough; he wants a balanced budget amendment and to eliminate the estate tax. Both of them have condemned Trump for speaking up for the non-abortion things Planned Parenthood does.
Explaining why they hate Trump, conservatives like Erick Erickson and Rick Wilson accuse him of being pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, and for single payer health. (All calumnies, but it shows what direction they’re attacking from.)
Would Trump get behind Paul Ryan’s budget? He’s less likely to do so than Cruz or Rubio; he’s really not against big government or the middle-class entitlements. Cruz doesn’t just want a tax cut; he wants a 10% flat tax and no IRS. (I guess the tax would be implemented as a tip jar.) Would Trump start wars? He’s the one who’s been ragging on Bush for the Iraq War; Cruz has promised to “carpet bomb” the Middle East.
Trump has burned a lot of bridges with GOP leaders, but so has Cruz, to the point that Sen. Lindsay Graham remarked, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” It would have seemed insane a year ago to predict that a GOP candidate would do well by purposely feuding with Fox News— but nobody can say Trump isn’t media-savvy.
So what’s wrong with Trump? In my sf novel, I suggested that it’s less of a problem for a conservative leader to be immoral than to look ridiculous. Trump is ridiculous. He’s angry and unfocused, doesn’t bother much with consistency or truth, responds to all disputes with schoolyard insults. He just doesn’t do gravitas.
The GOP establishment hates him partly because he doesn’t care much about GOP orthodoxy, and because they can’t control him. They’re not bothered by his racism— all the GOP cares about is white men anyway. They just wish he’d learn to express it in more filtered and conventional terms.
For thirty years the GOP has valued, above all else, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, and a non-expanding government— basically, what the rich elite want. Cultural concerns are thrown on to attract actual non-rich voters, but tossed away when inconvenient— which is why the GOP base always hates the GOP establishment. Though Trump doesn’t leave the conservative church, he is something of a heretic. He doesn’t care about (all of ) “movement conservativism”; he doesn’t want to drown government in a bathtub; his statements on free trade veer toward protectionism.
The GOP is torn between libertarianism, the religious right, big business, and right-wing populism. Trump is best understood as the voice of the last group. Rather like Bernie Sanders, he resonates with the many white people (the majority, really) who feel left behind by modern plutocracy. Of course he’s a businessman himself and doesn’t promise to reduce inequality, but he speaks to people’s feelings that they’ve lost something. Cruz and Rubio have done nothing to connect better with these people, and I don’t think Romney attacking their champion will do any good either.
It’s been a crazy year, but it’s not crazy in the same way as 2012, where the GOP electorate flirted with various not-Romneys and then selected the establishment candidate. But if they wanted an extreme candidate, they’d’ve gone for Cruz. (And there’s very little air between Cruz and Rubio.) They wanted a non-establishment candidate— and to the extent Trump differs from the rest of the field, it’s not that he’s crazy, it’s that a) he’s unfiltered, and b) he’s not (quite so) tied to GOP orthodoxy.
What happens now? A lot depends on whether the GOP falls into line behind Trump or not. The party decided to have an early convention, in July, believing that the bruising 2012 fight didn’t allow enough time for intra-party wounds to heal. That’s looking like a mistake now: is just four months enough time for Romney and other party elders, to say nothing of the other candidates, to rally enthusiastically at a Trump coronation and focus happily on Hillary? That’s kind of their job, but (say) Romney’s speech today is going to make excruciating contrast to Romney’s speech at the convention.
(The Plan Z of the establishment, if Trump wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates. seems to be a brokered convention. Hoo boy, does that seem like a poor plan. Trump voters are supposed to fall in line and vote for Mr. Establishment after their man is robbed? If anything could actually break the party in half, that would do it.)
Edit: Forgot to add that Trump is just an intensification of GOP strategy for the last eight years: rile up the base’s anger, encourage government dysfunction, court white men by opposing every other group, aggressively disregard the facts. The elite doesn’t like someone doing all this even better than they can.
Also, in the GOP debate last night, the position of the other candidates was that Trump was a dishonest con man who couldn’t be trusted to be president, and that they’d be voting for him in the fall. They really deserve the drubbing they’re getting.