When the unexpected arrives, observers are usually left scrambling to make sense of what’s happening. Often, we end up both over- and under-reacting: witness the national response to Donald Trump – who has the potential to become the second-most destructive American political figure of the last half-century. (For those keeping track at home, Tricky Dick comes in first and Newt Gingrich, who ushered in the era of hyper-partisanship, will sit comfortably at number three if Trump remains true to form. But maybe I’m overreacting.)
At times like this, the old political wisdom becomes irrelevant, and the new political wisdom tends to be little more than glorified soothsaying. The landscape is ripe for myth-making, so let’s take a moment and clear some things up.
(1) Donald Trump is not a radical conservative.
I know that Trump’s extremism has tempted liberals to denounce him as radical, and since he’s a Republican (now), it seems to follow that he’s a radical conservative. He isn’t. Ted Cruz is a radical conservative. Donald Trump is both simpler and more complicated.
The most immediate clue as to the kind of political beast we’re dealing with is Donald Trump’s rhetoric of contagion. In Trump’s lexicon, things he doesn’t like are ‘disgusting’. Elements of the body politic need to be purged, and then we need to build a barrier to keep them out. It’s almost too perfect that Donald Trump is famously averse to shaking hands.
This isn’t just semantics; untangling the miscategorization of Donald Trump is a serious step in understanding what’s happening to the country through his candidacy.
(2) The Republican and Democratic primaries are not mirror-images of each other.
The hysteria has started to die down, but for a while there it seemed hip and fashionable to imagine that both parties were being similarly disrupted by insurgent candidates. That’s far off the mark. The most immediate contrast is easy to see: the Republican insurgent won, and the Democratic insurgent is losing. But it’s almost as important that the Democratic insurgent was actually a purist while the GOP bomb thrower was not. This means that Bernie Sanders has strengthened the Democratic party’s ideological foundation, while Donald Trump has left deep fissures up and down the Republican party platform.
It would be silly to deny that both parties have been shaken up by populist fervor, but they each have responded to it very differently. If we stop and think about it for a second, it shouldn’t be too shocking to discover that the Democratic establishment has found ways to speak to the populist concerns of their voters, at least enough to fend off an attack from the far left. Meanwhile, the Republican establishment has been cleaved from its base.
(3) The Republican Party isn’t splitting, it’s shedding.
Donald Trump hasn’t just won a technical victory, he has proven that he’s widely popular (or at least acceptable) to the Republican voter base. According to PPP, more than 70 percent of GOP voters say that they are comfortable with Donald Trump as the party’s nominee. It’s also worth noting that even with a Stop Trump movement trying to derail him, more people have voted for Trump in 2016 than voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 nomination contest. Simply put, Donald Trump has revealed that the political sentiments of many elected Republicans have very little electoral support.
This is a twin problem for Republicans. First, their ideas turn out to be unpopular. That’s a problem for any party that wants to win elections. Second, the fact that so many voters deserted Republican orthodoxy in favor of Trump’s message lends uncomfortable credence to liberal arguments that past support for many GOP policies among conservative voters was little more than a fig leaf for racial animus. (To their credit, many Republican operatives seem genuinely surprised by this development.)
Where does that leave Republicans? No one really knows, which is what all the hand-wringing is about.
(4) Protectionism is here to stay.
This is the year the Washington Consensus died, or at least went on life-support. Since the term was first introduced in 1989 by economist John Williamson, belief in the Washington Consensus model – briefly put, openness to market forces, free trade, and low taxes – has ebbed and flowed. This year, it hit a dam. It is now obvious that vast numbers of Americans are highly skeptical of the benefits of global trade and are not opposed to the government putting its finger on the scale to pick winners and losers – they’re just afraid they won’t be the winners.
(5) Don’t blame the system.
Everyone running for anything this year wants to talk about how rigged the system is. They’re not wrong, but the one thing you can’t blame the system for is the politicians the country is pushing towards the general election.
The role of an electoral system is to allow a way for the voice of the people to be heard while providing safeguards against fits of generalized madness. Our electoral system is still doing that. In many European countries, candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would be guaranteed king-making majorities in the legislature. But the US has no equivalent to parties like UKIP, Golden Dawn, or the Front National because our two-party system keeps actors out of power if they can’t build coalitions that approach fifty percent of the country.
The problem is that Donald Trump’s coalition is heading towards that threshold. The fault for that lies entirely with the voters.
A Brief Note of Optimism
Presidential candidates and voting publics love to engage in a time-honored folie à deux; namely, the delusion that Presidents are all-powerful figures who get to enact their agendas at will. In truth, Presidents are highly constrained. I continue to believe that Donald Trump is unlikely to become President, even if the possibility of such a disaster is becoming uncomfortably high. But if he is elected President, all of the country’s procedural safeguards will snap into place. President Trump won’t be able to fire the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the federal courts. He’ll hardly be able to enact policy other than through a federal apparatus stacked with career bureaucrats.
Even for President Trump, it would take a long time to overcome all that. In the meantime, the tension would build until either the fever passes or the machine breaks down.
Now see, isn’t that a silver lining?
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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