We all got it wrong.
Everybody who wrote Donald Trump off as a political charlatan destined to flame out; everybody who called Trump a clown who would return to his reality show and leave us all alone; everybody who suggested that this circus couldn’t — couldn’t! — continue…we were all wrong. Perhaps we were guilty of believing that Trump’s mistakes would break out into the mainstream rather than dying slow deaths on cable television. Perhaps we thought that voters would wake up to Trump’s bombastic narcissism and turn away. Perhaps, as statistician Nate Silver put it, we were guilty of not predicting “that the Republican Party would lose its f—ing mind.”
Whatever the rationale, Trump is surely a shock to everyone but political commentator Ann Coulter and a few other Trump stalwarts.
Now it’s time to take away a few lessons.
First, failure to utilize ideological purity tests leads to the rise of leftist candidates within your own party. The bizarre paradox of Trumpian thinking is that the same people complaining about Republicans caving to President Obama want to nominate a lifelong left-leaning ad hoc politician with no centralizing principle other than his own glorification, a man who brags openly that he will cut deals with Democrats. When conservatives object, these Trump fans point to the GOP nominations of former Gov. Mitt Romney, creator of Obamacare, and Sen. John McCain, creator of campaign finance reform and amnesty. They’re being hypocritical. McCain and Romney were, by any measure, more conservative overall than Trump. But the feeling that conservatism doesn’t matter any longer is hard to quell when, to so many major Republicans, it simply didn’t matter that much in 2008 and 2012.
Second, ignoring social issues means that the only way to appeal to disgruntled blue-collar voters is by moving left on economics. There’s been a good deal of loose talk about Trump’s appeal with disenchanted white voters who didn’t show up for Romney. And Trump does indeed appeal to them with lies about the efficacy of tariffs and taxing the rich, which is straight from the Bernie Sanders playbook. These people used to vote Republican — before the Republican Party decided to toss social policy out the window to pander to New Yorkers like Trump.
Third, moral narrative is far more important than policy knowledge. Trump knows less about policy than my 4-day-old child, and cares less about the Constitution than my boy. But that doesn’t matter because he’s fighting the “establishment,” by which Trump means everyone who disagrees with him. Because he’s conflating his “establishment” with a political establishment that insists on cutting deals with President Obama, Republican voters bought in.
Fourth, when there are no good guys, character doesn’t matter. One Indiana voter was asked last week about the fact that Trump lies constantly. She said that all politicians lie, and that at least Trump lies differently than other politicians. That’s odd logic, but it’s true: When all politicians are automatically deemed liars, Trump’s lack of character and credibility fades into the woodwork.
Fifth, lack of institutional trust leads to the rise of protofascists, not to a general allegiance to liberty. We hate the media, but instead of seeking honest members of the media, we revel in people who lie to the media and get away with it — people like Trump. We hate the corrupt political establishment, but instead of seeking people who will abide by Constitutional limitations and minimize the role of government in our lives, we seek a strong man, a bad strong man, to break apart the system.
Trump’s rise both reflects and foreshadows an ugly future for the country. I hope I’m as wrong on that prediction as I was about Trump’s rise.