Keith C. Burris,
Stumped by Trump.
It is time for most of the political journalists of America to rethink their view of Donald Trump.
The media narrative on Mr. Trump has come in three stages — all while covering him like a four-alarm fire. The first was to treat Mr. Trump as a joke, someone to be laughed at and dismissed. The second was to treat him as a bizarre and inexplicable fad, but one that would, like all fads, fade. The third, the current, is to treat him as a sign of the end times and a threat to the republic itself.
The assumption inherent in stage three is that, of course, he cannot win the presidency — that would be taking this bad joke too far.
But what if the press has been wrong all along about Mr. Trump and what if we are still wrong?
We often get public figures wrong, just fundamentally wrong. The predominant view from the press, and the first draft of history, is just off the mark.
Harry Truman — the little man with the little brain who would never be able to handle the presidency.
He gave us NATO and the Truman Doctrine.
Dwight Eisenhower — the passive, do-nothing president.
He gave us the Interstate Highway System, unprecedented and unparalleled prosperity and peace, school integration at Little Rock and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Along with a warning about “the military-industrial complex.”
John F. Kennedy — the physically fit idealist.
He was terribly ill and more cynical than Richard Nixon, not only about politics but how to treat other human beings.
Jerry Ford — the accidental president and all-around bumbler.
He restored the presidency and the Constitution and installed the most competent Cabinet since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Time passes. Events test. History gestates, and we find out how often we get our public figures spectacularly wrong.
Here is the big thing we have gotten wrong about Mr. Trump: That he is dumb and his followers are even dumber — chumps.
What if he is smart as hell and most of his voters know what they are doing?
I keep thinking about the Trump voter — very far from a Tea Partier — who said: Sometimes you have to turn over the whole apple cart. The good apples must go with the bad.
Is this not what folks said when they voted for Barack Obama and hope and change? Is the Trump phenomenon not a “movement” and as worthy of respect — for the adaptability and vitality of democracy — as the Obama movement?
For, once again, millions of voters are voting for a broom over experience. And that is troubling.
Young Sen. Barack Obama was once advised: Run for governor. Get some executive experience. Four years in the Senate is not much of a qualification for the presidency. If Mr. Trump had run for governor of New York, as he once thought of doing, and had won, that would have been reassuring preparation for the presidency — as it was for Roosevelt.
How does one lead an enterprise one has never been a part of?
But there must be a reason the public has discounted experience in 2016 as they did in 2008.
I think there are two:
One is that the public distrusts the political professionals. They have given us debt, the Islamic State, Syria and the de-industrialization of America.
The other is that they want a new direction — one that John Kasich and Hillary Clinton cannot imagine.
Most voters know Mr. Trump can’t “bring back steel,” or “beat” the Chinese in trade or stop cars from being made in Mexico or Korea. But they believe, rightly or wrongly, that he will try — and move us in that direction.
When I say Mr. Trump is smart, I do not mean only as a manipulator of symbols and a deft politician, I also mean he has gotten a couple of big things right. He’s right on the costs of free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he’s right that the foreign policy consensus on U.S. intervention and the saving of other nations (Iraq under George W. Bush and Syria under Mr. Obama) has been a disaster. In this he reminds me of Ronald Reagan: He’s gotten a couple of big things right and connected with voters.
I loathe Mr. Trump’s vulgarity, his immigrant bashing and his prideful ignorance. But the media missed a large part of the story: Beneath the bluster is a supremely confident and utterly pragmatic candidate who has been underestimated in part because he can run simultaneously to the right and the left of his opponents. He should be challenged to define what his administration (and who his advisers) will be. But we dismiss him at the risk of missing what is happening in America.
I remember when Ronald Reagan was called an “amiable dunce” and the most ignorant man to enter the Oval Office. He was neither. We got him wrong.
Keith C. Burris is the editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette’s sister newspaper, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (firstname.lastname@example.org).