With Donald Trump’s stunning lead only widening as the Iowa caucuses hurtle closer and closer, conservative opinion makers are divided when it comes to the sources of his success. “Establishment”-oriented thinkers and donors—to the extent that “Establishment” as a category actually retains any significance—have tended to shrug off his success as a temporary if increasingly alarming fad with little significance for the future of the GOP or its traditional agenda. Meanwhile, for longtime critics of elite GOP orthodoxy, Donald Trump’s populism is a vindication of everything they’ve ever said is wrong with the party, even if he is the wrong man to communicate their concerns.
A prime example is Michael Brendan Dougherty, who wrote a provocative column yesterday entitled “For Trumpism, Against Donald Trump.” His opening:
I’ve been waiting for a Republican who would say, bluntly, the Iraq War was a disaster. I’ve been waiting for a Republican candidate to say that the trade deals and legal frameworks that drive globalism have been bad deals for America’s workers. I’ve been waiting for a candidate who would question the elite consensus on mass immigration, not tweak it. And I’ve been waiting for a candidate to deliver a shock to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, something that would force them to reconnect to the actual material interests of their voters, to make them realize that the market was made for man, and not man for the market.
Unfortunately, the candidate espousing these views is Donald Trump. And the few good causes which he espouses — the ones which could stand on their own, apart from the crutches of noxious racism and populism he uses to prop them up — are too important to be entrusted to him.
It’s clear that Trump has challenged elements of the Republican orthodoxy in sometimes useful ways, and, moreover, that the Establishment dismissal of Trump is no longer tenable—he would not have made it this far if the party’s national coalition was strong or if the agenda set by party leadership had widespread appeal. But what portion of Trump’s appeal really derives from his populist policy positions that could “stand on their own”? Like many others, Dougherty argues that the overriding lesson of Trump is that GOP voters are tired of the traditional Republican agenda, and they want the party to offer them something closer to Buchananism (protectionism, anti-immigrant policy, strident nationalism) instead. A variation of this theory is the one offered by David Frum in his blockbuster Atlantic cover story, which argues that Trump is leading, in part, by appealing to GOP voters’ contempt for the party’s “Wall Street Journal wing” and their desire for a more straightforwardly centrist economic policy.
One or both of these theories may well turn out to be accurate, but there are reasons to be wary of putting too much weight on actual policy differences as an explanation for the Donald’s success. First, if there were a huge, unsated appetite in the Republican primary electorate for “Trumpism,” as Dougherty suggests, wouldn’t we expect to see more GOP candidates for other offices (state, local, Congressional) running on a similar platform? If GOP voters were really as animated by expanding health coverage as Frum suggests, would the party’s scorched-earth campaign against Obamacare really have been so unrelenting? Trump may be a political genius, but unless and until he can actually rally GOP elected officials behind his supposed agenda—which, as Dougherty correctly observes really does represent a radical break from traditional Republicanism, in more ways than one—it seems more likely that he is a personality-driven anomaly, made possible by the staleness of the mainstream Republican message, yes, but not actually representative of any specific alternative.
Moreover, if voters were really drawn to Trump for the issues and policies he represents, wouldn’t they be more concerned about whether or not he actually believes in them? It’s been pointed out again and again that before Trump re-invented himself as an immigration uber-hawk, he supported amnesty and critiqued Mitt Romney for being too tough on immigration. Before he became a “guns, God and gays” conservative, he publicly advocated for gun control and never showed any kind of affinity for organized religion. Before he became a nationalist who was going to crush our enemies with overwhelming force, he praised the Obama administration’s Iran policy. He is an unusual pick for conservative voters genuinely whose preferences were dictated first and foremost by policy positions, rather than free-floating anger and mood affiliation.
Of course, it’s not an either-or proposition. There clearly are many voters—especially on the far-right—who are excited by Trump’s singular willingness to speak about immigration and ethnic minorities in a way that is unprecedented in modern American politics. But at the end of the day, Trump’s populism may be more visceral than substantive. Like Pierre Poujade and Huey Long before him, Trump’s appeal is partly about the the fantasy of a strong leader, and the desire to see a grand simplification of the nation’s problems. It is also partly about affect: “By flouting PC norms,” as Walter Russell Mead has written, “Trump offers a different kind of ‘representation’… he is living the life that—at least some of the time—a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live.”
It may be, as Ezra Klein suggested on the Vox podcast yesterday, that analyzing Trump from the perspective of policy positions is a “category error.” It may be, in other words, that there is no such thing as Trumpism as a political agenda. There is only Donald Trump, in all his vulgar glory.