Donald Trump has been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to a wide panoply of historical figures, including Adolf Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and more. Trump has even compared himself to Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and Conrad Black seems to think, for some reason, that Trump is a pragmatic centrist of sorts who can restore an FDR-Ike sensibility to American politics.
The prize for making the most obscure comparison, though, probably goes to First Things editor R. R. Reno, who compared Donald Trump to 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The parallels are vast, suggests Reno: a benevolent support for the working classes, an embrace of nationalism against the depredations of elite cosmopolitanism, a sense of passion, pride, and romanticism arrayed against the elite’s technocratic utilitarianism, and of course the classic outsider-transforms-politics story that has marked so many quiet revolutions. There are so many parallels, Reno claims, that “[w]ere Disraeli reincarnated as a Republican politician, our establishment would very likely find him as distressing as they currently find Trump.”
Aside from Trump’s and Disraeli’s supposed personal similarities, the eras they bestride share similarities as well. Disraeli operated in the years of industrialization and accompanying economic dislocations; Trump operates in an age of globalization and similar tectonic shifts. Certain groups—the elite capitalists and upper middle classes of both mid-19th-century Britain and early 21st-century America—benefited enormously from these changes. Large masses of ordinary people in the lower classes, in both cases, did not. Disraeli smashed the old system and reformed it as a “Tory Man with Whig Measures,” as he famously foreshadowed in his early political novel Coningsby. He even outflanked the Liberals at their own game, extending the franchise to more voters than they ever could, and addressing working-class concerns by repealing the Corn Laws. Trump, by committing various conservative economic heresies on issues like trade, immigration, and the minimum wage, sometimes appears to be doing the same thing. Disraeli transformed the Tory party; Trump, regardless of whether or not he is elected, has transformed the Republican Party.
Donald Trump, however, is no American Disraeli. For one thing, there are the biographical and temperamental differences, as Reno acknowledges:“Disraeli wrote his own books, married just one woman, and was not a newcomer to politics when, at the end of a long career in Parliament, he became Prime Minister.”
Yet the differences run deeper, to philosophical, political, and policy differences in the fundamental aims and purposes of each man’s unique brand of nationalism.
The first major difference lies in what each hoped to restore, and the means each proposed for restoration. As Reno notes, Disraeli was a “wannabe aristocrat” who sought a return to the great and cultivated values of Britain’s noble past, but he simultaneously sought to modernize an industrializing England and adapt England’s institutions and society to be more just and humane as the Victorian Age drew on. He was, paradoxically, a great aristocrat and a great democrat.
Where Disraeli used the values of the past to implement a vision of the future, Trump proposes to use the values of the present to restore a golden past. Trump’s values very much mirror the crass materialism of elite 21st-century capitalism. But his policy vision for America is a regurgitation of the policies that created the mid-20th century industrial atmosphere of high-paying manufacturing jobs and generous entitlements—a vision that, however enticing, will never return in the form it took in the 1950s. Trump is both a godless modern and a nostalgic reactionary.
There is a more important division between Trump’s and Disraeli’s visions. Donald Trump, for all his halfhearted appeals to African-Americans and Hispanics, is fundamentally a white populist the way George Wallace was several decades ago. He’s most likely not a racist in his heart of hearts, given his career in cosmopolitan New York City. But in his political program and political strategy, his constituency is working-class white America. His appeals to “Jacksonian” Americans’ racially tinged anxieties, at the expense of Muslims, Latino immigrants, and other groups, do not earn him a spot in the pantheon of colorblind “100% Americanism” nationalists like the Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson, his admiration of these great figures notwithstanding.
Benjamin Disraeli did not live in nearly so diverse an England as our America, but his program of “one-nation conservatism” was intrinsically conciliatory and unitary, rather than divisive. Disraeli sought to align the interests of Britain’s various classes into a broader organic whole, and if Reno really could bring Disraeli back from the dead to the America of 2016, Disraeli would probably be an apostle and advocate of a multiracial working-class populism. Perhaps Donald Trump personally hopes to unite working-class whites, blacks, and Latinos, but that is certainly not what his campaign is doing.
The social vision promoted by a politician is just as important as his or her economic and institutional policies; those policies really only serve as tools to bring the social vision into reality. Donald Trump’s social vision—or that of his campaign and supporters, at least—is a whiter and more traditional America. That may have been a good thing for stability once upon a time, but it certainly is not agreeable now, with so many Americans of Asian, Latino, and other backgrounds making up a significant chunk of the body politic. Multiculturalism has clearly failed, but a response far superior to white populism would be one-nation multiracial integration—and no one is providing that right now.
Although Reno ignores this crucial component of the Trumpian and Disraelite nationalisms, he nonetheless makes many fair and important points of comparison and prescription. The GOP really should ditch its free-market orthodoxies and adopt a more nationalist economic agenda, something more Hamiltonian and worker-friendly. Trump’s directions on immigration, trade, entitlements, and regulation offer pointers for this sort of agenda. Culturally, the GOP should continue to wave the American flag proudly, but in doing so, it should celebrate diversity while encouraging cultural integration and national unity. Donald Trump has utterly destroyed the legitimacy of traditional conservative Republicanism, and whatever new center-right ideology emerges must necessarily look more like Ross Douthat and Joel Kotkin than George F. Will and Bill Kristol. With any luck, loyalist GOP reformers like Reihan Salam and David Frum will lead the charge post-November 2016 to pick up the pieces and build a true Reform Conservatism capable of addressing the issues that led to Trump’s rise.
Donald Trump will not lead us into a sunnier, more humane, and greater future, and he will not reinvigorate conservatism and healthy nationalism in the interests of national greatness and unity, the way Benjamin Disraeli did for England. Trump can only divide and play to fear. In an age of institutional dysfunction and cultural division, that is the last thing America needs.
We could use a new Disraeli, both to reform American conservatism and to solve America’s great and pressing issues. But Donald Trump is not that leader.