George Will’s excellent column this week explains well why Donald Trump staying power in the Republican nomination fight is likely limited. As Will explains, Trump is not a real Republican. A recent convert, his political beliefs do not add up to anything approaching a conservative political ideology. He’s been tolerated thus far because other more viable candidates assume that eventually he will implode. If he doesn’t, the Republican establishment will kick into gear via Super PACS to assure his destruction.
Having said that, Trump is likely larger threat as an independent candidate in a general election because his appeal cuts across party lines (even more so than Ross Perot). Democrats who are currently enjoying this circus may need to recalibrate should Trump launch an independent bid. His appeal to working-class – what we once called Reagan Republicans – cuts both ways.
As a political observer, two facets Trump’s candidacy continue to fascinate me. First, part of his appeal resides in the misguided belief that American democracy could function better if it operated more like corporate America. This is perhaps true if we mean that corporate America is necessarily more efficient that democratic governance but it is also (by definition) less democratic. Corporate America typically empowers its leaders, democracy limits them. This is particularly true in the American political system which is built around the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and limited government.
Our fascination with Trump is not only yet another reflection of how poorly we understand our political system but also with a little we like the practice of democracy. In the abstract we love democratic governance; but the more we watch it, the less we like.
It also reflects our unwillingness to take responsibility for our current dysfunction, is the world elected representatives somehow magically arrived in Washington without having ever been elected. Over the past several decades, we’ve increasingly elected more ideological, less pragmatic representatives. Yet, we are surprised when the political system becomes bogged down in gridlock and dysfunction.
Second, bluster is not principle. Donald Trump’s willingness to say exactly what he thinks strikes many voters as refreshing, and gives the illusion that Trump is motivated by principle rather than raw political calculation. When you add up the sum total of all that he says, however, he is – in the words of Winston Churchill – “a pudding without theme.” American voters have a long mistaken speaking with volume for decisiveness and enthusiasm for sincere belief, but Trump takes the triumph of style over substance to new heights. He is hard to pin down but says things with such force and certainty that it is hard to escape his image as decisive, principled, and – yes – ideologically grounded. Far more conservative politicians have been branded RINOs and defeated by a Tea Party surge.
Perhaps a broader lesson is about the limits of ideology in American public discourse. To be conservative is to identify with a conservative label and to dislike liberal alternative. Trump captures the dislike and the anger even if he is an imperfect representation of conservative issues. If he succeeds – which I think is still unlikely – he will change the definition of what it means to be conservative.