The candidate at a Trump rally in Las Vegas on Monday. (Photo: Erik Kabik Photography/MediaPunch/IPX)
Cheer up, Republican leaders!
OK, it’s true, your grand old party, which not long ago stood for family values and dime-store flag pins, is now on the verge of being taken over by a man who once likened his risqué sex life to a tour in Vietnam. And yes, perhaps the 168 members of the Republican National Committee are about to find out how janitors get treated at the Trump Taj Mahal.
But if Trump does become your nominee — and even I’m now persuaded, after months of being wrong, that it’s pretty likely — it doesn’t mean you’re destined for another Goldwater-type defeat in November.
On the contrary, Trump would likely face Hillary Clinton, who would be an underwhelming candidate even if she weren’t swimming against a powerful historical current in seeking a third term for her party. And if Michael Bloomberg jumps in as an independent next month (because, you know, two New Yorkers and one billionaire aren’t enough), Clinton’s path only gets harder.
No, the real question isn’t whether Republicans really have a chance to win with Trump, because they do. The question is what kind of president he would be. My guess is that President Trump wouldn’t actually be the reactionary, often venomous leader we’ve seen rallying the faithful these last few months.
He might well turn out to be something worse.
Let’s first dispense with the idea that Trump, should he continue his long march to the nomination unimpeded, will bring about the end times for politics as we’ve known it. I doubt that.
Trump will never be an orthodox candidate (nor would any sane person look at the results thus far and conclude he should be), but he’s shrewd enough to understand that general election campaigns aren’t the same thing as raucous primaries and that only a handful of people really know how to wage them. By convention time, you can bet he’ll have added a coterie of trusted hands to his campaign, and you’ll see pictures of him with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan on the Capitol steps, projecting the grim sobriety of an Amish deacon.
Trump can play the game as well as anyone. He has no reason to overturn the board.
But what if he were actually inaugurated? Does he really have a governing philosophy, and what can we extract from it?
As Trump’s rivals never tire of pointing out (usually just before they flame out and quit the race), the full list of issues on which he’s radically changed course over the years is long. Thoughtful politicians evolve, of course, and we should applaud them for it, but this is less like an evolution than a brain transplant conducted by aliens.
Here’s a sampling. Trump supported single-payer health care; now he wants government out of the business altogether. He called for a steep tax on the wealthy; now he would cut so many taxes, you just wouldn’t believe. He was pro-choice and pro-gun-regulation; now he’s neither. He was an independent leaning toward Democrats; now he’s a Republican leaning toward Know-Nothings.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Trump used to be a huge proponent of losing but has since come to embrace winning in all its myriad forms.
But it’s not right to say that Trump has no discernible ideology. That’s true only in the binary context of our politics, where we tend to see all governing constructs through the prism of left versus right.
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Trump has an ideology, and it’s all about ratings. The one constant, through his careers as a celebrity developer and then a reality TV star and now as a politician, is that he measures his own success by sheer affirmation.
Trump is, above all else, a supremely gifted entertainer, and like all entertainers, he must have your adoration, or at least your attention. He goes where the crowd is, and he finds it hard to respect anyone who doesn’t.
This is why he can’t get through a single debate without reciting his poll numbers and mocking his opponents for theirs. Polls, Nielsen numbers, “most wealthy” lists, building names — external validation, in whatever form, is his life’s urgent work.
And it’s why I suspect that, for all his nativist and anti-government rhetoric, Trump is no more of a right-wing culture crusader than I am an astronaut. He is, as I’ve written before, an emotional extremist, a reckless provocateur who wants to make you feel pride or love or revulsion — whatever it is, as long as you feel something visceral.
President Trump could just as easily end up a liberal president as a conservative one, an interventionist or a peacemaker, depending on where the applause was leading him. He could just as easily fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the court with Judge Judy as with Ken Starr, if that would please the masses.
You might take solace in the idea that Trump isn’t at heart a doctrinaire, anti-government nationalist. You might intuit in that a certain kind of pragmatism. You shouldn’t.
The system, after all, is built to repel extreme doctrines. You can’t just walk into Washington and enact some militant, right-wing agenda, or a left-wing socialist one. The voters won’t follow an ideological zealot too far down that path before reversing course. (And no, before you start with me, Obama’s health care plan isn’t close to socialism — just ask Bernie Sanders.)
But a president who is a vehicle for the mob of the moment, no matter which direction it’s coming from, is something else entirely. A president who wakes up every morning asking if his latest speech beat “The Big Bang Theory,” or if it made him more popular than his adversaries in the overnight tracking poll, poses a different kind of peril. A president like that will say anything — do anything — to feel the love.
All presidents are asked, at moments they can’t foresee, to act as a bulwark against what John Adams called the “tyranny of the majority.” (Had he lived in the social media age, Adams might have worried more about the tyranny of the loud.) Where George W. Bush sought to protect Muslim Americans from an outpouring of anger, Trump has already indulged it. Where Barack Obama moved cautiously to ease the racial tensions simmering in America’s cities, Trump might consciously inflame them.
What worries me about Trump isn’t that he’s not capable of making wise decisions, but rather that his core ideology prevents him from telling his audience anything that isn’t immediately and emotionally satisfying. Which is pretty much the definition of a demagogue.
All is not yet lost, Republicans. Trump could still turn out to be your savior.
But just remember: If so, he’ll be your responsibility, too.