Standing Astride History: A Few Words Concerning Donald J. Trump
Editor’s Note: This article, as for all articles in the Spectator, represents an individual’s perspective and argumentation. It does not represent the opinions of the Spectator, its staff, or Washington and Lee University. The sentiments expressed are the author’s.
by Benjamin Gee, Editor-in-Chief
Although one of the most discussed phenomenons of American politics in the last few decades, very few of us actually comprehend exactly how Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States went from a side-show laughingstock to political juggernaut in less than twelve months. Considerable ink has been spent in ceaseless cries of support and condemnation for the business mogul’s remarkably successful campaign, fueled by the passionate intensity of voters all over the country. Defying America’s best-regarded political experts, Trump has outlasted favorites like Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, building a powerful political movement in the process. His candidacy has also deeply divided the Republican Party. The GOP’s former coalition of ideological conservatives, establishment moderates, and blue-collar base has fractured into two camps - pro and anti-Trump. Pundits already refer to this moment with glee as the end of the Republican Party as we know it, but like most apocryphal predictions, the future will prove them hyperbolic. Yes, the Republican Party will change after this election, but not as drastically as many think and for different reasons than is popularly supposed. In order to understand why, we must examine the perspective of Trump’s voters with something rarely afforded to them - a respectful and open mind.
For many Americans, the political system as it currently stands has utterly failed. The Democrats and Republican Establishment have failed to faithfully represent these Americans’ interests. These voters do not want ideological battles to engulf Congress, but seek simple solutions that produce jobs, and bring other jobs back from overseas. They don’t overly care about the social positions of their leaders, as long as they leave them alone to conduct their lives as they see fit . They view the nation’s millions of illegal immigrants with great concern, and express even more consternation at our politicians’ talk of amnesty rather than enforcing existing immigration law. The voters are sick and tired of foreign entanglements and idealistic nation-building, yearning for a less active foreign policy that finally places America first. Above all, these voters hate political correctness, and despise elitism.
These Americans look around them and behold a political discourse increasingly dominated by politically correct censorship that stifles honesty and a free-speaking environment. If a politician says something “politically incorrect,” it triggers a nation-wide bully brigade of frenzied activists, forcing apologies and retractions from the offender. As a result, our politicians have become more cautious and less transparent than ever, rarely speaking without carefully pre-checking their remarks for adherence to an always-expanding lexicon of PC buzzwords. Many people have no interest in keeping up in this escalating tolerance arms race - they have jobs, families, and other pressing concerns, instead of prioritizing esoteric sensitivity training sessions from elite journalists and academics. As a result, we are unendingly confronted with higher standards for “acceptable” speech, lower thresholds for “hate speech,” and a society increasingly taught to embrace one’s sensitivity towards taking offense.
With regard to elitism, these Americans behold a nation where meaningful, solution-oriented policies no longer happen, because of the rule of an influential class that regardless of creed, party, or ideology serve themselves above their country or their constituents. In a sense, Bernie Sanders supporters tap into a similar frustration with America’s upper class, but their anger is mainly reserved for the wealthy, the malevolent one percent. Trump’s voters despise the elites - journalists, career politicians, lobbyists, academics, crony capitalists, and even many university students (particularly those of “Ivy League” institutions) - who together exert a disproportionate amount of power and influence in America through both political parties, to the nation’s detriment. These groups lecture America’s working classes from positions of great influence and privilege on what is best for them, while passing legislation increasingly out-of-touch with the interests of regular Americans. To these voters, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are just two sides of the same coin - one is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, but both are elites. Ultimately both Clinton and Bush remain focused on the preservation of their own power and influence, and care little for the American voter - except as an enabler and source of affirmation. Electing President Obama did not help these citizens - illegal immigrants continued to stream into the country, jobs continued to drift overseas, and political correctness continued its restrictive rise. Electing the Tea Party did not help either - all these issues continued to worsen, while dramatic gridlock like Ted Cruz’s governmental shutdown only hurt the voters who elected him. Conservatives and liberals, both as individuals and as groups, have proven ourselves blind to the increasing frustration of these law-abiding, tax-paying, American citizens.
Donald Trump offers everything that these voters want, from cracking down on illegal immigration to enforcing the borders, creating jobs with business acumen instead of fancy economic theories, speaking his mind in defiance of political correctness and just letting people alone. The elites despise Trump, because he is a threat to their power structure; politicians resist Trump, because he threatens Washington’s complacent and defunct system of governance; social justice warriors scream at Trump, apoplectic at his refusal to comply by their strict demands for tolerance or to kowtow to victimhood culture. To these voters, Trump is the answer to their prayers, and when the traditional centers of power and enlightenment turn against him -- the media, the government, the rich, even sheltered college students - they only increase the dedication to his campaign, which promises to abolish the structure of American politics and reset the balance of power between the people and their government.
Trump’s ideology is difficult to define, but for the sake of clarity, we can I will call it “Americanism”: placing the United States and its people first regardless of principles, consistency, or perhaps even the law. On some issues, Trump falls to the left on the political spectrum. For example, Trump supports the idea of universal healthcare, and has declared his support for continuing government funding towards to planned parenthood despite considerable evidence of its misuse of aborted fetal tissue. On other issues, Trump leans right: he opposes illegal immigration, supports building a border wall with Mexico, and favors a tougher approach to ISIS in the Middle East. On each particular issue, Trump does not follow an ideological compass but instead selects the position most likely to satisfy his faithful voters, the moderate Americans seeking a refuge from ideologies from both right and left.
I wilfully acknowledge that Donald Trump’s rise is reasonable understandable given the mindset of his supporters, a perspective that I consider wholly warranted and respectable. His voters- they are justifiably sick of ideology, elitism, political correctness, and everything associated with “the system.” In Donald Trump, they have found a champion who enthusiastically represents their own interests first, and has little need to continue advancing his own interests or play the same corrupt game favored by many of his rivals. I sympathize with his voters, and agree that “the system” is failing the United States and must be changed or radically altered. But in selecting Trump as their agent of change, they are making a grave mistake. And here’s why.
Donald Trump is a narcissistic, petty schoolyard bully who never grew up. He fundamentally misunderstands the US Constitution, or even worse, ignores the document as it suits him. He is the most fiscally liberal nominee the Republican Party will field in a hundred years, coupled with the worst of the far-right’s alarmism and xenophobia. His rhetoric divides people from one another, casting the world into groups defined by false “us-vs-them” dichotomies, scapegoating others for all of America’s problems. His views on women, Hispanics, and other groups are disrespectful and genuinely offensive. Where Trump finds fear, he turns it to terror; where anger, he stokes it to wrath; where dislike, he cultivates hatred. The word “Demagogue,” from the Greek, is defined as: “A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator” (Oxford English Dictionary). Every single component of this definition applies to Mr. Trump. Love him or hate him, Trump is irrefutably a demagogue, a snake dressed in wolf’s clothing.
Regardless, Mr. Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and Americans are consequently faced with an unusually difficult choice this fall. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or neither? Trump and Clinton are the two most strongly disliked party nominees in recent memory, and both are under some kind of investigation for crimes and fraud - Trump for Trump University, and Clinton by the FBI on account of her private email server. A great many Democrats who passionately supported Bernie Sanders look with great trepidation upon the prospect of supporting Clinton in the general election, and the GOP’s “Never Trump” movement aims to work against Trump from within the very party he has so recently conquered. This election will be defined by intra-party ambivalence as much as typical inter-party partisanship, making its outcome highly difficult to predict. Clinton may lead in the polls, but Trump has defeated polls before and can do so again. In fact, Trump has breached practically every single rule of conventional politics, and gotten away with it; - whatever its outcome, this will be a chaotic and memorable presidential election.
As a conservative, I feel it necessary to speak out at this historical moment before the general election begins in earnest, and renounce Mr. Trump as the authoritarian, unprepared, divisive demagogue that he is. However, I will not withhold the possibility of casting my vote for Trump in the fall - and I will not do so until election day itself, if necessary. In spite of all his deficiencies, Trump is still the strongest contender to defeat Hillary Clinton, a progressive elite who will only worsen the manifold issues that have defined the Obama Presidency’s troubled legacy. Trump’s nomination was a terrible decision, but his voters are justified in their desire to overthrow our defunct and paralyzed system of an institutionalized “influence” class that works for itself to the detriment of working class America.
As students of Washington and Lee University, a group that feels little love for Trump, we would do well to remind ourselves why Trump has so much support, and not dismiss his voters as ignorant bigots like so many have done. We are incredibly fortunate to be W&L students, but in matriculating at this prestigious institution we also enter the very sphere of influence Trump’s voters despise. Many of us will go on to storied careers in business, politics, journalism, and academia, joining the “intelligentsia” - and many of us, in our intellectual hubris, already consider ourselves “enlightened” above Trump’s voters. In some ways, we are as disconnected from the political atmosphere of America as the politicians in Washington. It is partially on our account, on my account, that Trump was selected as the representative for “Americanism,” and we should learn a lesson from this election. If we do not recognize the forces that birthed Trump and Trumpism, we will only allow another Trump to seize his moment in the not-too-far future. As university students, we share the national fault for Trump’s creation, but that need not be the future of America if we reconcile ourselves to his voters, attempt to sympathetically perceive understand their perspective, and address their concerns in addition to our own. The choice is ours to make.