Trump Latest in Line of “Superhero” Candidates

The property tycoon’s rise in the polls is the latest manifestation of a longing for strong-willed leaders.

Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19
Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19 (Michael Vadon)

The rise of property tycoon Donald Trump in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries may be emblematic of an American trend to seek “superheroes” for the nation’s highest office.

Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, argues that Trump’s supporters — who, if the polls are to be believed, account for roughly a quarter of the conservative electorate — seem to think that he will escape the political constraints that have bedeviled previous Republican leaders with sheer will and imagination.

End birthright citizenship! Get Mexico to pay to build a wall! Force companies to build more stuff here! How? By being really tough. Don’t ask for details.

Trump is unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the 2016 election. But his candidacy is the extreme manifestation of an American inclination to vote for “change” every time politicians disappoint.

Voters rally to get a candidate elected, then call on the politician to stop technological change from tanking the local economy, to give them much more generous health care at half the cost of whatever they’ve currently got, to cut their taxes without touching Social Security or Medicare because they earned those benefits, to provide large new entitlements paid for entirely by taxing hedge fund managers, to reform the education system so that all the students will be above average, to defuse conflict in the Middle East and maybe leap some tall buildings in a single bound. You know, the usual.

No president can ever meet such high expectations. Rather than conclude they might be expecting too much from their leaders, though, at least some voters convince themselves they have simply elected the “wrong superhero”.

It is time to stop messing around with Squirrel Girl and Jack of Hearts and elect Superman, already. So the story starts all over again.

The reality is that getting things done is difficult, especially in the United States where, as McArdle puts it, the political system “is set up precisely to frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea.”

Governing is not like building a building; it’s not like running a business. It’s like, well, trying to herd three branches of government in roughly the same direction. These branches are composed of thousands of people, each of whom has their own agenda, and represents millions more, each of whom has their own agenda and will hound out of office anyone who strays too far from it.

It might be a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to do anything, McArdle writes, but it is the price Americans pay for representative democracy.

McArdle’s colleague Jonathan Bernstein argues that conservatives are particularly susceptible to the delusion that a strong-willed outsider can shake up the system and effect radical change.

Bernstein admits that the 2008 election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, was partially fueled by the same delusion. But at least he was a politician with some governing experience.

It’s another thing entirely to believe in Donald Trump — or Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. (Or Herman Cain or Steve Forbes.) Republican voters really are distinct in this way. They’re repeatedly easier marks for people who have no business getting anywhere near the Oval Office.

Bernstein volunteers several reason for why this is the case.

One is that voters who favor limited government may care less about governing experience. But if that’s the assumption, it’s mistaken, he argues. Politicians who shrank government — like Republican stalwart Ronald Reagan — were able to do so because they had experience in government. If they didn’t understand how government worked, they might never have been able to restrain it.

Secondly, Republicans may have been conditioned by their leaders to think simple solutions are worth pursuing, according to Bernstein.

Defeat the Soviet Union by exposing traitors in government! Cut taxes to raise revenues! Build a wall to solve immigration!

Democrats sometimes do the same. (Tax the 1 percent! Raise the minimum wage!) And simple-sounding solutions sometimes contain something sensible. But on the whole, Republicans do seem more prone to advocating simplistic policies than Democrats.

Finally, they are more prone to demagoguery. From Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, conservative leaders have told voters to trust in easy answers and believe that the normal frustrations of politics and international relations are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.

And, of course, they succeeded in convincing many Republican voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause.

Do that for a few decades and what you get is Donald Trump.

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