National Review recently devoted an entire issue to proving that Donald Trump is not a conservative, calling the New York businessman a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist” who would trash the ideological consensus within the Republican Party if he wins its presidential nomination this year “in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
George Will, a conservative columnist, argued much the same last year when he wrote that Trump was appealing to those Americans who, “understandably disgusted by government,” could be “beguiled by a summons to Caesarism.”
Those voters are not conservative in the sense that National Review and George Will are, though.
In an analysis of Trump’s rise, the National Journal‘s John B. Judis described them as “middle American radicals.”
Walter Russell Mead, in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001), called them Jacksonians, after the populist seventh president of the United States.
Like many on the left, these voters are suspicious of big business. But like many on the right, they are equally mistrustful of big government.
They support expensive entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, but also believe their taxes are too high and that racial minorities and the poor are getting too much help.
Mead’s Jacksonians are a folk community or a tribe. What distinguishes them from other Republican voters is that they are not drawn to any particular idea or ideology. The fact that Trump has been on every side of right-wing touchstone issues like abortion, immigration and trade doesn’t seem to bother them. When National Review points out that Trump isn’t a conservative, they don’t care.
What they care about is that government hasn’t been doing what they believe it is for: defending the living standards of a “middle class” that by any objective standard they wouldn’t be considered part of.
New polling, as reported by The Washington Post, bears this out.
It shows that Trump performs best among conservatives who hold relatively progressive views on health care, the minimum wage, taxes and unions and who express the most resentment toward black Americans and immigrants.
The same poll, conducted by the RAND Corporation, reveals that voters who call both immigration and Social Security “very important” are 40 points more likely to support Trump than Republicans who do not prioritize either.
Winners and losers
Jacksonians have been on the losing side of every major argument in the last twenty years, from the culture wars about feminism and gay rights to free trade and globalization.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 encapsulated the demise of the America they knew: a black president elected to end wars and provide universal health insurance would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Patrick Buchanan, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 as well as 1996 on a platform not too dissimilar from Trump’s, postulated the “end of white America” in 2011. “Mexico,” he warned in his book, Suicide of a Superpower, “is moving north.”
Enter Trump who kicked off his presidential campaign by accusing Mexico of deliberately sending its drug dealers and rapists across the border.
There is more to Trump’s worldview that makes him popular.
Judis finds that populists like Buchanan and Trump have several things in common.
One is that they see themselves as defending the American “middle class” against its enemies both at home and abroad.
From the Chinese who are supposedly ripping America off to illegal immigrants driving down wages to hedge-fund speculators “getting away with murder” on their tax bills, Trump’s enemies fall into familiar categories: foreigners and big-city elites.
The latter he alternately portrays as devious and wimps; at once getting rich off the backs of ordinary Americans while failing to defend the national (folk) interest.
This will all sound familiar to Europeans. Nigel Farage in Britain and Marine Le Pen in France, for example, have similar gripes with the metropolitan elites in Brussels, London and Paris: they’re out of touch with the man in the street and too feeble to defend the nation against the others menacing it (mainly Muslim immigrants).
Another recurrent theme, according to Judis, is the belief that all it takes to set things straight is a strong leader: the “Caesarism” Will referred to.
Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, has cautioned against the fantasy that someone like Trump will be able to escape the political constraints that have bedeviled Republican leaders in the past.
“Superhero” politicians, as she puts it, never succeed. Certainly not in the United States where 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 may be a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to run a state, but it’s the price Americans pay for representative democracy.
Trump and his supporters either don’t understand or don’t care.
They are not antidemocratic per se. But they don’t appreciate that government does not exist only for them and that consensus and incremental change are preferable to a strong hand.