“That’s how you got Trump!” This phrase seemed at first to be a playful quip, uttered here and there as the Left’s shock and horror over the election of President Donald J. Trump manifested itself in memorably bizarre ways such as grieving centers on university campuses where tender twenty-somethings and the tenured radicals who instruct them were invited to stroke “therapy dogs,” scribble in coloring books, stack Legos, and do their brave best to cope. At Cornell, they even staged a “cry-in,” with the Ivy League university’s staff providing tissues and hot chocolate, gratis—or as gratis as it gets after mom and dad have ponied up the $65,494 in annual tuition and fees. Alas, it is not a quip anymore. “That’s how you got Trump!” has become a constant refrain.
Shock among self-proclaimed “progressives” has devolved into anger. Rage has fueled a full- time tantrum: a competition among distraught student bodies, Hollywood heavyweights, community organizers, pop stars, sanctuary-city pols, froth-flecked pundits, smoldering social media addicts, and rabble-rousers from Black Lives Matter to Antifa (a fascist projection outfit). All vie to be the most outraged, the most rabidly anti-Trump.
As we’ve transitioned from the populist candidacy of “The Donald” to nearly a year of populism in power, there are two things worth observing about the President and his opposition. The first involves the conventional wisdom that the United States is a deeply divided country. This misstates the case. What we are is an intensely divided country. To say that America is “deeply” divided implies what the left-leaning media would have us believe, namely, that the likes of Antifa and such politicians as Bernie Sanders (the self-proclaimed socialist who nearly bested Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination) are representative of what roughly half the country thinks.
It is simply not true. Of course, it is incontestable that social justice warriors have made significant inroads on the campus. They hold sway over the organs of popular culture and public opinion. But they are punching way above their weight. In terms of raw numbers, they do not reflect what 50 percent of the country thinks but what 100 percent of the country is fed, night in and night out.
Society has come to prefer narrative to fact, and political correctness to analysis.
In the Information Age, where more hard data is at our fingertips than earlier generations could imagine, it requires less effort than ever to become informed. Our society has responded by investing . . . well . . . less effort than ever. It has come to prefer narrative to fact, and political correctness to analysis. Consequently, the mainstream press (actually, the media– Democrat complex) is not just propagandist in its own right; it is the wind at the back of a movement, giving its strategists coverage, taking their grievances oh-so-seriously.
But a movement is a faction, not a majority. It is trying to move the society because it does not actually call the tune—even if it often seems that way. That is why the phrase “That’s how you got Trump!” makes sense, why it resonates. It is an expression, invoked as much by Trump’s skeptical conservative critics as by his populist followers, that diagnoses why he so improbably won. The secret has much less to do with the President than with his opposition.
When Antifa arsonists riot at Berkeley to prevent a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos—a flamboyant alt-right provocateur most of the country has never heard of—and when the radical campus Left uses violence and its consequent heckler’s veto to shut down speakers as accomplished and ideologically diverse as Charles Murray, Heather Mac Donald, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and James Comey, the movement tells itself that it is controlling the parameters of what may be discussed, what may be taught, and what may be thought in our society. The rest of us smirk through our outrage and say, “That’s how you got Trump!”
It turns out that progressives do not have a grip on the hearts and minds of the society, notwithstanding their hold on its bipartisan ruling class and opinion-making elites. Eventually, the bubbling disgust and resentments of a great mass of the country were going to boil over. As it happens, they did so by channeling into Donald Trump.
That is not the only explanation for why he won. In fact, as we examine the state of play in America, it is critical to bear in mind that it is, perhaps, the less significant of two explanations. The other is the fortuity that the Democrats chose to oppose him with the worst political candidate in modern American history: an establishment pillar universally thought corrupt, who had no real personal accomplishments, who had performed incompetently (indeed, criminally) when trusted with power, whose candidacy bespoke entitlement rather than vision, who was under felony investigation during the race and escaped indictment only because her political allies were in power, and who ran a campaign so entropic that she did not deign to appear in key battleground states she smugly assumed were in the bag.
I say that this may be the more significant explanation for Trump’s victory because, despite all these demerits, Hillary Clinton outpaced Trump by nearly three million votes. She bested him by more than 2 percent; historically, that is almost always enough to win. The Left’s mantra that Clinton “won the popular vote” is an overstatement. In reality, 52 percent of voters cast their ballots for other candidates. Most of those were Trump voters, a sizable chunk of whom were voting against Hillary, not for Trump. But as Trump has struggled to turn his statistically improbable electoral-college victory into a governing mandate, it is worth bearing in mind that he came to office with more opposition, and fewer enthusiastic supporters, than any president in memory.
Which brings us to the second point, to Trump himself. In terms of moving the policies on which he ran, the President is stuck in the mud. In part, this is because he is personally more comfortable playing to his committed backers than trying to expand his base. Those committed backers maintain that this approach is refreshing, illustrating that “he is not a conventional politician.” But there is unconventional, and then there’s just plain obtuse.
The problem is that Trump’s real base constitutes, at best, about a third of the electorate. To be sure, this faction is a force to be reckoned with at primary time. Indeed, though the President should have known this better than anyone, he was painfully reminded of it in Alabama earlier this year. In a gop primary over the unexpired term of the seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions (whom Trump had named attorney general), Trump was persuaded by Beltway Republicans to back Luther Strange, the establishment incumbent candidate. In the event, Strange was thumped by Judge Roy Moore, a controversial upstart who, ironically, was running as the hardcore Trumpist candidate. Though Trump eventually backed Moore in his race against the Democratic candidate Doug Jones, Moore’s loss amid multiple accusations of improper relationships with young ladies again proves the limits of Trump’s personal influence.
There is unconventional, and then there’s just plain obtuse.
Primaries are small-turnout contests. Establishment incumbents, who excite no one, must always worry about highly motivated opposition. Over decades, this dynamic has pulled Democrats to the extreme Left. Since 2010, it has begun to pull Republicans towards the Tea Party Right, and now towards the Trump populism with which limited-government conservatives both collude and compete.
That, however, is over time. In the here and now, Trump’s base is more of a catalyst than a concern for Democrats, and it has not much intimidated Beltway Republicans in leadership and in safe seats. Trump’s base is enough to win primaries and tight elections. It is not a governing coalition. This deficiency goes a long way toward explaining the President’s compulsion to expound on what he calls his “landslide” electoral college margin of victory. In actuality, Trump’s win ranks in the bottom tier: forty-sixth largest out of American history’s fifty-eight electoral college tallies. Tepid support also explains Trump’s agitation about the crowd-size at his inauguration, and his pop-celebrity penchant to obsess over polls and ratings numbers.
Yes, the President is self-absorbed and his skin is notoriously thin. But pathology aside, he senses the need to project support if he is going to get his policy preferences enacted into law. He plainly wants to be re-elected, and he is shrewd enough to realize lightning will not strike twice: he will need real economic growth and shared prosperity, not the mere hope for them, if he is to win a second term. He cannot achieve these things by executive order; they will require legislation, making it imperative that he cobble together more support.
Trump’s unimpressive approval numbers are not his presidency’s biggest challenge, though. The real problem is the populist’s lack of conviction and consequent lack of coherence. As conservative skeptics warned, Trump is not a true believer in his campaign’s signature issues—enforcement of the immigration laws, confronting the ideological underpinnings of what he called “radical Islamic terrorism,” the repeal of Obamacare, the refusal to entangle our armed forces in impossible nation-building exercises, the draining of Washington’s swamp, and so on.
These are easy things to rail about on the hustings, especially in the Manichean setting of a campaign in which the alternative is, as he put it to great effect, “Crooked Hillary.” But they are very hard policies to implement. Bombast is effective on the campaign trail, bringing into sharp relief—even exaggerating—the differences between candidates. Governance, by contrast, often requires choosing between the bad and the worse. Altering policy in a system of divided government calls for a deft combination of compromise, coalition-building, and persuasion.
In an age of rage at the political establishment, being an unconventional outsider can be a major advantage. But it is no substitute for mastering policy details. That is the minimal presidential requirement for using the bully pulpit effectively, for knowing “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em”—for demonstrating “The Art of the Deal.” On issue after issue, the President is not informed enough, seems disinclined to do the homework, and shifts gears haphazardly when it dawns on him that the sweeping commitments he made in the artificial simplicity of the campaign actually require steps that are as unpopular as they may be necessary.
Being an unconventional outsider is no substitute for mastering policy details.
For example, Trump vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare—that he’d be ready to do it on Day One. It was red meat for his base, but seemed more than a little cynically opportunistic coming from a man on record as an admirer of single-payer, government-controlled healthcare systems.
Turns out—who’d have thought?—that healthcare policy is hard. To take just the most obvious point, you cannot have a free market in insurance (which is anticipation of the risk of illness) while mandating “insurance” coverage of pre-existing conditions (which is compensation for illness that has already happened—virtually, the opposite of insurance). “Having it all” is the dream of delusional feminists and the promise of giddy populist stump speakers. To govern is to choose.
Like congressional Republicans, who were all for repealing Obamacare as long as they knew Obama would veto it, President Trump does not want a repeal that would hold him accountable for a dramatic increase in the number of uninsured Americans—even if the reality is that many of them would be uninsured by choice. While he wants less regulation than Obama, he still wants substantial regulation, including mandatory coverage of the sick and of “children” up to age twenty-six. That necessarily drives up costs—and the taxes and subsidies needed to pay for them. But Trump also wants to be seen as against regulations and taxes, the bane of his base’s existence.
The predictable result is stalemate. Do Capitol Hill Republicans deserve our condemnation for their hypocrisy? Of course they do; they promised repeal in each of the last four election cycles, voters rewarded them, and it turns out they were never serious. But all that said, Trump could only lead them out of their dilemma if he had a plan and the capacity to sell it. He doesn’t have a plan, hasn’t mastered the details, and is left complaining that after seven years of promising repeal, Republicans turned out not to want repeal. This complaint would carry more weight if Trump wanted repeal. Instead, he, too, prefers an Obamacare-lite that could be branded “repeal.”
Then there is immigration enforcement. “Build the Wall” was the signature promise of the Trump campaign. There was no need to get into a lot of minutiae about the legislation and budget needed to make such things happen because, of course, Mexico was going to pay for it. Every illegal alien—all eleven million or more of them—was going to be deported . . . but after the prohibitive expense of that exercise, most of them were going to be brought back “legally.”
Some of us had the temerity to point out that this was just amnesty of the so-called touchback variety. Trump enthusiasts did not want to hear it, fired up by the candidate’s mantra that without deportations we have no borders, and without borders we have no country. Plus, Trump had also promised that, as soon as he took office, he would rescind Obama’s unconstitutional daca program—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. Under daca, the former administration granted de facto amnesty and work permits to the children of illegal aliens (including “children” who are now in their thirties).
But then the race was won and it came time for Trump to govern. After eleven months, there is no wall and no prospect of one. Mexico won’t pay for it, and neither will Congress— “Build the Wall” has devolved into something more like “maintain the fencing.” The mass deportations were never going to happen, either—just the amnesty, without the touchback. Or at least some of the amnesty. Trump not only failed to rescind daca on his first day in office, he continued the program and quite publicly wrung his hands over what to do about it—as if he’d never mentioned daca, much less promised to end it immediately.
After eleven months, there is no wall and no prospect of one.
Turns out it was complicated: Trump is sympathetic to the so-called “Dreamers” (named after the never-enacted dream Act—Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). This is no surprise to anyone who followed his pre-presidential career, filled with donations to open-borders politicians and sympathy for “comprehensive immigration reform” (Washington code for “amnesty now, enforcement . . . maybe someday”). In our present moment, which is what matters most to a populist, Dreamers are popular. The President no more wants to be responsible for their deportation than for the difficulty a person has getting health insurance once he’s already sick.
We could keep adding to the list: After no shortage of hemming and hawing, Trump rightly pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord . . . but has recently signaled an openness to rejoining. Trump’s travel restrictions on aliens resulted in a raft of litigation accusing him of anti-Muslim bias. To defend the President, the administration vehemently denied that Islam was being considered in visa-issuance decisions. This legal argument makes it practically impossible to justify screening visa applicants for adherence to political Islam. Even as the Supreme Court has upheld the travel orders—which do little to improve security—Trump’s ham-fistedness has assured that his promise of “extreme vetting” will go unfulfilled. After claiming that there were no vital American interests in Syria and that President Obama would need congressional approval to attack the Assad regime, U.S. armed forces are occupying territory in Syria and have attacked regime targets without congressional authorization.
Now, all of this is not to say there have been no successes. There have been crucial ones, in fact. The added entanglement in Syria is a fallout of Trump’s following through on the promise to demolish isis in its so-called “caliphate.” To be sure, solving one problem gives rise to others: the vanquished jihadists are making their way to the West; Assad’s survival makes Iran more formidable and Russia more of a regional player; and if the Sunni– Shiite divide does not trigger a major war, the Kurdish push for independence might. Nevertheless, the humiliation of jihadist organizations is imperative if we are to suppress the attractiveness of jihadism to young Muslims. In a region where it’s always “pick your poison,” Trump was right to decide that it is better to live with the problems of eradicating isis than to live with isis itself.
While he lacks legislative wins, President Trump has been able to roll back economically ruinous Obama-era regulations. This has dramatically improved the business climate and the prospects of energy security—the booming stock market tells us so. It is also a valuable lesson: a president can imperiously proclaim, as Obama did, that he doesn’t need Congress because he has “a pen and a phone,” but anything done by executive order can also be undone by executive order. Enduring political change still requires enough consensus to legislate.
President Trump has Democratic legislators to thank for his greatest success: the appointment of a stellar conservative justice, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court, as well as the confirmation of what, on the whole, is a highly impressive cabinet. In order to ram through Obama’s appointees, Democrats used their brief control of Congress to end the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominees. When the worm turned, Democrats not only had no means to block Trump’s nominees, they had no plausible argument for maintaining the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. This ensured Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation.
This brings us, at last, to the main reason we got Trump. The President is a larger-than-life character. He has lots of charisma, energy, and comic timing, to go with his titanic ego, solipsism, and character flaws. He knows how to fill a room, draw attention, and control a news cycle. With so dominant and so visible a figure, it is easy to forget that he is not actually the most consequential story in our politics—that he is the effect of a phenomenon, not its cause.
Americans, and populations throughout the West, are rejecting their political establishment. That establishment has been progressive for decades. With this central-planning, redistributionist, income-equality crew in control, disparities in income, prosperity, and opportunity have grown to new heights. So have crony capitalism and the perception that the system is rigged to benefit the connected—as long as they keep paying for the connection.
The result is that voters have abandoned Democrats in droves, at every level of government. Well over a thousand seats have shifted nationwide. We are not just talking about Congress and the White House—municipal bodies, state legislatures, and governorships have shifted massively away from Democrats. Mind you, it is not that voters are fond of Republicans—who often seem to be reviled more by their own supporters than by the Left. But Democrats would love to have the gop’s problems.
It could well be that not one but both major parties are fading.
Obscured by the outsized presence of Trump and the progressive dominance of the media is the disintegration of the nation’s oldest major political party. Oh, it won’t disappear. As long as Democrats can still win the presidency—which they most certainly can—they will remain powerful, for the office has been endowed with great power. But the Democratic party has become a grievance magnet, a home for disparate groups united principally by their disdain for this or that aspect of American society.
There is a realignment underway. It could well be that not one but both major parties are fading. The two-party structure could eventually be supplanted by multiple parties, or no parties—with social media and Information Age technology rendering the traditional political party obsolete. How the populist wave, with all its internal contradictions, will finally reshape the political establishment is not yet knowable.
This much, however, is knowable: when the ruling class and its media allies rally to the defense of millionaire athletes rebuking the national anthem in support of an oppression narrative, we can say with confidence: “That’s how you got Trump!”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 12
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com