It’s hard to disagree with most of the bad things that have been said about Donald Trump, and impossible to add a truly fresh accusation to the list. In just six months as a presidential candidate Trump has been called “witless, gross, and unworthy,” “ignorant and bombastic,” a “buffoon” and an “a–hole,” a “clownish demagogue,” and “proto-fascist” whose “ideas range from the absurd … to the monstrous,” and whose policy pronouncements are no better than “barstool eruptions.”
And those are just his fellow Republicans’ opinions. Gleeful Democrats have made clear that Trump’s lead in public opinion polls throughout 2015 vindicates their allegations about the ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry of the GOP base and conservative movement. Trump’s rise “may be shocking,” writes Adele M. Stan of the American Prospect, “but it’s merely a result of the natural evolution of the modern American right that drove the election of Ronald Reagan 35 years ago.” Damon Linker of the Week magazine agrees. Trump’s supporters are the “culturally alienated, conservative white male voters” who have “been manipulated … into a perpetual state of aggrieved indignation” by right-wing talk-radio, which constantly assures its listeners that “their ill-informed, illiberal, anti-government, anti-Washington, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views are irrefutably, indisputably, incontrovertibly correct.”
To say, however, that Trump’s voters have been manipulated into aggrievement implies that their dissatisfactions are either spurious or, if genuine, illegitimate and indecent. It follows that were these Americans less alienated and better informed they would realize that even considering a man such as Trump for the White House is completely unjustified by the nation’s objective circumstances. We’ve enjoyed better times, the argument goes, but we’ve endured worse times. The present situation is not unmanageable, nor is it being so badly managed that we should reach beyond the standard presidential applicant pool to entrust the job to a figure who combines the most alarming qualities of Huey Long, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.
The fact that Trump has become a credible contender despite, or even because of, his obvious faults argues, however, for taking his followers’ concerns seriously rather than dismissing them. It is not, in fact, particularly difficult to explain the emergence of Trumpismo in terms of legitimate concerns not addressed, and important duties not discharged. That such a flawed contender could be a front-runner tells us more about what’s wrong with the country than about what’s wrong with his followers. People have every reason to expect that their government will take its most basic responsibilities seriously, and every reason to be angry when, instead, it proves more feckless than conscientious. Governments are instituted among men to secure their inalienable rights, according to the Declaration of Independence. This means that when we and our rights are left avoidably insecure, government has failed in its central mission.
We may, then, have reason to doubt that if Trump supporters were better informed and more temperate they would have reacted to the San Bernardino massacre with stoic resignation. Perhaps something other than a lack of insight into the way the world works accounts for their refusal to accept that the government that welcomed Tashfeen Malik to this country the year before she and her husband murdered 14 people was sufficiently vigilant about securing its citizens’ rights. Rights, of course, often need to be balanced against one another, and the indignant Trump voters fail to grasp the rationale that led the federal government to conclude that increasing risks to Americans was an acceptable trade-off for a policy that “prohibited immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas.” The Cabinet officer in charge of Homeland Security, as the president understands that concept, favored the policy because he feared more aggressive scrutiny of visa applications might trigger “a civil liberties backlash and ‘bad public relations’ for the Obama administration,” according to ABC News.
Four days after the San Bernardino shooting, President Obama gave a speech from the Oval Office in order to reassure the nation about the government’s vigilance against terrorism. “The threat from terrorism is real,” he said, “but we will overcome it” by “being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” The message that the government was smartly, relentlessly on top of the situation was undercut, however, when the White House issued a correction, less than an hour after the president’s speech: the visa program he had promised to review was not, it turned out, the one under which Tashfeen Malik had gained entry to the U.S.
The idea of a government fully, smartly committed to protecting Americans’ lives and liberties was further undermined when Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an interview that she was “not sure” what beliefs the San Bernardino shooters had held. A few hours later the president, in his national address, identified their motivation as ISIL—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—known to most of the world as ISIS. Lynch, perhaps, was reading from the administration’s old ISIS script, the one that led the president to dismiss it as a “junior varsity” terrorist group, and assure an interviewer a few hours before last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris that ISIS was “contained.”
Lynch also found it necessary, in Politico’s term, to “recalibrate” her statement to a Muslim civil rights group after San Bernardino that the Justice Department would “take action” against “hateful speech” that might inspire anti-Muslim acts. “Of course,” she later explained, in a manner suggesting that the principle she had just called into question had always been completely obvious, “we prosecute deeds and not words.” Lynch did not recalibrate another statement to the group, where she said her “greatest fear as a prosecutor” was that anti-Muslim rhetoric would promote a “backlash.” The inescapable conclusion, days after the San Bernardino shootings, was that the frontlash of jihadi violence on American soil was, at most, her second-greatest fear.
Similarly, we should entertain the possibility that Trump supporters, even if they listened to NPR instead of Rush Limbaugh, would still be angry about this year’s shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Her assailant was Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican with seven felony convictions who had been deported from the U.S. five times, which means he had entered the country illegally at least six times.
More than any other issue, immigration propels the Trump insurrection. The animus plays out on two levels. As a matter of policy, there is no obvious, compelling reason why controlling the border and resolving the legal status of people already here in violation of our laws must be addressed in a package deal. Why can’t the government prove that it has the commitment and capacity to enforce immigration laws first? Once a functioning immigration system was in place, we could then consider the status of people here illegally without fear that any “path to citizenship” would encourage new waves of illegal immigration.
As a matter of politics, Trump voters are angry that no matter how often or how emphatically the package-deal approach to immigration is rejected, it never seems to be defeated. What part of “No” do the politicians, journalists, and activists who set the national agenda not understand? This bi-partisan phenomenon is, as Ross Douthat has argued, a big reason Donald Trump enjoys the latitude to run, in effect, as a third-party candidate within the GOP. House majority leader Eric Cantor lost a Republican primary election in 2014 to a challenger with little money or name-recognition, who made an enforcement-first approach to immigration the center of his campaign. Powerful Republicans, however, chose to interpret even this startling repudiation as a reason to postpone but not abandon the pursuit of the package deal. “America should be a destination for hard-working immigrants from all over the world,” according to a press release from “top national Republican donors” issued in February 2015.
Our government may choose to do many things, such as giving poor children Head Starts, but the much smaller list of things any government must do includes defending the nation’s borders and sovereignty, protecting its citizens, and intimidating its enemies. That 21st-century American government seems neither particularly good at these tasks, nor particularly abashed by its failures, bolsters the Trump campaign’s central message, as distilled by the Atlantic’s David Frum: “We are governed by idiots.”
This assessment may be objectively false, but if it were preposterous—or if the government worked zealously to render it preposterous—the Trump campaign would be the irrelevant sideshow every analyst predicted when the 2016 race began. The problem, in any case, is not so much that we are governed by idiots as that we are governed by idealists, who proudly follow the Kennedy brothers’ exhortation to disdain seeing things as they are in favor of dreaming dreams that never were. Because no such dream would incorporate a nightmare like ISIS, idealists have preferred to dwell on more congenial matters.
Adding insult to injury, we are governed by idealists who think we’re idiots for not appreciating the bang-up job they’re doing. The New York Times website recently, briefly, informed readers that President Obama had indicated to reporters “that he did not see enough cable television to fully appreciate the anxiety after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.” The paper quickly decided that all the news that’s fit to print did not include this revelation about the president’s detachment, keeping it out of print editions and removing it from the website. Presumably, if more people turned off cable news in favor of reading the Times they would share the president’s sanguine assessment of the situation.
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, according to the Declaration. The clerisy that governs modern policy and discourse is, however, dangerously prone to claim legitimacy on the basis of its own expertise and lofty ideals. The Trump insurrection is, like the Tea Party, a Jacksonian rebuke in the spirit of William Buckley’s famous preference to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory over devolving all power on the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty. Common sense is not, today’s Jacksonians believe, a sufficient condition for successfully governing in the modern, complicated world … but it is a necessary one, and also shockingly uncommon in the ranks of our well trained, highly credentialed mandarins.
Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.