Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump have dominated the polls for several months now. The instinct of many Republicans has been to disdain them as amateurs, arrivistes, or worse, and to dismiss their supporters as political idiots or, at best, political romantics. After all, the presidency of the United States is not usually considered an entry-level position.
Before concluding that millions of our fellow conservatives have gone mad, however, let’s try to understand them. There is a difference between going mad and getting mad, and it’s the latter that ought to interest us. What’s coursing through the body politic these days is a volatile mixture of anger, bewilderment, fear, and disgust over the perceived decline of America. But this feeling isn’t new.
Political pollsters never asked whether the country was headed in “the right direction” or was off on “the wrong track” until the early 1970s. It was no accident that the epiphany came to them when Americans, under pressure from the Vietnam War, Watergate, wage-and-price controls, oil shocks, and other humiliations, felt so low. With brief exceptions since then, large majorities (consistently over 60%) have feared that the nation was hurtling down the wrong track. The federal government has grown ever larger without alleviating the nation’s anxieties; the larger it has grown, the less legitimate it has seemed.
Perhaps, like their favorite internet cat, Americans are grumpy. That temperament wouldn’t explain the objective signs of decline or decay, though—the tepid economic recovery, depressing long-term withdrawal of people (men, especially) from the workforce, rise in out-of-wedlock births, atrophied medical system, crumbling foreign policy, and so forth. The citizens are indignant because they suspect that most of these developments are the result of choice, not fate, and that the political elites have acquiesced in, if not instigated, many of them. They feel betrayed, and disgusted, by the elites’ absurd promises and programs.
After 50 years of utopian overpromises by mainstream politicians, mostly Democrats—not merely ending poverty, war, tyranny, and disease, but using government to satisfy every person’s desire for learning, work, creativity, nature, beauty, community, meaning, and sex—why shouldn’t citizens turn desperately to outsiders for sober political guidance? Do a brain surgeon and a real estate magnate really look so bad when measured against the last half-century of political malpractice?
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Still, man does not live by indignation alone. Those decades included acts of statesmanship by real statesmen, including Ronald Reagan, which remain instructive today. Reagan served two terms as California governor and ran for president four times, and he was a better president for it. The job is not entry-level. Trump and Carson face, rightly, a high burden of proof to show they are ready for the job, which is, admittedly, not brain surgery; it’s much more complex than brain surgery, dealing not with neurons but with human beings and their opinions, passions, and interests in all their perverseness.
Republicans were delighted when the Tea Party, a gift if ever there was one, fell into their lap. But they had no idea how to translate into practice its heartfelt demand to return to the Constitution; some had no desire to do so. The GOP nominee for president in 2012 fell—predictably—short, without ever pressing the Tea Partiers’ constitutional case against Obamacare. The Supreme Court, with a nominally Republican majority, bent over backwards to save the health care plan. Then the Republican Congress, elected in 2014, disappointed them in several more ways. After failures in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, it’s no wonder that aggrieved conservatives think the political system and all its denizens are the problem, not the solution.
The good news is that despite all this, the outsider faction remains keen on the Constitution that underlies these miscreant branches. The bad news is that it is not so keen on the conservative movement in its existing, and maybe not even in its best, form. Less thought, more action, seems to be the daily demand. But thinking is not a prelude to compromise, much less a form of surrender. It is a necessary prelude to deserving and attaining victory. The challenge for conservatives is to show that victory runs through the recovery of constitutionalism, and that no candidate, insider or outsider, is going to succeed without that.