Here is my mea culpa. As I said in this space several times, I never dreamed Donald Trump could actually win any Republican primaries. I never thought he would even come close to defeating the formidable contenders in the 2016 GOP field. Well, I was wrong. And I am so discombobulated I can’t even describe the Trump phenomenon in hindsight.
I don’t know how someone as ideologically unmoored as Trump, who has no advantageous home state to work from, who has no particular history in the party and who has his objectionable manners and contemptible personal characteristics, has gotten where he has in this election. I’ve read some smart pieces by analysts who have this or that theory about the how and why, but nothing seems to completely capture the reasons for the rise of Trump. For instance, Peggy Noonan wrote an artful piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Trump phenomenon and the “rise of the unprotected.” Noonan eloquently states that “we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.” Okay, but what has that got to do with Trump? Who has Trump ever protected? Who has he ever shown fealty to? Has he been loyal to a longtime business partner? Any institution or cause? I don’t get it.
Yesterday, I watched my senator, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), whom I’ve known for 30 years, endorse Trump. I also watched the usually articulate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” I didn’t get the sense that either of these two authentic Republican leaders have really tried to reconcile their endorsement of Trump with what they know about his political philosophy, not to mention whether they have considered how they will excuse his judgment, temperament, poor grasp of civics and the dangerous personal attributes he would bring to the presidency. I’m still waiting for answers.
The fact that Trump will likely receive so much of the evangelical vote in tomorrow’s Super Tuesday primaries is particularly discouraging. As a non-evangelical but lifelong Christian who grew up in the Church of Christ in Alabama, I have been respectful of the evangelical Christian voice within the Republican Party since the early 1980s. I thought evangelical voters were mostly pure at heart; that they were a good example of people who wanted politics to be “good.” I believed they held themselves — and their candidates — to a higher standard. Well, say it ain’t so, Joe, but it seems much of the evangelical voter bloc is willing to make a deal with the Devil if he is willing to satisfy its other urges. I hate to say it, but in the case of evangelical support for Trump, I wonder whether there is a racist appeal to Trump’s candidacy that overwhelms their evangelical Christian beliefs.
Was Trump sending a direct signal to racist voters when he pretended not to know who David Duke is? Was he trying to send a signal specifically to the Southerners he thinks are racist when he initially would not disavow the KKK? I always resent it when Northerners like Trump think of Southerners as naturally racist. But so far, it doesn’t appear that Trump is being penalized for having made that assumption. It’s all very discouraging.
So what is happening? Is the Republican Party changing? Are GOP voters adopting new beliefs? If so, what are those new beliefs? What does it say about you and what you believe when you accept Trump as your political leader? As I’ve said before, I believe in democracy, but I also don’t believe it is infallible.
Again, I missed the Trump phenomenon. And I continue to not understand it. I’m afraid that in order for me to “get it,” I’ll have to assume some things about my fellow Republicans that I have spent decades denying. But for the time being, I hold fast to the belief that the vast majority of Republicans are not stupid, are not racist and, if anything, their biggest sin is that they are sometimes too committed to honorable core principles to work effectively within a government that requires compromise.