How contagious is Trumpism?
Whatever the fallout from the Mueller report, that will be a question for voters to answer in 2020.
A populist demagogue is dangerous not only for the actions he takes but also for the corrosion of norms he sets in motion.
Other politicians take his misbehavior as a model: “He got away with not releasing his tax returns. Why should I release mine?”
Worse, partisans on the other side fuel the descent. If the next Democratic president fails to declare an emergency to impose gun control, say, or fight climate change, he or she will be branded a naive sap.
Once a political culture begins to erode, in other words, it is hard to stop the rot. But voters can do it, if they demand to be treated with respect rather than be lied and pandered to.
In that cause, here is a brief voters’ guide to some warning signs of Trumpism. You will know your candidate is succumbing to populist demagoguery if she or he embraces:
●The simple over the complex. As a rule, if the problems facing the nation had easy solutions, we would have implemented them by now.
When Trump told us he could solve immigration, and the opioid crisis, too, simply by building a wall (and Mexico will pay!), he was lying. If candidates tell you now that they can solve health care just by abolishing private insurance companies (it worked in Canada!), be nervous.
●Giveaways over hard choices . Rule No. 1 notwithstanding, some problems do have fairly obvious solutions. Alas, the solutions are not popular.
If Congress modestly raised the tax on gasoline (or transitioned to a tax on vehicle-miles traveled), it could repair the nation’s roads and bridges and build new bikeways and mass transit, as Congress is forever promising and failing to do. No magical infusion of private capital will get the job done, Trump’s blandishments notwithstanding. But many politicians are afraid to tell voters that there is no free lunch.
When Trump told us he could cut taxes, protect Social Security and Medicare, and erase the debt, he was lying. If candidates tell you now that they can give you free college and free health care and no one — or, maybe, only billionaires — will have to pay, be nervous.
●Scapegoats over solutions. When simple remedies fail, and giveaways prove impossible, the demagogue’s fallback is to find someone else to blame. For Trump, the list is always growing: Muslims, Nancy Pelosi, globalist Jews, Central American gangs, Central Americans in general, John McCain (alive or dead), the media, Jeff Sessions, James B. Comey, Jay Powell, Canada, Paul Ryan, NATO allies . . .
No candidate is likely to match Trump’s preternatural ability to see the traitor lurking within every friend while never, ever holding himself accountable. But if your candidate starts telling you that everything would be fine if we just went after billionaires, or big banks, or big tech, or . . . be nervous.
●Winner-take-all over compromise. Democracies work when people can hold strong views but accept that others may disagree in good faith; form coalitions on some issues with people who on other issues remain in opposing camps; and, even on those other unreconciled issues, find points of common ground.
Trumpism scorns compromise. He could have had $25 billion for his wall in exchange for legal status for the “dreamers”; he preferred no deal at all.
Trump did not introduce this phenomenon to Washington, of course. (See: Harry Reid and the nuclear option; Mitch McConnell and the Merrick Garland stonewall.) But he accelerated the trend; for Trump, every adversary is an enemy.
The sadly predictable response is equal and opposite intransigence. So if your candidates say they won’t accept legal status for a million dreamers unless all 11 million undocumented immigrants get citizenship, too, do not be surprised. But for the country (not to mention the poor dreamers), be nervous.
This may be the saddest effect of Trumpism. It squanders opportunities that would benefit everyone. It assumes that in every fight, only one side can win.
Yes, many of America’s problems are difficult; many can’t be solved pain-free; many spark passionate and emotional disagreement.
But it's also true that, with a bit of leadership and a dollop of bipartisanship, many problems could be tackled in ways that leave everyone better off. You could impose a carbon tax to slow climate change, and share some of the proceeds with people left behind in coal country. Everybody would benefit.
If your candidate insists that the other side has to lose for you to win, be nervous. It is Trumpism that will be winning.