Whether he wins or loses, we need more people like Donald Trump in politics.
I don’t mean to suggest ambitious Republicans — or Democrats for that matter — should copy the GOP standard-bearer’s braggadocio and flippant responses (to say nothing of his more crude moments) or stock up on red power ties. Love him or loathe him, there is only one Donald Trump. No one else can be him and, even if he wins, no one should try.
Instead, smart politicians should take the best and leave the rest behind.
That means abandoning overly scripted campaigns in favor of authenticity, listening to voters instead of to elite opinion and — this is especially true for Republicans — embracing the issues that propelled Trump’s campaign instead of recurring to stale conservative checklists.
Trump won the Republican nomination and may yet win the presidency on a platform that stands in stark contrast to the conservative catechism of the George W. Bush era. Trump’s diagnosis of the problems faced by average Americans, if not his solutions, has more in common with that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than with that of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). And Republican voters overwhelmingly support him more for his policies than for his personality. This is evidenced by polling that shows Trump’s electoral support exceeding his favorability ratings, sometimes by big percentages, and the spate of recent essays from influential conservatives encouraging voters to look at Trump’s policies rather than at the man himself.
Trump has run his campaign on three big themes, all of them at odds with the Republican orthodoxy of the last 30 years. Those themes are citizenship and border security, pro-worker trade policy, and an interests-based foreign policy skeptical of military intervention and winless wars. The result has been yuge opposition from Republican intellectual and policy elites, unenthusiastic endorsements from elected Republicans who are wondering how to get through this election cycle with their skin, and a base exhilarated by the message if not always by the messenger.
Immigration has been central to Trump’s campaign, and his promise to “build the wall” set him apart from his competitors for the Republican nomination. But Trump is simply reasserting the tried and true American principle that the people acting through their representatives have a right to decide who is allowed to become a citizen. Those representatives have straddled the issue for decades, intentionally avoiding making any decision. As a result, we have neither amnesty and the citizenship that goes with it nor the border security and enforcement of immigration laws that would decrease the population of undocumented immigrants living in the country. Americans expect their representatives to make hard decisions even if it the result is imperfect. Trump proposes border security — the “Build the Wall” slogan separated him from his primary opponents — and law enforcement. More important, voters find him more credible on this issue than incumbent politicians who have failed definitively to address the issue.
When it comes to the economy, if only Nixon could go to China, maybe it will take a New York billionaire to bring Wall Street to heel. The serial depredations of middle America by the finance economy can no longer be ignored. For all the claims that the GOP is the party of Big Business, the truth is a bit more complicated. Yes, the policy establishment reflexively supports whatever Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants, often allowing their free market idealism to blind them to rent-seeking and crony capitalism. But rank and file voters have had it. The so-called “carried interest” loophole, for example, is a giveaway to the finance industry that Trump wants to end. His closest allies on this issue are Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It’s even the one piece of tax policy he and Clinton share in common.
On trade and jobs, Trump and future Republican candidates can find common ground with many Americans who have traditionally supported Democrats. Too many Republicans have been held captive to an impractical orthodoxy, framing these issues as a purely ideological debate with free markets on one hand and statism on the other. But Trump supporters see them as real life, kitchen-table issues that need answers.
Likewise, many Americans, and more Republicans than anyone would have believed a year or two ago, are highly skeptical of foreign military commitments — the “entangling alliances” that George Washington warned against. They reckon the cost in blood and treasure is not worth whatever fleeting benefits are associated with winless wars.
More than anything else, Trump picked up on a growing sense that elections don’t have much impact on the direction of the country, that power is increasingly distant from the people. Conservatives, for example, have been too quick to back anything labeled “free trade” without regard to the impact on American workers. If we can restore the sovereignty of the American citizen over and against the will of so-called experts and can measure every policy by how much it benefits those citizens rather than by how closely it adheres to ideological orthodoxy, then Trump’s candidacy will have achieved much good.
Still, the temptation for dispossessed and displeased elites to learn the wrong lessons from this election will be almost irresistible. Trump’s Republican critics contend that his supporters were too easily misled by an obvious charlatan. If true, the only solution is for the self-described grown-ups to reclaim control over the party apparatus that was snatched from them by the Trump insurrectionists. Voters had their tantrum; now back to business as usual. It’s true that Trump has flaws that are uniquely his own, yet Republican voters bargained that those personal imperfections are of less national importance than the bipartisan failures of the country’s existing political leadership.
But there’s no going back, and this analysis casually avoids the issues at the heart of Trump’s campaign, issues that divide the Republican base from the professional political class.
Most Americans, even those with strong ideological commitments, are Americans first and conservatives or progressives second. This is good. And it is a necessary precondition for a healthy and sustainable politics. Yet pols on both the right and left have adopted a reductionist view of politics pitting one ideology against the other in a zero-sum game. Those differences are real and they are important, but what we have in common as fellow citizens is the basis for self-government. We have politics so that we can work out those differences peacefully.
Trump’s candidacy represents an opportunity for intellectuals and politicians to create new alliances and unify a solid electoral majority around bedrock issues that straddle the current divide but nonetheless resonate with a majority of Americans. Whether Trump can capitalize on that or not remains to be seen, but he has tapped into a deep vein of American civic and political culture. Let’s not squander it.