The Serious Problem with Treating Donald Trump Seriously
The trouble with Donald Trump is not, as Jeb Bush and others would have it, that he's not a true conservative from any perspective. The trouble with Trump is not that his policy positions on immigration, ISIS, health care, Social Security, or whatever don't stand up to a moment of casual scrutiny. That we're even talking about his “positions” means that we've already progressed to the dangerous Stage Two of the Trump phenomenon, as if his stated views are the standard by which Trump ought to be judged—a huge victory for him right there. The trouble with Trump is that he is, by temperament, by experience, and by character, utterly unqualified to be president of the United States. He is a buffoon. That's why his campaign is a joke, not the merits or otherwise of his alleged policies. All he brings to the table is a lot of money and a talent for publicity. These are not worthless assets in a presidential candidate. Trump is right, unfortunately, that his billions free him from the need to raise money, with all the dispiriting and time-consuming compromises that that entails. And, of course, he is not the first politician with a knack for drawing attention to himself.
But he may be the first who offers little more than that. Oh, a bit of wit and charm. A sense of humor that always leaves the listener wondering whether he's serious or not. But where's the wisdom? Where's the gravitas—or, as the Brits call it, less pretentiously, the “bottom”? Trump's self-designated role in our culture has been the clown who, because he doesn't give a damn, will say anything, including truths that more serious people will not utter. That's fine. I wouldn't mind having that job. But Trump is apparently tired of playing the Fool. He wants to be King Lear.
The press is so hostile to Trump that it has broken new ground in what reporters are allowed to say in ostensibly “objective” news articles and broadcasts. Even Richard Nixon, the man who kept an “enemies list” that included reporters he was going to get even with, was treated with more respect. But every insult from the hated media just makes Trump stronger.
A news article in The New York Times—not an op-ed piece, a news article—about Trump's immigration remarks dignifies them with the word “plan,” even while describing them as “mixing a little policy with a lot of fiery bombast” and pointing out that his plan is based on ideas that have been “broadly debunked.” Pretty tough. (And accurate.) But the truth is that Trump has no “plan” for anything. He just has a mouth.
A while back in the Times, Josh Barro started a debate about whether Trump is really a “moderate” who merely acts like an extremist because it sells. You might say that he isn't an extremist but he plays one on TV. Barro's argument was that if you take all of Trump's extreme views on Social Security, immigration, and so on, some of them classified as extremely right-wing and some extremely left-wing, they average out to be more or less down the center. Ezra Klein replied in Vox, essentially, that extreme views are extreme views, no matter how they average out. But looking for some kind of ideological thread in Trump's various positions is a fool's errand (and another victory for Trump). The appeal of Trump's alleged views on every issue is their extremeness. That, and their seeming simplicity. The fact that he hasn't thought them through and has more or less pulled them out of the air (or out of his ass, as Trump himself might put it) is a feature, not a bug, as they say in Silicon Valley. Trump stands for the proposition that you don't need to know much to run the government. You just need to use your common sense and to grow a pair, as Sarah Palin so memorably advised.
So, why are the news media and Trump's political opponents so reluctant to call him a goofball? Why do they enhance his respectability by taking his various off-the-cuff notions seriously in the very process of criticizing them? Why does Jeb Bush, of all people, try to get to Trump's right—wherever that may be, exactly—instead of saying, “Look, this fellow is not qualified to be president. I am.” (And like it or not, that is Bush's selling point. He is foolish to run away from it.)
The problem is populism. Talk like this sounds elitist. But our big problem as a democracy is our inability to acknowledge as a nation what we accept and deal with in our personal lives, which is that more of this means less of that. If we spend money on tax cuts, we can't spend it on education or infrastructure or all the other things the Republican candidates are promising. If we want to deal with global warming, we will have to give up plastic grocery bags and S.U.V.'s. Any coherent philosophy or agenda will bump up against this limit. With a cafeteria-tray approach, like Trump's, where one “idea” need have no connection to any of the others he tosses out, there is no such discipline.
That we’re even talking about his “positions” is a victory for Trump.
This analysis may be completely wrong, but it is not a refutation to say that it is “elitist.” Political journalists might report breathlessly that 23 percent of potential voters in New Hampshire agree with Trump that free cupcakes should be available on major holidays. They would present this as a challenge to the other candidates. Marco Rubio—what is your position on free cupcakes? Will you change it in light of this new evidence that voters favor Trump's position? You can see the headlines: RUBIO CONSIDERS FLIP-FLOP ON CUPCAKES. (Arianna says, “Darling, we had the cupcake story 17 minutes ago. Get with it.”)
Trump is just the latest among a series of business types who think they should run the country because they ran a company. Remember Ross Perot? This year there are two, the other being Carly Fiorina, who ran Hewlett-Packard—ran it into the ground. Businesspeople are an odd category of citizen to look to as a populist deus ex machina. True, they usually have some practical business sense and experience, which is not worthless. But their lives are different from those of people who are hurting, and increasingly so. (So are the lives of Washington journalists, but at least we are free to admit it.) Trump's business experience has been in real estate, professional celebrity, gambling casinos, and creative bankruptcy—not the kind of experience that is likely to be useful as president.
Even the most cynical and demagogic politician usually has something he or she truly wants to accomplish, some ideological goal or vision. Trump seems to be running because he thinks it would be cool to be president. No doubt that plays a role in the thinking of even as philosophical a candidate as Hillary Clinton. But with Trump, that's all there is.