Recently, on April 14, a senior aide to the Trump campaign (one Corey Lewandowski) was notified by the Florida Palm Beach County Prosecutor’s office that he would not be prosecuted for simple battery, a charge made against him by the Jupiter Police Department on March 29. As observers of the Trump campaign are well aware, Lewandowski had violently manhandled a female reporter (Michele Fields, formerly of Breitbart) at a March 8 Trump press conference.
When the event made news, the Trump people, instead of doing the simple, sensible thing and simply apologizing to Ms. Fields and being done with the matter, loudly and heatedly denied the incident and even smeared her as a liar and a publicity-seeking fabulist for good measure. While prosecutors declined to pursue the charge because of Ms. Fields’ physical proximity to Trump at the time of the incident (thus giving Lewandowski basis to plausibly defend his action), eyewitness testimony from a Washington Post reporter who was present, photographs, an audio recording in real time of the incident, and now a video all corroborate Ms Fields’ allegations and expose Trump and his aide as total liars. The Trump campaign thus modified their position on the incident from denial that it had taken place, to justification in protecting candidate Trump.
But far more important than the incident itself is what it portends of a possible Trump presidency. The ability to transform, out of sheer pettiness and pique, an easily resolvable campaign misstep into a senselessly self-wounding scandal that is now dominating the airwaves, is no mean feat of arrogance and stupidity. Encapsulated in this one incident I see the quadrilateral pillars of the Trump phenomenon: thuggishness, vanity, lies, and ignorance.
—Thuggishness. In fairness to Trump, whether he is really the racial and religious bigot that his critics contend, seems at least open to question; while Trump, like some pied piper of legend, has sounded a virtual clarion call of dog whistles summoning every racist and bigoted crackpot out of their open sewers to rally in his support, Trump’s actual statements on Muslims and minorities, for example, are, in fact, varied and contradictory, and seem to indicate that at least some of his more extreme and intemperate statements stem more from opportunism in pandering to certain audiences rather than conviction. On this score, at least, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Here below, however, is an inventory of infamy that is beyond any doubt: Trump has mocked American POWs like John McCain for their capture, ridiculed a reporter for his physical disability, mused about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle and trashed her with some one-hundred and nineteen Twitter attacks over a period of seven months. Why? Because she asked him a question in a debate about his well-documented record of misogynistic statements. He has also disparaged the physical appearances of Carly Fiorina and Heidi Cruz, threatened to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Cruz, threatened the Rickets family (owner of the Chicago Cubs) that “they better be careful, they have a lot to hide” for contributing to an anti-Trump PAC, threatened House Speaker Paul Ryan that he would “have to pay a big price” for not getting along with him, and threatened that “I think you’d have riots” if he failed to win the nomination at a contested convention.
Having disinterred some of the more scurrilous slanders proffered by the pro-terror left, Trump has blamed George W. Bush for 9/11, accused Bush of “lying” about Iraq having WMDs, and recommended his impeachment. And while it is true that left-leaning thugs have sought to disrupt his speaking events and rallies, it is no less true that Trump has also encouraged his supporters to hit those who protest him, praised and offered to pay the legal fees of a man who sucker punched—and then threatened to kill—an African-American man at a Trump event, has compared Ben Carson to a child molester, promised to commit a slew of war crimes in fighting ISIS, and portrayed the World War II imprisoning of Japanese-Americans in internment camps as a “good idea.”
—Vanity. He has spent whole speeches talking about his hair in order to prove that he wears no toupee, has obsessed to audiences about the size of his hands, and, later, the size of his you-know-what in a televised debate, no less.
Why? Marco Rubio inferred that he had small hands, and, well, let Trump tell it, hands raised for all the debate audience to see:
Look at those hands, are they small hands? And, [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”
—Lies. Yes, the lies, far too numerous to inventory here, needless to say. Trump has lied about being against the war in Iraq at the time the war began, lied about knowing who David Duke was when given an opportunity to denounce the support of the racist and former KKK Grand Wizard , about self-funding his campaign, his multiple bankruptcies and business failures, about how much he has given to charity, about how much he inherited, and about how much he is currently worth. A long tissue of lies permeate his personal life and business activities going back decades— to spouses, to business associates and employees—and now to voters.
—Ignorance. To name a few examples among the swelling multitude: he thinks that Supreme Court justices “sign bills,” is ignorant of the strategic triad, confuses Kurds with Iranian Quds forces, doesn’t understand the difference between a national deficit and a trade deficit, complains that Iran, a country under sanctions, “doesn’t buy our planes,” and promises to “make America great again” by opening up libel laws that would all but criminalize criticism of a Trump presidency.
And will Trump be good for Israel? Why, sure. Consider: In his AIPAC speech he has promised to both discard — and then, several minutes later — to preserve, the Iran deal. He has blamed Israel for the absence of peace (“I don’t know that Israel has the commitment to make peace”), and has promised to be neutral between Israeli self-defense and Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism (“Let me be sort of a neutral guy, let’s see what — I’m going to give it a shot. It would be so great”). Trump has also hinted that he expects Israel to repay American military aid — just as he expects it of every other ally (“I think Israel can pay big league…they should pay us some money”). As with Trump and virtually any other issue, his statements concerning Israel are so varied and contradictory, that pinning him down to a coherent position is like nailing a glob of jelly to a wall.
After eight years of Obama’s aloof, professorial preening, his lackluster leadership, and the insufferable, almost Orwellian, political correctness that envelops the administration’s governance, I certainly understand and sympathize with the frustrations of some Trump supporters, and I even understand the allure of the Trump candidacy to them. But, for conservatives, is Trump the antidote for what ails after eight years of Obama?
Surely, he is not. The closer one looks at the Trump campaign, the more it seems void of any discernible form or theme; it seems a moving storm, full of sound and fury, and little else. So who and what is this man? He is most passionate firstly about himself, wealth, power, and “winning,” and secondly in spewing contempt, ridicule, and threats at rivals, critics, and those who disagree with or even mildly offend him. That, at any rate, has been the dynamic and principal thrust of his campaign thus far.
Beyond that, he is merely a crude, vulgar, ignorant, spoiled, corrupt, narcissistic sociopath whose lack of scruples and staggering illiteracy in matters of basic policy would make his presidency a clear and present danger not only to the nation but to the cause of freedom throughout the world, a world that depends on the vigilance of this nation as the leader of the free world. Surely Trump supporters are well aware that eight years of Obama have done quite enough damage to that sacred charge, upheld vigorously by every post-war American president from Truman to George W. Bush.
I am a conservative. I believe in conservatism as a governing philosophy, and the Republican Party as a bastion of conservatism. Like Edmund Burke and our nation’s Founders, I believe that wisdom lies in honoring certain principles of governance that are timeless, and in discerning such principles from what is merely transient and ephemeral. Also like Burke and the Founders, I have an anxious aversion to the kind of pure, direct democracy advocated by Trump and his supporters in their hunt for delegates; I find that the best ideas on the subject are encapsulated in Burke’s famous speech to his parliamentary constituents among the voters of Bristol in 1774:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Government and legislation, Burke is thus arguing, are “matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination.” That the Founders implicitly understood the wisdom behind this sentiment is shown in their creation of the Electoral College to act as a barrier to the dangers inherent in such direct democracy, unfiltered and unmediated by representation.
I believe in limited government and a muscular foreign policy abroad based on the Reagan-Thatcher model—one that was even supported by old-fashioned liberal hawks like Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—that prioritizes the protection of freedom and human rights, and acts as a bulwark against the spread and influence of totalitarianism, whether it be Fascism, Soviet-style Communism, or the ubiquitous, now-global phenomenon of Islamist terror.
Donald Trump is not a conservative. To the extent that he can be categorized at all in political terms, Trump is an ideological opportunist and populist, a xenophobic nativist reminiscent of the Know-Nothings of the 1850’s, an economic protectionist, and a foreign policy isolationist. For those conservatives disenchanted with President Obama on any of these scores, a Trump presidency promises more of the same and much worse.
Take foreign policy, for example. As Bret Stephens has observed, there is not much to choose between Trump and Obama:
Both men share the conviction that the U.S. can’t afford much of a foreign policy anymore. Mr. Obama often faults the high cost of the war in Iraq for “constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.” Mr. Trump complains that “we’re defending the world” despite a national debt nearing $21 trillion. One man wants to shrink America’s role in the world for the sake of a bigger state; the other man for the sake of shrinking the debt. In either case, the prescription is to put America in retreat.
Donald Trump is a demagogue, and revolutions in democracies, as Aristotle once observed, “are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues.” Aristotle knew whereof he spoke; in the fourth century b.c. Athens of his own day, it was Pericles who stood as the exemplar of responsible statesmanship in the way that we might view Washington, Lincoln, or Reagan today. In contrast to Pericles, Aristotle took note of one of Pericles’ fifth-century b.c. contemporaries, Cleon, a crude, rabble-rousing opportunist general and member of the assembly whose antics on the podium were unmistakably Trumpian:
“He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.”
Our Founders too, had a wrenching aversion to the prospect of demagogues manipulating and hijacking the body politic. James Madison, writing in Federalist 10, warned of
“Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, [who] may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
Donald Trump is not just a demagogue, but one of the most dangerous kind: a reckless, arrogant, and undisciplined man who does not know what he does not know, does not care what he doesn’t know, and cares even less about learning. Yet Trump’s supporters count his amateurism and unfamiliarity with the issues as just another sign of the “authenticity” that they find so endearing and refreshing. How did this a man gain such an ascendant position in one of the two mainstream American political parties, and why, despite a string of gaffes any one of which would have been fatal to an ordinary candidate, does he still command this ascendance?
The answer, I believe, lies in Trump’s supporters themselves. Though they make up a diverse and varied lot, Trump’s core supporters are mostly white, working class males in Rust Belt states (such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) who feel sundered and cheated by immigration, globalization, and the flight of manufacturing jobs. But this is only to look at the surface.
One can hardly fail to notice that deep down within them is a feeling of having been abandoned and marginalized by the political (and media) elites. They bristle and burn with the indignation peculiar to those who feel wronged and betrayed by the endless promises of better times that are carelessly bandied about in each election cycle; again and again, the growing gap between the rhetoric of the politicians and the reality makes itself felt to them; they find that their greater toil has yielded not greater security but greater hardship, worry, and want. Slowly, it begins to dawn on them that government, with the help of a biased and self-interested commercial media, are complicit in a kind of rigged conspiracy to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of those whom they ostensibly govern and serve.
Thus, the political rhetoric emanating from all the speeches, debates, press conferences and interviews on talk shows is, in effect, seen by them to only further the elite/establishment conspiracy by concealing the truth of the real agenda, and further misleading the public. Even worse—and adding insult to injury—there is everywhere the dreaded specter of political correctness, the weapon of the establishment to police all language and discussion, and stigmatize the truth-teller who dares to upset this corrupt status-quo.
Of course, from the time of the rebels of the Whiskey Revolt of the 1790s, who tarred and feathered President George Washington’s tax collectors, to the advent of the Tea Party in 2009-2010, dark suspicions of government, and Frank Capra-like dreams of straight-talking “outsiders” riding in on their white horses to shake up the “establishment” are as old as the republic itself, and it is into these troubled waters of grievance and discontent that Trump, like a county fair con-man hawking miracle cures, baits the hook and casts his line.
And there he is, boldly, bluntly, and fearlessly speaking their thoughts, in their language, wearing no airs, and being accountable to no one.Supporters are drawn to his gruff, haughty charisma, his railings against the “establishment,” his brash, muscular forays into political incorrectness, and even his occasional vulgarity. They find this refreshing, and authentic. His wealth, his celebrity, and his aggressive and confident persona exude an aura of unstoppable success that people imagine will somehow cure and dispel the dysfunctions and inertia of divided government, revitalize the economy, and restore our standing in the world.
Watching one of Trump’s speeches recently, and observing the remarkable rapport between speaker and audience, I was strangely reminded of an interview I saw with Brittany Spears some years back about a film she had just made—her first, in fact, which the critics had been most unkind in reviewing. When the interviewer awkwardly asked her why the critics had hated her film so much, Ms. Spears tartly sniffed back that she had made the film “for fans, and not for critics.”
And that, in sum, is what I think can best explain the enigmatic and ever-confounding Trump phenomenon to non-Trump supporters: it is for fans only, not for critics. Indeed, the sad truth is that no amount of fact-checking, criticism, or indignation being shouted against Trump by television pundits, or leaping from the pages of newspaper columns or editorials can or will ever calm or still the furies he has tapped into and unleashed, and media criticism to date has been about as effective in checking him as a tiny garden hose in attempting to extinguish a raging brush fire.
For Trump supporters, the chatterings and scoldings of the media commentariat have long ceased to count, and Trump, like any clever demagogue exploiting the emotions of the electorate, has been very effective in turning media attacks to his advantage by counter-attacking journalists or portraying them as salvos from the “establishment” whose power and corruption he is challenging. As Richard Rovere explains in his biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy, such a demagogue soon learns that
“The penalties for a really audacious mendacity are not as severe as the average politician fears them to be, that, in fact, there may be no penalties at all, but only profit”
And so it goes. Trump’s latest win of his home state was expected, but the extent of his victory was certainly not. He now seems all but poised to win the nomination of the Republican Party. Those Trump supporters wildly cheering this turn of events obviously aren’t reading the latest national polls. As The Washington Post reports,
“If Donald Trump secures the Republican presidential nomination, he would start the general election campaign as the least-popular candidate to represent either party in modern times. Three-quarters of women view him unfavorably. So do nearly two-thirds of independents, 80 percent of young adults, 80 percent of African-Americans, 85 percent of Hispanics, and nearly half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.”
The real-life electoral consequences of the Trump phenomenon for Republicans in November are thus coming more clearly into view. Larry Sabato and his analysts at The Crystal Ball project that a Trump-Clinton match-up will deliver 347 electoral votes to Clinton and 191 to Trump.
And this, dear sports fans, will be the real legacy of the Trump phenomenon as well as that of all of the conservative radio talk show hosts who have acted with such vigilance and dispatch as the watchdogs of conservative “purity” against the dead weight of the Republican “establishment”: a Hillary Clinton presidency.