Donald Trump has already succeeded by provoking this column. Any form of public communication that puts “Donald Trump” within five words of “president” — which, darn, I just did — is a victory for the reality TV star turned presidential aspirant.
But Trump, it is now clear, will not go away by being ignored. If polling support — really, at this point, vague impressions and name recognition — is the selection criteria for participation in Republican debates, Trump is likely to be part of them. This would not only foster a circus-like atmosphere, it would, by definition, exclude a more serious candidate. Imagine losing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, to make a seat for Trump. It would seriously undermine the deliberations of the Republican Party in choosing its most visible leader.
But doesn’t Trump deserve a chance to make his rambling, egomaniacal case? Some fraction of Republicans might be attracted to a populist, anti-establishment businessman, who, in private settings, is more serious than his cartoonish public image (it would be hard not to be). I have talked to Republican officials in early primary states who have enjoyed perfectly polite and rational calls and notes from Trump.
Yet the whole process of applying political scrutiny to Trump is difficult, given his aversion to systematic political thought. He communicates in a series of eruptions, gestures and tweets that generally assert the need for his own leadership while dismissing rivals as fools and worse. He calls Jeb Bush’s intelligence into question and ridicules Rick Perry for excessive sweating. He is a Ted Cruz birther, and speculates that Hillary Clinton “can’t satisfy her husband.” His opponents are “losers” and “morally corrupt” and “selling this country down the drain.” They are “clowns” and “stupid people” and often, by his account, physically ugly.
On the issues, we don’t get arguments, we get impulses. “I’ve built a multibillion-dollar empire,” he says, “by using my intuition.” Like many public figures who refuse to use written speeches, he believes that everything crossing his mind is worthy of expression, without being edited or organized for the benefit of others. So we get a spew of Trump’s gut feelings. They tend to be resentful of outsiders; immigrants are depicted as “rapists” and drug runners. They assume that Barack Obama was the beneficiary of affirmative action. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? ... Let him show his records.”
But mostly Trump’s gut tells him (and thus, automatically, us) that political and scientific elites are evil and scheming, both composed of idiots and capable of sophisticated conspiracies. He has falsely and dangerously asserted a connection between vaccines and autism, rooted in practices set by “pharmaceutical companies, because they probably make more money.” He has described a “GLOBAL WARMING HOAX” of an extent so vast it could only be revealed by capital letters. He famously asserted that public officials were engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the circumstances of Obama’s birth. And when one official tragically died, he pressed the claim to her grave. “How amazing,” Trump tweeted, “the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived.”
Trump’s policy agenda is too skeletal or absurd to analyze. He will pick better generals to defeat the Islamic State. He will slap a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods. He will build a wall across the continent and make Mexico pay for it.
There is little chance that Trump will have much influence when actual votes are tallied — even the most celebrity-blinded Republican is unlikely to forget Trump’s political contributions to Harry Reid — but there is plenty of time for mischief between now and then. And the largest risk, in the end, is not to Republicanism but to populism.
Trump’s form of populism promises not reform but deliverance. The answer to every problem is a leader who can make deals, knock heads and get results. The defects of democracy, in this view, are remedied by the strongman. It is not a coincidence that Trump expresses admiration for Vladimir Putin. “He’s doing a great job,” says Trump, “in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.”
This is populism as Caesarism. The fact that Trump is laughable in the role of Caesar does not make the argument less pernicious. And it tells you a lot about the blind anger of the antiestablishment right that Rush Limbaugh is more favorable to Donald Trump than to Jeb Bush.