More than 15 years ago, Walter Russell Meade anticipated the emergence of Trump:
It is perversion rather than corruption that most troubles Jacksonians: the possibility that the powers of government will be turned from the natural and proper object of supporting the well-being of the majority toward oppressing the majority in the service of an economic or cultural elite—or, worse still, in the interests of powerful foreigners. Instead of trying, however ineptly, to serve the people, have the politicians turned the government against the people? Are they serving large commercial interests with malicious designs on the common good? Are they either by ineptitude or wickedness serving hostile foreign interests—giving all our industrial markets to the Japanese, or allowing communists to steal our secrets and hand them to the Chinese? Are they fecklessly frittering away huge sums of money on worthless foreign aid programs that transfer billions to corrupt foreign dictators?
Jacksonians tolerate a certain amount of government perversion, but when it becomes unbearable, they look to a popular hero to restore government to its proper functions. It was in this capacity that Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency, and the role has since been reprised by any number of politicians on both the local and the national stages. Recent decades have seen Ronald Reagan master the role, and George Wallace, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan auditioning for it. The Jacksonian hero dares to say what the people feel and defies the entrenched elites. “I welcome their hatred”, said the aristocratic Franklin Roosevelt, in his role of tribune of the people. The hero may make mistakes, but he will command the unswerving loyalty of Jacksonian America so long as his heart is perceived to be in the right place. [Emphasis added.]
What is bizarre is that the sin of “giving our industrial markets to the Japanese” was somewhat dated by 1999, but Trump pounds on that theme today, when it is well past its sell date. Decades past. Just yesterday, in Greenville, SC, he said something to the effect that “the Japanese are up here [holding his hand over his head] and we are down here [holding his hand by his knee].” Fact: Japanese per capita GDP is $36K, and US per capital GDP is exactly 50 percent higher, at $54K. But facts don’t matter. The image of Japanese domination (now accompanied by the image of Chinese domination) resonates intensely among Jacksonians.
But moving beyond that particular point, Meade clearly identified the role Trump is playing, and the audience-Jacksonians-to whom he is appealing.
One of the characteristics of Jacksonians that Meade identifies is their hostility to elites. Anthony Codevilla makes a similar point, saying that Trump is channeling intense anger at the “Ruling Class.”
And truth be told, there is a lot to be hostile to and angry with. Viewed objectively, the term “elite” can only be used ironically in the America of 2015. There has never been such a sorry lot at the upper echelons of politics and culture in our nation’s history, except perhaps for the 1850s. The Jacksonian instinct to break out the pitchforks and torches and get the bastards is understandable.
But Trump is a fatally flawed vessel for this rebellion, in part because of he echoes so well the flawed beliefs of so many Jacksonians, notably the tribalism that gives rise to protectionism and indiscriminate hostility to all immigration. (And I say this as someone with decided Jacksonian impulses on foreign policy, and as someone descended in part from a quintessential Jacksonian family.)
But also in part-in large part-to Trump’s authoritarianism. Virtually every proposal he makes involves some sort of government intervention, such as the imposition of tariffs, a concerted effort to weaken the dollar, or mass deportation. Indeed, it is difficult to find any serious policy differences between Trump and avowed socialist Bernie Sanders.
What’s more, he promises a highly personalized government, in which he will exercise his personal executive authority to impose his policies. (A style pioneered by Andrew Jackson, notably.) He envisions his presidency as the application of the methods of the corporate CEO (who frequently exercises virtually untrammeled authority) to the governance of a nation that dwarfs even the largest company.
Even beyond the defects of his specific policy proposals, this personalization of process is the last thing we need right now. Obama has already taken us far down this road, and we need to retrace our steps, rather than hurtle even further forward on it. We are careening towards presidentialism, which has proved disastrous to both liberty and wealth wherever it has been implemented. (It is not for nothing that Trump sees a kindred spirit in Putin.)
It is ironic that many Tea Party people are ardent Trump fans, despite the fact that he represents the antithesis of the Constitution-worshipping, small-government rhetoric of the Tea Party. If Trump actually wins, these people will wake up with the biggest morning-after regret ever.
That said, I doubt that Trump can win the presidency, or even the nomination. But I temper my doubts because I never thought that he would make it this far. And even if he does not gain the nomination, he may do so much damage to the (already divided and dysfunctional) Republican Party that its electoral prospects may be doomed, even in a year when the presumptive Democratic Party nominee is a walking disaster who is at some risk of trading her orange pantsuits for orange prison garb, and the alternatives are an aging socialist loon and an aging lifelong pol with a well-earned reputation for buffoonery. (This is another illustration of the degraded condition of our purported elites.)
And Trump also brings out in stark relief the Republicans’ fundamental dilemma. They cannot win without the Jacksonians, but it is seriously questionable whether they can win with them, because they repel a large number of the swing voters who will decide the election. Reagan was able to bridge this gap, but the gap was much narrower 35 years ago. Reagan was arguably the only person that could have done it in the 1980s, but even he would almost certainly find it impossible today.
Trump today is polling at 20 percent or so of a party that may-may-account for 50 percent of the electorate. You can’t win with 10 percent, no matter how intense its support, especially if that very intensity alienates 10 percent (or more) of the voters.
This is particularly true if you look at the electoral map. The swing states that the Republicans need to win to regain the White House are the very ones that are most likely to be neuralgic to Trump and his angry band of Jacksonians.
So what will happen? In such discontented times making forecasts is even more difficult than usual, but I cannot identify plausible, positive scenarios. Trump and the Jacksonian faction he appeals to are a destructive force, even though the object of their anger and disdain largely deserves it. Destructive because they are likely to perpetuate the misrule of the progressives, and destructive even in the (unlikely) event of victory, because Trump’s policies and presidentialism would just represent a different form of misrule.