Bought & Paid For

The Trouble with Trump

Republicans and Democrats could not be further apart on immigration, the Iran deal, taxes, banking reform, Obamacare, and on and on. But mainstream Republicans and Democrats do agree on one thing: the presidential candidacy of billionaire Donald Trump would be a disaster for the GOP. Democrats, of course, are gleeful at the prospect, while Republicans are fretful and at a loss as to how to sideline the fire-breathing New York plutocrat without alienating his base of support among the party’s most vociferous partisans.

Many thought the poll-leading Trump had sabotaged his campaign with his blustering performance during and after the August 6 Fox News debate. The questioning from the panel of Fox News correspondents was professional and rigorous, with many of the more pointed challenges directed at the wealthy real-estate developer and reality-TV star. Trump’s answers were blunt, boastful, crude, and unresponsive. His insulting and misogynous remarks about Megyn Kelly after the debate were thought to have sealed his fate. Yet his popularity among Republican voters only increased, with many lauding him for scoffing at “political correctness” and exhibiting a putatively manly take-no-prisoners attitude. “Make America Great Again” is Trump’s entirely vacuous campaign slogan, but it seems to have touched a raw nerve among older white, male, “low information” voters whose cultural and political resentments the Republican Party has been cultivating for the better part of fifty years. Government doesn’t work, they’ve been told. All politicians are corrupt. A rich businessman is the answer. 

Will the Trump moment last? On the one hand, he seems the very embodiment of the American gospel of success. Yet it is hard to believe that his candidacy will hold up under the increased scrutiny that comes with being a front-runner, or that his notoriously mercurial temperament will not betray him at some point. Much of his popularity rests on an absurd and xenophobic plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, revoke birthright citizenship, and build a “big beautiful” wall across the Mexico-U.S. border. His fellow Republican candidates have responded to this demagoguery by toughening up their own immigration proposals. Since Hispanic voters are now the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, embracing such policies would seem to be a sure recipe for defeat in a general election. Then there is Trump’s approach to military and foreign policy: “We go in, we knock the hell out of them, we take the oil.” A sure path to greatness, that. 

Radical, populist, and nationalistic political movements are spreading across Europe, spurred by refugee and immigration pressures, the disruption and uncertainties of the globalized economy, and the failure of more traditional political parties to address the anxieties of the citizenry. There is an element of this in the Trump phenomenon. Many have compared Trump’s appeal to that of Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate, gauche libertine, and former Italian prime minister whose outlandish behavior and boasts outdo even Trump’s histrionics. Why would those who feel cheated by the political system and who struggle economically rally to the cause of billionaires who claim to have the interests of the average citizen at heart? What is it about the allure and arrogance of wealth that exerts such a pull?

The worship of “success” now seems to transcend all class boundaries in our new gilded age. Economic prerogatives trump nearly every other social or cultural consideration. What were once prized as traditional values that placed family and community before “progress” and profit have become hard to even understand, let alone defend, for many Americans. Commercial imperatives have cheapened both our common life and our politics, and increasingly threaten our capacity for self-government.

Donald Trump preaches an unadulterated version of this materialistic and utilitarian gospel. He never tires of proclaiming how rich (“Very!”) and how successful (“Huge!”) he is. Politicians, or anyone who questions him, are just “stupid” failures. Money, he has made clear, is the measure of all things. Those who know how to make it also know the secret of how to run a government, shout down the media, and stare down belligerent adversaries here and abroad. Most important, unlike politicians, the rich man is not beholden to anyone or any interest group. In fact, politicians and interest groups are beholden to him. They all take his money.

These are not only vulgar claims, but dangerous nonsense. “The whole case for Christianity,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.” Yes, the rich we will always have with us. But the idea that the rich cannot be bribed because they are rich is not only a fairy tale; it is a heresy. “The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already,” Chesterton insisted. “That is why he is a rich man.”

Donald Trump has been bought and paid for many times over, but he’s not worth purchasing at any price.

Published in the September 11, 2015 issue: 
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