The Difference The Donald Makes

The Donald Trump phenomenon endures. Not only is he up in the polls and on good terms with Roger Ailes, but even Ross Douthat is casting about for the possible upsides of Trump's presence in the race.  While offering a number of caveats and confessing that it's a glass half-full scenario, Douthat claims that Trump presents perils for the GOP, yes, but that there's "a real opportunity here for reformers as well." The core of his case:

Because so long as a protean, ideologically-flexible figure like Trump is setting the populist agenda in the party, you’re less likely to have stringent ideological tests applied to other candidates and their ideas; so long as the voter anxieties he’s tapping into are front and center in the debate, you’re less likely to see other candidates ignoring those anxieties while chasing support from donors or ideological enforcers instead.

Douthat goes on to argue that this already has happened with regard to healthcare—that Marco Rubio and Scott Walker both have offered policy proposals (or rather, gotten away with offering them) they might not have been able to in a Trump-less primary. From his vantage as a reform-minded conservative, "Trumpism is a problem and an opportunity at once..." Even granting that these assertions were something of thought experiment, they strike me as very wishful thinking.

As a friend wrote to me, only half-jokingly, Trump is "the Hegelian synthesis of politics and entertainment." Which is to say that Trump is less a strange outlier than the cutting edge, a perfect candidate for this cultural moment. His impact has not been to create a space for serious but ideologically suspect policies, as Douthat hopes, but rather to foster a situation that's so detached from reality that Republican candidates can say nearly anything and have it go almost unnoticed.

Some use that impunity to reveal healthcare plans that might appeal to the middle class (and Ross Douthat), but upset Bobby Jindal. Others, like Ben Carson, unironically talk about a tax plan based on tithing, which is a way to make religious voters think a flat tax is a great idea. (As Carson put it in the last debate, "I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn't matter how much you make.") The so-far-rather-lame Jeb Bush responded this week to Trump's draconian immigration plan on the grounds that it was too expensive, and thus not really "conservative," not that it is morally repugnant.

Consider this small example of what I mean. In a new interview with Time, Trump said the following:

Don’t forget in the meantime we have a real unemployment rate that’s probably 21%. It’s not 6. I’s not 5.2 and 5.5. Our real unemployment rate–in fact, I saw a chart the other day, our real unemployment–because you have ninety million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact.

If you start adding it up, our real unemployment rate is 42%.

The (ostensible) journalists conducting the interview did not challenge those statistics.Then, later in the interview, Trump was asked this penetrating question: "You’ve written more on leadership than any of the other candidates. George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, who is a better leader?" Now there's a commitment to uncovering the truth!

Trump has turned the Republican primary into a (perhaps temporary) alternate reality where our already rather shabby expectations and standards for political argument matter even less than usual. In this farcical world, you indeed can proffer relatively good ideas with less risk of ideological policing. The problem is that, once you're in Trump's reality show world, what does a "good idea" even mean?

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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