I’m back from three weeks in Germany – more on that in an upcoming post – where I got to watch U.S. politics, and Donald Trump, from a distance, through European eyes.
My German friends view Trump with two main sentiments: disbelief and alarm. That’s not so different from most of my American friends, but Euros experience an extra jolt of incredulity, especially those who’ve lived in the U.S. at some point in the past. They shake their heads, insisting that this can’t be the country they knew. What happened?
An op-ed by the French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy typifies the alarmist European view. After blasting Trump for “his unfathomable vulgarity,” “his pathological hatred of women,” “his unabashed racism,” “his anti-Semitism,” and “his gross lack of knowledge,” Lévy concludes, with classic French understatement, that “the implications of Trump’s election would be truly terrifying:”
The problem would not only be his vulgarity, sexism, racism, and defiant ignorance. It would be his infidelity to America itself. The party of Eisenhower and Reagan has been commandeered by a corrupt demagogue who betrays not only his country’s ideals, but also its fundamental national interest.
American vertigo. Global disaster.
I tried to reassure my German friends by insisting that Trump is unlikely to be elected. “But the damage has already been done,” one of them remarked. I disagree – the real damage would come if Trump actually gained the White House – but I understand what he meant: damage to the rituals and rules of American politics; and damage to the American reputation, via what Trump’s popularity says about who and where we are right now as a society. Just yesterday, an article in the Science section of the Times took up the question of whether Trump is mentally ill. What does it portend when the citizens of the most powerful nation in history flirt with electing such a person? American vertigo? Global disaster?
Let me put forward a less alarming perspective on the significance of Trump, one that places him in the context of the shape-shifting nature of the American political party.
In a European-style multiparty democratic system, where governments are formed via coalitions, parties can represent narrow slices of the electorate – as narrow as the Bavarian Peasants League or the National War Deserters Union, both represented in the chaotic German parliament of a century ago. That system allows for singlemindedness up front – party purity – at the cost of tricky post-election maneuvering later on, as leaders struggle to build a government out of parties that often fundamentally disagree.
In a two-party system like ours, this architectonic challenge arises right away, within the individual parties and before any national election. Both our national mega-parties are motley patchworks of groups that often have little in common. Consider the strange bedfellows united by the GOP over recent decades: highly secular Ayn Randians alongside fervent evangelicals; neoconservative foreign-policy hawks alongside isolationist America-Firsters; anti-tax libertarians and free-market idealists alongside disaffected working-class ex-Democrats; small-business Main Streeters alongside lordly Wall Streeters; racially resentful whites, especially in the South, alongside affluent Northeast suburbanites; rural gun-rights advocates alongside country-club moderates; anti-immigration wall builders alongside Rand Paul laissez-faire types.
The Democratic Party has its own fault lines, reflecting the assorted interests of its constituent factions: labor (or what’s left of it); feminists and other protest-minded 1968ers, as they are called in Europe; black and brown Americans; socially liberal but economically centrist Clinton New Democrats; left-libertarians; wealthy metropolitans, including high-tech and venture-capital luminaries; environmentalists; most students; academics and the media; gay rights advocates and other identity politics focused groups; and so on.
Put differently, our politics is set up for centrism and compromise, our parties structured to accommodate an unruly diversity; to borrow an appropriately American phrase, they are large, they contain multitudes. Yet the particular alliances within those parties change over time, and the tumultuous moments of realignment are often brought to a crux by a presidential election. Some presidential candidates succeed in growing their party, inviting new groups and making the bed more capacious. For Republicans in the post-WWII era, the party-growers would be Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan; for Democrats the most important is Bill Clinton, though Obama may turn out, in his own right, to have been one as well.
Others shrink the party, either by intentionally purifying it, or by failing to keep up with social and political trends and being overwhelmed. Think, respectively, Goldwater for the Republicans in 1964 and McGovern for the Democrats in 1972. Such candidates end up effectively representing only some of the factions that their party has carefully solicited and assembled. The other factions float free -- or, to follow the bed metaphor, they suddenly look around and say, Get me out of here! The candidate loses big, and the party shrinks, at least temporarily.
In this light, Trump appears simply as one of these party-shrinkers. The core Trump brigade – mostly working and lower-middle-class whites mistrustful of elites and resentful at feeling left behind -- has been there all along. But now other groups in the Republican crazy quilt have fallen away, sheared off by the big scissors Trump is wielding. One by one I can tick off the alienated Republicans among my friends, family and acquaintances, each with his or her own reason for not voting for Trump. My evangelical cousin abhors his personal amorality and obvious lack of faith. My Chicago-trained-economist friend loathes his crony capitalism. My Reagan-worshiping father finds him unacceptably loutish. My libertarian pal finds him plutocratic. My (eighty-five year-old) financial advisor is appalled at his every utterance.
These desertions are mirrored in the mass defections of establishment Republican commentators. If Trump is to win, he’ll have to do so via the dramatic elevation of Talk Radio over Print Journalism: Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Savage prevailing against Kristol, Will, Krauthammer, the National Review and (for the most part) the Wall Street Journal, all of whom oppose him, almost vehemently. Some view this apotheosis of conservative radio as the culmination of a trend that began two decades ago, and see it as a historic sign of victory. But I doubt that Trump can afford these establishment defections; the likely truth is that he needs all Republicans in order to win.
As for the larger contours of the turbulent moment we’re in, once again, the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall offers a helpful perspective. Posing the question of whether Trump’s “populist insurgency” is a “a threat or a corrective to mainstream Republican orthodoxy,” Edsall expresses skepticism about Trump’s ability to realign the party successfully. He quotes Harvard government professor Theda Skocpol, who dismisses as “a fantasy” the notion “that somehow the G.O.P. is going to start responding to the economic security worries of blue collar/lower middle class Republicans.” Such a realignment would require a broad appeal. But “the core of Trump’s support,” Skocpol writes, “is raw nativism.”
Every day I was in Europe seemed to bring another spectacular foot-in-mouth action by the Great Nativist, and I’m still predicting, as I wrote last month, that Trump’s personality will extinguish the very fire it started, his special combination of ignorance, arrogance, and truculence repelling three current Republican voters for every two new ones it attracts. There’s a tipping point where the strange bedfellowship inherent in a political party becomes -- well, too strange. With a hundred days to go until the election, that’s where Trump is taking his party.
And that shouldn’t alarm anyone, really... except maybe Republican campaign strategists.
As for the other side, however satisfying it might be to ponder Trump, the self-proclaimed rampant paramour, kicking so many people out of bed, we shouldn’t feel complacent. Edsall writes that “In the long run, the significance of the Trump campaign may well prove to be the changes he has wrought in the Democratic Party.” In Edsall’s view, the anti-Trump Democrats are turning into “a cosmopolitan elite” that has “abdicated” to “hyper-globalization and market fundamentalism,” in the process risking becoming what sociologist Robert Putnam calls a party of “liberal cosmopolitans... increasingly disconnected from working-class America.”
Which is not, IMHO, a good way to go.