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The Meaning of Mr. Trump
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the audience in Eugene, Oregon on May 6, 2016. (ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Meaning of Mr. Trump

Walter Russell Mead

The punditocracy whipped itself up into a hot frenzy over the weekend about Mr. Trump’s recent rise in the polls against Secretary Clinton, with the RCP average showing the presumptive Republican nominee with a statistically meaningless but eye-catching lead of 0.2 percent. But there is less here than meets the eye. Trump is benefitting from the normal phenomenon of GOP voters rallying around the standard bearer now that his nomination is all but certain. Clinton meanwhile is still mired in the contest with Sanders. Once the nomination fight is over, she should also get a bump.

We aren’t going to get into the horse race punditry here; the U.S. press burns through vast resources of energy and time over-reporting and over-analyzing every random twist in a grossly over-hyped presidential campaign season that now stretches out across two of every four years. The country would be much better off if both news writers and news readers paid less attention to the horse race and more attention to the events and trends that are reshaping the world—and that will have more impact on the next four years than the personality of the person elected to occupy the Oval Office.

As far as one can say anything sensible about the race at this point, it appears to look like this: Clinton is the putative favorite given Obama’s favorable job approval ratings, the state of the economy, and demographic trends that don’t seem to favor the Trump campaign. But there is a non-trivial chance that Trump’s non-conventional attacks can derail the Clinton campaign—much as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth derailed the Kerry campaign in 2004.

Just as Kerry made his Vietnam service the cornerstone of his campaign (at a time when the shock of 9/11 still made Americans suspicious of candidates without very tough national security credentials), Secretary Clinton has made feminism the foundation of hers. The Swift Boat Veterans’ assault on Kerry’s war record was successful enough to undercut public confidence in the essential premise of his campaign. If Trump can make the charge that Clinton helped her husband vilify and marginalize the women who came forward to charge him with exploitative personal encounters, it’s just possible that her campaign could be holed below the waterline.

Team Clinton will have to think hard about how to respond. Trump looks like a vulnerable candidate—one with so many flaws that his candidacy must inevitably implode once he comes under serious scrutiny. But as he showed during the primary campaign, Trump isn’t subject to the normal rules. Between policy flip-flops, lack of knowledge and experience, business woes, ill-tempered outbursts, and scapegoating of minority groups who are likely to vote in November, he presents his opponents with an embarrassment of riches: there are so many attractive targets for negative ads that even Lee Atwater would be hard pressed to decide which to hit first.

But this apparent weakness and vulnerability conceals a strength: Trump is an unconventional candidate whose proposition to the electorate isn’t about particular policy stands, experience, credentials or even personal and political honesty. Trump is the purest expression of the politics of ‘NO!’ that I personally can recall. He’s the candidate for people who think the conventional wisdom of the American establishment is hopelessly out of touch with the real world. He’s the little boy saying that the emperor, or in this case, the aspiring empress, has no clothes. What energizes the Trump phenomenon is the very power of rejection: people who think the train is about to head off a cliff want to pull the emergency cord that stops the train even if they don’t know what happens next. To many of Trump supporters, Hillary Clinton looks like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the enforcer of a fatally flawed status quo and the personification of bureaucratic power in a system gone rogue.

What makes Trump so appealing to so many voters is that the establishment does seem unusually clueless these days. The great American post-Cold War project of seeking peace and security through the construction of a New World Order based on liberal internationalism and American power doesn’t seem to be working very well, and it’s not hard to conclude that neither the neoconservatives nor the Obama-ites really know what they are doing. When it comes to the economy, it’s been clear since the financial crisis of 2008 that something is badly awry and that the economists, so dogmatic and opinionated and so bitterly divided into quarreling schools, aren’t sure how the system works anymore, and have no real ideas about how to make the world system work to the benefit of ordinary voters in the United States. With the PC crowd and the Obama administration hammering away at transgender bathroom rights as if this was the great moral cause of our time, and with campus Pure Thought advocates collapsing into self parody even as an epidemic of drug abuse and family breakdown relentlessly corrodes the foundations of American social cohesion, it’s hard to believe that the establishment has a solid grip on the moral principles and priorities a society like ours needs.

Trump appeals to all those who think that the American Establishment, the Great and the Good of both parties, has worked its way into a dead end of ideas that don’t work and values that can’t save us. He is the candidate of Control-Alt-Delete. His election would sweep away the smug generational certainties that Clinton embodies, the Boomer Progressive Synthesis that hasn’t solved the problems of the world or of the United States, but which nevertheless persists in regarding itself as the highest and only form of truth.

The interest groups and power centers that surround Secretary Clinton like a praetorian guard—Wall Street, the upper middle class feminists, the African American establishment, the Davoisie, the institutional power of the great foundations and educational bureaucracies, Silicon Valley, Hollywood—have defeated their intellectual and political rivals in their spheres of interest and influence. Supporting her is a massive agglomeration of power, intellect, wealth and talent. Her candidacy is the logical climax of the Baby Boom’s march through the institutions of American life. Even the neoconservatives are enlisting in her campaign.

The American Right for all its earnest efforts has been unable to construct a counter establishment that can compete with the contemporary liberal behemoth. Libertarian nostalgia for the 1920s and 1890s, social conservative nostalgia for the faux-certainties of the 1950s; paleocon isolationism; white nationalism; ‘reformicon’ tweaks to the liberal policy agenda—none of these mutually hostile and contradictory sets of ideas can challenge the Boomer Establishment synthesis. The Clintonian center-Left won the cultural and intellectual battles of its time against both the hard left and the fragmented right. The Clinton candidacy is about inevitability, about the laws of historical and institutional gravity.

Yet though the Boomer Consensus has triumphed in the world of American institutions and ideas, in the eyes of many Americans it has not done all that well in the real world. Foreign policy, financial policy, health policy, support of the middle class, race relations, family life, public education, trade policy, city and state government management, wages: what exactly has the Boomer Consensus accomplished in these fields? Many Americans think that the Consensus is a scam and a flop when it comes to actually, well, making things better for the average person. It has made life better, much better, for the upper middle class; few would dispute its accomplishments there. And Wall Street has every reason to pay large speaking fees and make large financial contributions to the champion of the orthodoxy that helped make it so rich.

But many and possibly most Americans think that the Boomer Consensus didn’t work for them. They may not have much confidence in the various conservative and socialist alternatives to the consensus, but they believe that something about it is flawed, and they want it stopped dead in its tracks. This is where Trump comes in. His supporters aren’t united around a set of positive ideas, but they are united in opposition to the status quo. They believe that the emperor has no clothes, even if they can’t agree on a replacement wardrobe.

This makes it easy and profitable for Trump to wage negative campaigns—against Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and the Republican establishment in the primary, against Hillary Clinton and the conventional wisdom of the center left in the general. It also makes it much harder for negative campaigns to hurt him: his appeal doesn’t stem from approval for particular policies, but from opposition to elements of the status quo. His supporters may not expect Mexico to pay for a border wall, but they believe that he doesn’t like unlimited illegal immigration and that he will do something about it. His supporters do not necessarily think he will start a trade war with China, but they don’t think that the conventional approach to globalization is working and they expect him to try something different. At the very least, they believe that he won’t exude serenely toxic moral smugness as he steers the country down a dead end road, that he will at least try to wrench the country off its current course.

This makes him hard to hit. To accuse him of a business career based on flim flam and razzle dazzle doesn’t hurt him with people who think the economic game is rigged. To accuse him of sponsoring outrageous policy ideas that the experts unite in condemning won’t hurt him with people who have lost faith in the experts and the oracles of conventional wisdom. To accuse him of inconsistency won’t hurt him with people who think the establishment is hypocritical and self-serving.

Myself, I don’t think the system is quite as corrupt as some Trump supporters believe or, perhaps more accurately, I lack their confidence that burning down the old house is the best way to build something new. But it would be equally wrong and perhaps more dangerous to take the view that there is nothing more fueling his rise than ignorance, racism and hate. The failure of the center-Left to transform its institutional and intellectual dominance into policy achievements that actually stabilize middle class life, and the failure of the center-Right to articulate a workable alternative have left a giant intellectual and political vacuum in the heart of American life. The Trump movement is not an answer to our problems, but the social instinct of revolt and rejection that powers it is a sign of social health. The tailors are frauds and the emperor is not in fact wearing any clothes: it is a good sign and not a bad sign that so many Americans are willing to say so out loud.

Those of us who care about policy, propriety and the other bourgeois values without which no democratic society can long thrive need to spend less time wringing our hands about the shortcomings of candidate Trump and the movement that has brought him this far, and more time both analyzing the establishment failures that have brought the country to this pass, and developing a new vision for the American future. The one thing we know about 2016 is that neither of these two candidates has what it takes to repair or to renovate the ship of state. Clinton stands for the competent management of an unsustainable status quo, like Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago: a pair of safe and steady hands on the wheel as the ship glides slowly toward the reefs. Trump, at least so far as we can infer what a Trump administration would be like, stands for the venting of steam and the striking of satisfying poses.

We can hope that a President Clinton’s instincts for power and self-preservation will make her something better than the earnest custodian of a failing status quo, and we can hope that a President Trump would prove inspired and lucky rather than bumptiously sharp-tongued. But hope is not a plan. The likeliest forecast is that under either candidate, the slow unraveling of the liberal world order and the American domestic system will continue and possibly accelerate. The 2020 election may take place against an even darker background than what we now see; if America’s intellectuals and institutions don’t start raising their games, 2016 could soon start to look like the good old days.

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