It may be time to shed the glib condescension about Trump
Much of the media on Donald Trump describes him as both a buffoon and a right-wing conservative. But National Review, the magazine that midwifed the modern American conservative movement, begs to differ on the latter part. And to make its views clear, it’s just published a special issue entitled Against Trump.
To quote the magazine’s editors: “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favour of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” Well, at least we know how they feel!
Like lots of others, I initially had trouble seeing Trump as a serious contender for anything. He was just too outrageous, too over the top, and altogether too disrespectful of the norms of civil discourse. In addition, it didn’t take much probing to discover that he was shaky on the details of most policy issues.
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But last October I found myself at a dinner table with a couple from California who, it quickly turned out, took him very seriously indeed. The woman was a retired elementary school teacher and her husband had built, and recently sold, a small IT services business. In other words, they didn’t fit the stereotype of undereducated, blue-collar Trump supporters.
To them, the compelling thing about Trump was his willingness to call a spade a spade. They had a visceral loathing for political correctness in all its forms, and rejoiced in Trump’s eagerness to flout the speech conventions that most politicians carefully adhere to. And they also saw him as someone who wouldn’t be afraid to take on vested interests. In fact, much of what the media perceived as a bug, they saw as a feature.
Still, I was a long way from being persuaded that the Trump boom was anything other than an ephemeral bubble that would burst long before voting time. But here we are in late January, and he continues to dominate the Republican race. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.
Those of us who think detailed policy prescriptions are a requirement for political viability may be missing the boat. Many voters neither care for, nor have any faith in, such wonkery. They’ve heard it all before and see much of it as flimflam that bears little or no relationship to how the world really works.
What they actually care about is their sense of the person. Does he see important things the same way they do? And is he the kind of guy they’d like to have on their side in a tough spot?
If you think about it in those terms, it isn’t hard to see what might make Trump an attractive candidate.
Clearly, he’s a shrewd, street-smart deal-maker, someone who’ll use every tool at his disposal to get what he wants. Nobody intimidates him. Indeed, as Hillary Clinton recently discovered, he has little compunction about upping the ante. When under attack, he’s a see-you-and-raise-you kind of guy.
Yes, he can be mean and vindictive, a real bastard. Sometimes, though, that’s precisely the sort of person you want fighting your corner. When things get rough, politeness and civility can go way down the priority list.
Interestingly, one of the Trump phenomenon’s most perceptive observers is the cartoonist Scott Adams, the man who created Dilbert. While Adams makes it clear that he’s not endorsing Trump, some of his insights are worth considering.
For instance, on topics like illegal immigration, the leaky southern border and lopsided trade relationships, xenophobia isn’t the only lens through which Trump’s “incendiary” remarks can be viewed. Rather, one could say that his “statements consistently favour American citizens over non-citizens,” a characteristic that – as Adams tartly remarks – is the job description of an American president.
And Trump’s penchant for exaggeration is tactical. He “always makes a huge first ask in any negotiation, so he can control the conversation and protect his flexibility to negotiate.” To borrow a phrase from Trump himself many years ago, it all comes down to the art of the deal.
Don’t misunderstand me. None of this means that Trump will or should become president. He’s certainly not my idea of an appropriate choice.
However, it may be time to shed the glib condescension. Looking down on something you don’t understand isn’t really very smart.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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