Donald Trump's vows of vengeance against America's enemies could propel him to the White House. What would he do there?by Sam Tanenhaus / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
After the latest round of United States primaries and caucuses, more than half of the 50 states had chosen their preferred candidate—and Donald J Trump had galloped far ahead of the Republican field. He has kept winning, all over the map, some of the victories strikingly large, 19 states so far, from Alabama (rural, evangelical, low-income Deep South) to Massachusetts (urban, secular, prosperous New England), and Michigan (industrial, working-class) to Florida (urban and rural, ethnically diverse). The only question now is whether Trump’s two remaining opponents, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, can deny him the nomination outright before the party’s delegates convene in Cleveland, Ohio, in mid-July.
No matter the outcome, Trump already seems to be remaking the Republican Party, if not in his garish image, then along the lines of his fixations and enthusiasms. It is fast becoming “the party of Trump,” as the New York Times has declared, in mingled horror and amusement.
But what is this new Republican Party? Who belongs to it? What do they want? What do they see in Trump? And what does he see in his own presidency? What would he do if he does get to the Oval Office?
No one, least of all Trump, can really say. His ideas, or effusions, on policy—domestic and foreign—come in soundbites, emotionally vivid, but frustratingly devoid of nutriment. His slogan, “Make America Great Again!” emblazoned on the caps he sells, is borrowed directly from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Like Reagan, Trump combines nostalgia for simpler, happier times along with the promise that even simpler and happier times are just around the corner, if only we’ll stride forth to meet them.
But there are differences, and they reflect changing times. Reagan was a cheerful salesman of the Cold War dogma when America saw itself as the beacon of the “Free World.” Trump speaks of a nation that keeps “losing” and promises lewd vengeance on an array of villains, real and inflated. Abroad there are swindling trade partners (China, Japan, Mexico); leering Islamic State terrorists who torture Americans and get away with it; slippery allies and client states that feast on American “loans” and drag us into their wars. At home, things are no less bleak: stagnant wages and mounting debt for the middle class, even as the “one per cent” grow richer, and surging tides of immigrants, legal and undocumented alike, steal jobs and soak up welfare benefits. Worse are the elites in both parties—multiculturalist snobs on the Democratic left, plutocrats and “hedge fund guys” on the Republican right, who together ignore these mounting affronts or act as though ordinary Americans are to blame.
That Trump should be the voice of this protest is unusual, given his own wealth and opulent lifestyle—part Medici, part Kardashian. But revolts are commonly led from above. It may be true that Trumpism amounts to little more than “a smelly soup of billionaire populism and yahoo nationalism—all flavoured with a tangy dollop of old-timey racism,” as David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker, put it in July last year. But Trump’s supporters have been hearing such insults for many years now, directed at themselves. And nothing so unites rich and poor, the favoured and the unlucky, as the feeling that they are being ridiculed by the same people.
What provokes Remnick, and others, is Trump’s long history as one of Manhattan’s glitziest presences. He has owned a sports team—the New Jersey Generals, an American Football team that played three seasons in the now defunct United States Football League, a competitor of the established National Football League (NFL). He owns exclusive golf courses with exorbitant membership fees. His name is affixed in giant gold letters on some of New York’s most expensive apartment buildings. For many years, he has been flattered by maître d’s at the 21 Club and other dens of the rich and famous. But with this comes something else, often overlooked—a wider orbit of experience than the typical novice politician travels in, and far greater freedom of speech and act. His approach to the presidency as a form of “brand extension”—a prize to be annexed to his personal empire rather than a semi-priestly office—seems to desecrate the holy legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But it also gives Trump an authority and pomp mere politicians lack. His campaign visits often begin in airport hangars, where he descends from his Boeing 757, “Trump Force One,” as some call it. After closely comparing the two planes, the Washington Post concluded that it’s more luxurious than the original. When Trump was weighing his presidential run back in 2013, local Republican leaders in New York, suggested he begin one rung below. “Our pitch was, if he runs for governor and makes it, he would be the presumptive front runner,” one of the group recently told the New York Times.
There is one practical reason for Trump’s grand sweep towards the nomination. He knows more about television than any other presidential candidate ever has. At its peak, his reality show The Apprentice, first broadcast in 2004, drew 20m viewers a week, exceeding all but the first two Republican debates in this (or any previous) season. Time and again he has demonstrated mastery of the news cycle. First, he did the unthinkable, picking a fight with the right-leaning cable giant Fox News, the most potent force in conservative media, after clashing with its popular host Megyn Kelly in the first televised debate. Trump got the better of her and her boss, Fox’s mogul Roger Ailes. Next he boycotted a debate held just before the Iowa primary, which took place on 1st February, calculating that the network needs him at least as much as he needs it. Again, he was right. A Trump-less Fox would lose standing with its audience. But Trump can take his act elsewhere—indeed anywhere he likes. All the networks covet the minutes he grants them—even letting him phone in “remotely,” though this violates long-standing practice. Trump’s Twitter provocations (one was a quotation from Mussolini) become news events. These improvisations have exposed the pretences of the traditional campaign, with its “high command” of consultants, pollsters and policy advisors fussing over “battle plans” and “ground games.”
“What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy”
In Trumpworld, all flows directly from Trump himself, his impulses, his moods, his appetites, his ill-concealed grievances. He thrives in an atmosphere of permanent virality, of “pseudo-events” contrived to turn “boring” politics into “fun” spectacle, though the fun lately has spilled over into danger. Trump lustily taunts protestors at his large rallies, and has threatened them with beatings. The Friday before the most recent primaries, an advance contingent of Trump “fans” began trading punches with demonstrators at a large rally on the campus of a Chicago university. At the last minute the event was cancelled. Trump wouldn’t appear, the bewildered spectators were told—a decision reached after conferring with Chicago police, Trump explained. But the police said no such conversation took place. No matter. Images of the “riot” streamed on screens all weekend long, and Trump made the rounds of talk shows congratulating himself on his statesmanlike restraint, with the result that he gobbled up air time, while his rivals were left gasping for minutes of it here and there. It’s all part of Trump’s invented but very American culture of “winning,” the bullying “art” of the deal he has promised to bring to high governance—whether in tough negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal or with China over currency manipulation—and is now sharpening into a new style of campaign theatre.
And this clarifies Trump’s largest contribution in this election. More than any other figure, including President Barack Obama, Trump has liberated American politics from its stale ideologies. He speaks of terrible problems that need to be fixed, of policy “disasters” made by blundering, “stupid” leaders. But he never sounds like a politician. He has taken lately to calling himself a conservative, but says the word haltingly. His natural idiom is politics-neutral salesmanship—the “terrific” replacement he’ll devise for Obamacare, the landmark plan that guaranteed health benefits to previously uninsured people (“I want everyone to have coverage,” he has said); the colossal thousand-mile-long wall he says will seal off the Mexican border (and keep out immigrants) and which he describes in luxury real-estate terms (“classy and beautiful too”).
It is silly but oddly liberating, or at least disinhibiting. Many have noted that Trump’s harshest blurtings are only more extreme versions of the messages other Republicans have been sending for years, though without their sanctimony—whether it is Cruz savouring the epithet “radical Islamic terrorism” and then unctuously defending “religious liberty”; Senator Marco Rubio (who has since ended his candidacy) changing his position on Syrian refugees with each new ripple of the political winds, while also making sure to insert references to his immigrant grandparents; or the scout-masterish Kasich telling audiences “You’re made special. Did you know that?” Against all this, Trump’s coarse directness—his open contempt for immigrants and Muslims, his incredulous reaction to the Syrian crisis (“What’s our President doing? Is he insane?”)—offers the freshness of emotional candour. When his fans praise him for speaking the truth, they mean the truth they would speak if they could. He has given them a voice. And its rasp can be frightening.
The accusation made by Trump’s conservative rivals and detractors—that he isn’t really one of them—is true. But he has a recent Republican forebear, Patrick Buchanan, a speechwriter, political strategist and television analyst, who twice ran for President, though again Trump has updated his model. Buchanan is best remembered for a martial oration at the 1992 Republican convention in which he called for a religious and cultural “war” against modernity and its many evils: “abortion on demand… homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units.” The list of pestilences, with small adjustments, have since become Republican orthodoxy. It is Cruz, not Trump, who recites it, in a direct appeal to evangelicals. Yet—in perhaps the biggest surprise this season—those voters are now congregating behind Trump, who is reaching them with a different religious message, of faith in America as God’s country.
“What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party,” the columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty has written, “is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy.” The political theorist Michael Lind detects in Trump “a classic populist of the right,” who has bottled the energies of the Tea Party, that much-misunderstood movement. Contrary to many accounts, “Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government,” Lind argues, than about its being used to help “other people, especially immigrants and non-whites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.”
Not-Them includes not only “illegals” and “welfare cheats” but also the idle rich. Trump shares the populist loathing of “Wall Street socialism” and of fortunes built on financial instruments. “The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country,” he has said. “These are guys that shift paper around… they are paper-pushers. They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It’s ridiculous, ok?” This heresy, together with Trump’s initial defences of the “safety net” of Social Security and Medicare (a programme that gives almost 50m Americans health insurance), his support for Planned Parenthood (a non-profit organisation dedicated to reproductive health services, including abortion), and his praise for “single payer” healthcare systems—where the state pays for all healthcare costs rather than private insurers—encouraged some to hope Trump might also break with Republican doctrine on taxes and government spending.
But his policies, or the sketchy versions of them he has thus far presented, offer only tiny wrinkles of difference. Trump’s tax plan is a supply-side economist’s dream. It reduces federal revenue by almost $9.5 trillion over a decade and fattens the after-tax incomes of the super-rich by more than $1.3m per year. “Merry Christmas, billionaires!” wrote Kevin Drum, a politics professor and blogger.
Trump’s healthcare “plan” is even flimsier. Pivoting from his vow of universal coverage, he now would eliminate Obamacare without offering a plausible alternative for poorer familes apart from meaningless tax credits. When pressed by Rubio in a debate in March, Trump was unable to describe its main features.
But most presidents—including the best of them—pin their hopes, and invest their political capital, in a few big items, especially in times, like these, of ideological stalemate. Obama’s healthcare reform—his major achievement, despite the noises Trump and other Republicans make about reversing it—came in his first term. Trump’s big themes, all related to his populist nationalism, are trade, immigration and an “America First” foreign policy.
The US trade deficit with China reached almost $365bn in 2015. In this century, America has also lost three million jobs to China, three quarters of them in manufacturing—at the expense of the working-class voters, long ignored by the Republican Party, but now flocking to Trump (in some cases quitting the Democratic Party to do it). His case against China is aggressive. He says it manipulates its currency to improve trade and should be threatened with a steep tariff of as much as 45 per cent. In 2010, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, said much the same thing when he wrote urging a “hardball policy” with China, including a 25 per cent “across-the-board” tariff. Since then China’s economy has been much weakened. Current policy there, as in other countries, is to prop up its currency, not devalue it. Capital is now flowing into, not away from, US markets.
“His approach to foreign policy is a nearly archaic ‘America First’ nationalism, which emphasises a strong military, distrust of alliances, and reluctance to intervene in foreign wars”
Nevertheless, Trump’s pursuit of “fair trade”—with its enthusiasm for tariffs—is the same case the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders is making, and it’s taboo in a party that still reveres Milton Friedman. It is also thoroughly consistent with Trump’s promise to deport more than 11m undocumented immigrants and seal off the border and with his approach to foreign policy, a nearly archaic “America First” nationalism, which emphasises a strong military, distrust of alliances, and reluctance to intervene in foreign wars. For Trump, the businessman and deal-maker, the foreign threat is economic, not military. He seems to have thought this even at the peak of the Cold War. In September 1987, three months after Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin, Trump paid nearly $100,000 to have an advertising letter published in three newspapers, identifying the true adversary: allies living on the American dole. “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay,” Trump wrote. “Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours.”
Nearly 30 years later, his foreign policy arguments still centre on money. China is one example. Another is his vociferous criticism of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. What most galls Trump is not the possibility that Tehran will secretly build weapons but rather the $150bn in frozen assets released to Iran. Trump’s foreign policy, Thomas Wright pointed out in an article for Politico, reproduces in almost every detail “19th-century high-tariff protectionism and every-country-for-itself mercantilism.”
And it infuriates Trump’s most vehement conservative detractors, the crusading hawks (neoconservatives) identified with the Bush administration and its world-democratising dreams buried in the abattoirs of the Iraq war. In March, more than 100 members of the “Republican national security community” signed an “open letter on Donald Trump,” declaring him unfit for the presidency. One of the signatories, Max Boot, the foreign policy journalist and adviser to Rubio, has said: “I would sooner vote for Joseph Stalin than Donald Trump.” He has instead said he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton. Not quite a vote for Stalin, but pretty close, in the eyes of today’s Republicans. Neoconservatives dislike Trump for many reasons, but especially for his 2008 assertion that George W Bush should have been impeached for leading the nation into the Iraq war. Trump elaborated on this during the South Carolina primary. “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none.” Many Americans agree. But it was a reckless charge in a state that has a handful of military bases, a large boon to its economy—$19bn and 150,000 jobs—and remains a bastion of Bush-love. Yet Trump easily won the South Carolina primary a week later, finishing off the candidacy of Bush’s brother, Jeb.
Since then Trump has won time and again, in state upon state, in region after region. His nearest competitor, Cruz, has won just seven states. He could be denied the nomination, of course, but it will require a revolution from above, his defeated rivals colluding with party chieftains, and it might offer the fascinating drama of a “brokered convention” (see below)—machinations that the “direct primary” system was created to eliminate a century ago, when elections had degenerated into backstairs conspiracy. Reviving that Dark Age would kindle new accusations—fodder for Trump’s Twitter feed, for his speeches and many television appearances—that “his people” have been betrayed once more by “establishment” bosses who had been ignoring them for years until at last he led them in a peasants’ revolt in primaries and caucuses, in open-air rallies, not to mention in the campaign offices where they have volunteered their time, with a devotion to democracy the party’s “wise men” seem not to share. “We know who Donald Trump is,” a Trump supporter told Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, “and we’re going to use Donald Trump to either take over the GOP or blow it up.” With each passing day, and every new attempt to stop him, the strange crusade continues. The television showman stands, improbably, on the threshold of history.