Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 19 January 2024


This Isn’t Only a Trump Election

Jan. 18, 2024 6:40 pm ET

Donald Trump listens to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speak at a campaign rally in Indianola, Iowa, Jan. 14. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

He got 51% of a modest turnout in a small state, but a win’s a win and a 30-point win is a landslide. Still, part of what we saw in Iowa was Donald Trump’s continual losing battle with himself. His Des Moines victory speech was unusually gracious and statesmanlike. The strategy was to reassure moderates and centrists and to undermine the coming argument against him in New Hampshire: that he’s a bad man who’s violent in his rhetoric because he’s violent in his heart.

“I really think this is time now for everybody, our country, to come together . . . whether it’s Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative, it would be so nice if we could come together and straighten out the world,” he said. “I wanna congratulate Ron and Nikki. . . . They’re very smart people, very capable people.” “We’re going to rebuild the capital of our country, Washington D.C. We’re going to scrub those beautiful marble columns . . . and get the graffiti off them.” “We’re going to rebuild our cities, and we’ll work with the Democrats to do it. I’d be glad to work with the people in New York. We’re going to work with the people in Chicago and L.A. We’re going to rebuild our cities and we’re going to make them safe.”

He was trying to turn a page, but what followed the next day—late-night rants on social media, putdowns of Nikki Haley—marked a return to verbal incontinence. He can’t sustain normality. It makes him nervous. Something he said about Doug Burgum showed his assumption. The North Dakota governor, Mr. Trump said, didn’t succeed in his presidential bid because he didn’t gain “traction,” he wasn’t controversial. “Sometimes being a little controversial is good.” It is, but Mr. Trump is a poor judge of the line between controversial and destructive.

In New Hampshire, Ms. Haley may gain traction, may even triumph. Something good may happen for Ron DeSantis. Life is surprise. But it’s time: Ms. Haley should take Mr. Trump on directly and make the serious case against him. Not “I don’t like all the things he says,” but something deeper, truer, more substantive. She could ruminate on the Trump tragedy. He was a breakthrough figure, he did defeat a weak and detached establishment. But he can’t be president again because there’s something wrong with him. We all know this, we all use different words to describe the “something,” but we know what it produces: impeachments, embarrassments, scandal, 1/6.

Meanwhile three things cause unique disquiet among the non-Trump-supporting majority in America, especially after Iowa. One is that in 2016 Trump supporters didn’t know precisely what they were getting. Now they do. Eight years ago it was a very American thing to do, giving the outsider a chance. You never know in life, people grow in office, the presidency softens rough edges. That didn’t happen. They know what they’re electing now.

Second, when Mr. Trump first came in, in 2017, he didn’t know a president’s true and legitimate powers, he wasn’t interested in history, wasn’t up nights reading Robert Caro. He got rolled by a Republican Congress, was too incompetent to get a wall, was surrounded by political aides who were inexperienced and unaccomplished—the famous “island of broken toys.” This time he’ll go in with experience and can be more effectively bad. How long will it take before he starts saying the Constitution mandates a limit of two presidential terms, but his second term was stolen so that means he gets another term after this one?

Third, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be president, and neither should Joe Biden, because they aren’t what we need for the future. What do we need? Someone who feels in her or his gut the wound of the open border and will stop illegal immigration; someone who can cut through the knot of “globalism” vs. “isolationism,” a serious argument that is becoming a cartoon one (internationalists don’t really want to start wars all over; isolationists know we are part of the world and can’t just pull up the bridge). If we can cut through all that we’ll go some distance to forging a true national stance toward the world, and only then can we answer the proper strategy toward China, the responsibility of America in Asia and the Mideast. Someone who can take on identity politics, who knows we all must stand equal. Someone who can reiterate the idea that we do have national values.

Those few (but huge) things, if a leader got them right, would mark a national comeback, and not a further sinking into the mire of the dramas of the past decade.

G.K. Chesterton wrote: “What we all dread most is a maze with no center.” That’s what our national politics feel like now.

Eight years ago I wrote of the driving force behind support for political newcomer Donald Trump. America had devolved into a protected class of the socially and politically influential vs. regular people at the mercy of the protected class’s favored doctrines and political decisions. I think it still pertains, but eight years later I see new shadings. The distance between the elites and the non-elite has widened, the estrangement deepened. When the university presidents testified before Congress in December it became a catastrophe for the elites in part because viewers could fairly come away thinking: They don’t just live far away and have their own ideology, they have their own private language. Their minds seemed to work in a kind of self-satisfied robot loop: “It depends on the context. It depends on the context.” All this delivered with an honestly unconscious condescension.

Something else that I think has changed is—well, something I haven’t fully thought through, but I think the unprotected at this point do not only feel ignored and betrayed, they feel invaded. Twenty twenty, that epic, nation-changing year, tripped something off, began something new, a sense among regular people that some new ideology that doesn’t even have a name had entered their lives on all levels, in their intimate family and work space. The pandemic, with its protocols and regulations and vaccine mandates; the strange things taught in the schools, which were suddenly brought into your home by Zoom; the obsessions with gender and race, the redefinitions of the founding and meaning of America. At the office, the stupid and insulting race and gender instructions, and the index you have to meet when hiring to achieve what someone has decided is the right “diversity” balance.

I think people feel invaded by the ideology with no name. They know it is unhealthy for society, is in fact guaranteed to make us, as a people who must live together, weaker and more divided.

We are not sufficiently noting that this isn’t only a Trump election, it is also the first national election since the full impact of 2020 and its epochal changes sank in.

Voters are going to want more options. Talk will turn seriously to a third-party bid. The great unanswered question will be whether those mounting that party have enough imagination to understand what they could be this year.

Wonder Land: If you were an adversary looking at a U.S. uncertainty about its global leadership, what would you do? Answer: Up the ante—which is exactly what Iran, Russia and others are doing. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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