Sunday, January 17, 2016

What to make of Trump?

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Increasingly, conversation turns to the Donald when people find out that I’m American.  Would the US  seriously consider electing Trump as President?  I pass it off with a smile and assurances that this will pass.  It’s as though Richard Branson were to rung for Prime Minister:  Surely that would attract similar raised eyebrows and transient enthusiasm among folks fed up with politics as usual?

But what’s propelling his popularity, they ask.  Surely people can’t be blind to what he is saying about walls, women, and Muslims.  They must be doubting his temperament and qualifications for representing America on a world stage?

In this vein, I like John Dickerson’s analysis for Slate: Trump is a phenomena with the potential to anneal the Republican Party as well as to destroy it. 

Anyone aspiring to presidential leadership must be prepared to deal with other world leaders saying and doing emotional, irresponsible, thuggish things.  Trump is, in one sense, a demonstration of how potential leaders might deal with these people, with logic, with persuasion, with principal, and with strength.  So far, none of the other Republican (or Democratic) candidates have shown any ability to effectively counter Trump’s rhetoric.

When looking at the underlying economic woes of working class America, the middle-class backlash against urban elite culture, or the rise of nativist sentiment, the forces driving Trump are not suddenly about to vanish.

The worst impulses to respond with anger need to be confronted.   Thoughtful positions that lead to real solutions need to be proposed and argued.

On reflection, there seem to be five positions that I might take in a serious conversation about Trump’s candidacy:

  • He’s entitled.  America enshrines Free Speech as a foundation of democratic government.  Everyone has a voice, and society is best served when all points of view, even distasteful ones, are brought into public discussion.  This leads to interesting conversations about libel and slander laws, which are much looser in the US than in Europe.
  • He’s right. America does have problems with controlling immigration across its borders, with cultural assimilation of new migrants, and with the concentration of wealth and power in the upper 1%.  Trump is only saying what everyone in Amercia (and, for that matter, in Europe) is already thinking.
  • It’s performance.  Trump is doing and saying outrageous things to get and to keep media and popular attention.  It builds his brand, drives customers to his properties and television appearances, and buoys the political pundits and fundraisers.  Pay no attention to the theater: the party professionals and donor class will reassert themselves with time.  Watch the Establishment Lane.
  • It’s meaningless, and ultimately self destructive.  The Republican party has been embracing crazies and encouraging fringe positions for years.  The progression from Gingrich to impeachment to Bush to the Tea Party hits its nadir with Trump.  And the Party has to face this in order to purge itself of the temptations it offers: it’s Farage/UKIP, it’s Wilders/PVV.
  • It’s beyo9nd me.  Simply shake my head and say that I’ve been gone a long time.  I don’t know what people at home are thinking any more.

trump_koreaI recommend Edward Luce’s commentaries, writing in the FT, for thoughtful analysis of the whole thing.  His column today captured the European worry perfectly:

Within the next three weeks, we shall find out if the rise of Donald Trump is silly season froth that comes before voting, or whether we are in the midst of a dramatic upheaval in US politics. My head is agnostic. But my gut tells me things are changing for the worse.

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