I’m not coming around on Donald Trump. Well, not really.
I still basically agree with those conservative commentators who think he’s an obnoxious glitterati Kardashian-with-a-toupee buffoon. I’m particularly repulsed by his pursuit of the most superficial trappings of gaudy wealth and his dismissal as“losers” of anyone whose life hasn’t centered around this (like, say, me). And I recognize that, unfortunately, this is precisely what appeals to a certain type of voter about him.
But let me explain why, if I haven’t quite become a Trump pod person yet (Fiorina-Rubio is my current ticket), I have joined Ross Douthat in the ranks of the “anti-anti-Trump.” Like the majority of respondents in Bill Kristol’s unscientific straw poll of Weekly Standard readers, I don’t want him to be President, but to my amazement, I’ve come to think his candidacy has been good for the Republican Party — and for the country.
There are essentially two reasons for this, though they’re really flip sides of the same coin. Incongruously, this jet-setting billionaire is galvanizing the party’s voice against the trendy tyranny of “political correctness” while moderating its harsh “47%” tone on economics. Peggy Noonan summed it up in a recent quote about Rick Santorum that is actually as or more applicable to Trump this year: he is “evoking the now-frayed connection between the American working class and a Republican Party that 35 years ago became their natural, welcoming home and later threw them over to tend to the causes of the donor class.”
The incident that led me to begin mellowing on Trump illustrates the first of these two reasons. Even though I think he’s wrong both legally and morally on birthright citizenship, I was thrilled when he smacked down a self-righteous and patently biased ABC reporter who tried to lecture him that he should use the ponderous PC locution “American-born child of undocumented immigrants”rather than the “offensive” and “hurtful” term “anchor baby.” Trump’s withering reply: “You want me to say that? I’ll use ‘anchor baby.’”
Much of the commentariat would view this as just another example of Trump’s ill-mannered rudeness, like his belittling of women’s looks, and the issue raised by his response as at best trivial. It isn’t. What is perhaps too flippantly dismissed as “political correctness” is no longer just a sideshow one can joke about. Rather, as recent books by Kirsten Powers and by Guy Benson and Mary Katherine Ham (all social moderates) have argued, it has become, owing to the unprecedented dominance of the cultural left and their increasing intolerance of any disagreement, a very serious threat to the liberal values, in the original and best sense of that term, that underlie modern Western civilization. And, as Orwell understood, the poisoning of the language, by means of the demonization of such innocuous phrases as “anchor babies,” and their replacement with humorless dystopian nomenclature like “American-born children of undocumented immigrants,” is both a result of the chilling of free thought and a tool for imposing further ideological conformity.
This scourge has proceeded for 25 years as establishment figures in both parties have fallen all over themselves to grovel whenever the left says “offensive” or “hurtful.” In doing this, the establishment, aided by the media, the schools, and now even the professional sports world, has sent out word to the masses that they’d better grovel too. Trump is, of course, an unlikely, even a bizarre, champion of populist revolt against this vapid authoritarianism of the globetrotting elite. Yet he has emerged as the first significant counterforce to it. And it seems like he may be starting a trend: Jeb Bush refused to be intimidated out of saying“anchor babies” by the same ABC reporter who tried to cow Trump. In disrupting the familiar process by which the left effectively shuts down political debate by dictating its terms and language, Trump is, perhaps unintentionally, doing a great service to the party and the country.
If the Donald is an unlikely tribune of the common man against the fashionable political correctness of the cultural elites, he is an even more incongruous avatar of their economic interests against the corporate elite (i.e. the cultural elite in its day job). Yet here too he is shifting the focus and image of the party in important respects — albeit in a different ideological direction. While he is pushing the party to the right with his views on immigration and his challenge to political correctness, he has also broken with conservative fiscal orthodoxy in his support for progressive taxation (including increased taxes on “hedge fund guys getting away with murder”), some form of comprehensive health care coverage,and preservation of Social Security and Medicare entitlement levels.
In doing this, he is not only nudging the party closer to the center of the electorate, but closer to its own base as well. While the GOP base is typically depicted as being to the right of the party elite across the entire spectrum of political issues, in fact, as Douthat (here, here, here and here) and others of varied political stripes have argued, it’s more complicated than that. While the party’s wealthy corporate donors are indeed more liberal than its voters on social issues (particularly on immigration where their financial interest in cheap labor coincides with their progressive social attitudes), on economics the roles are reversed — as one might expect in an increasingly working-class party. Much of the base is “part of the ‘47 percent’ that Mitt Romney … dismissed as takers” and “many rely on Social Security and Medicare.” They are not, Laura Ingraham notes, going to “cry a river over hedge funders paying [the] same rates as everyone else.”
By tapping this populist worldview, David Frum observes, “Trump served notice that the donors’ platform isn’t even acceptable inside the party”– much less in the electorate as a whole, where by far the largest share of voters supports decreasing immigration and preserving or increasing Social Security, while only a tiny handful takes the reverse position favored by much of the donor class.
While Trump’s heterodox economic positions are deeply troubling to some conservative intellectuals, they really just move the Republican Party back towards the “blue collar conservatism” that attracted millions of “Reagan Democrats” and turned the GOP from a permanent minority party of the country club set to a de facto majority party from roughly 1968 to 2008. This majority was built on a broad range of social values issues — crime, welfare, permissiveness, personal responsibility, patriotism — and featured accommodation of the economic interests of the party’s voters. Richard Nixon reached out to his “hard-hat”supporters by appointing the building trades union president as Secretary of Labor, and George W. Bush expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs.
But over the last eight or ten years, even as party elites have lobbied for moderation on social issues, the party’s tone has taken a sharp turn to the right on economics, epitomized by Romney’s infamous “47%” comment. The GOP has gone from the party that celebrated hard work even if it didn’t lead to success to the party that celebrates only successful businessmen. Rick Santorum made this point eloquently in the debate last month:
Ninety percent of the American workers … don’t own a business. … And Republicans are losing elections because we’re not talking about them. All we want to talk about is what happened to our business. There are people who work in that business. [A]t the convention four years ago we trotted out one small business person after another …. But … we didn’t … bring one worker on that stage. … How are we going to win if 90 percent of Americans don’t think we care at all about them?
For all his faults, Donald Trump is talking to, and about, these working people. In doing so, he’s shifting the terms of the GOP debate and making it more responsive to the party’s voters. He is thus increasing the chances for both a GOP victory and a successful GOP presidency.
Let’s just hope it isn’t his.
Dennis Saffran is an attorney and writer based in Queens, New York, the former head of a center-right public-interest organization and Republican candidate for New York City Council in one of the city’s few competitive districts, whose work has appeared frequently in City Journal, The Federalist and other publications.