Is there anything left to say about Donald Trump? Any novel way of analyzing his presidential campaign or explaining its remarkable success? It doesn’t really matter. Love him or hate him, Trump represents the biggest political story of the moment. As long as that remains true, journalists will be forced to track his every public utterance.
I confess to being exhausted with Trump coverage — perhaps because, despite sympathizing with many of his voters’ legitimate concerns, I consider The Donald totally unfit to hold America’s highest office. Yet I also recognize that, unless Trump opponents learn the correct lessons from his meteoric rise, the Republican party will continue fracturing, and may eventually shatter.
Someone who understands those lessons better than most pundits is Peggy Noonan. Throughout the long season of Trump-mania, her Wall Street Journal columns have explored the motivations of his supporters with humility, insight, and compassion. (My personal favorite was “Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected,” published in February.) Noonan’s latest column is no exception. While I don’t necessarily agree with all her criticisms of the Bush administration, she makes an important point about the electorate’s ideological fatigue:
In my continuing quest to define aspects of Mr. Trump’s rise, to my own satisfaction, I offer what was said this week in a talk with a small group of political activists, all of whom back him. One was about to begin approaching various powerful and influential Republicans who did not support him, and make the case. I told her I’d been thinking that maybe Mr. Trump’s appeal is simple: What Trump supporters believe, what they perceive as they watch him, is that he is on America’s side.
And that comes as a great relief to them, because they believe that for 16 years Presidents Bush and Obama were largely about ideologies. They seemed not so much on America’s side as on the side of abstract notions about justice and the needs of the world. Mr. Obama’s ideological notions are leftist, and indeed he is a hero of the international left. He is about international climate-change agreements, and leftist views of gender, race and income equality. Mr. Bush’s White House was driven by a different ideology — neoconservatism, democratizing, nation building, defeating evil in the world, privatizing Social Security.
But it was all ideology.
Then Mr. Trump comes and in his statements radiate the idea that he’s not at all interested in ideology, only in making America great again — through border security and tough trade policy, etc. He’s saying he’s on America’s side, period.
And because people are so happy to hear this after 16 years, because it seems right to them, they give him a pass on his lack of experience in elective office and the daily realities of national politics. They accept him even though he is a casino developer and brander who became famous on reality TV.
They forgive it all. Not only because they’re tired of bad policy but because they’re tired of ideology.
This helps explain why the “Trump is not a conservative” argument has done so little to stop his ascent. Given the current state of both the country and the world, wide swaths of Republican voters seem to be much less concerned about ideological litmus tests than they are about real-life problems. Moreover, many Republicans appear to believe that Trump is a conservative, at least on the issues that matter most to them, which suggests a yawning gap between elite and popular opinion. Noonan puts it well in her final paragraph:
Those conservative writers and thinkers who have for nine months warned the base that Mr. Trump is not a conservative should consider the idea that a large portion of the Republican base no longer sees itself as conservative, at least as that term has been defined the past 15 years by Washington writers and thinkers.