The best thing that can be said in favor of Donald Trump is that he is the ideal vehicle for a critical mass of the American people—quite possibly a majority of Americans come November—to express the withdrawal of their consent for the way in which we are being governed. Which is to say that it is yet another mistake of the established political class of both parties and the media to lash out at “angry voters.”
Which is also to say that no one else could be a suitable vehicle for such an expression of populist contempt that has long been building unheeded by both parties. Ted Cruz tried, but as a senator he doesn’t have the authenticity of Trump in making the case. Peggy Noonan’s Saturday column is merely the latest to point out that the Trump phenomenon reflects the justifiable backlash of the “unprotected” against the governing class heedless of their interests and uninterested in their views:
The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.
The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time. . .
They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them—in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union—literally have their own security details.
Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.
One issue obviously roiling the U.S. and Western Europe is immigration. It is the issue of the moment, a real and concrete one but also a symbolic one: It stands for all the distance between governments and their citizens.
Occasionally when I used to make the day’s drive from Washington DC to Ashland, Ohio, I would take back roads instead of the Interstate, and once you get beyond the Beltway orbit you see a different America—the one where old downtowns are half boarded up because the manufacturing plants downsized or moved overseas, with nothing to replace it (with the exception of fracking in parts of Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio). It set me to wondering whether trade protectionism, while a very bad economic policy, might have its merits as a social policy.
Probably not, but it is easy to understand why millions would think so. One of the more striking vignettes out of New Hampshire was the independent voters who told reporters they were undecided whether they’d vote for Bernie Sanders or Trump. To the conventional political mind this makes no sense. To voters looking to express their lack of consent to the current governing class it makes perfect sense.
Reihan Salam, who co-wrote a good book several years ago calling for the recognition of what he called “Sam’s Club Republicans,” writes today in Slate that Trump is decimating the Republican Party:
Though the rise of Trump has taken almost everyone by surprise, we really should have seen it coming. America has been long overdue for something like Trumpism. In the years since the financial crisis, populist insurgencies have devastated mainstream parties of the center right and center left in virtually every market democracy. Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts mask the many ways in which he is a deeply conventional political figure, a man who trusts the wisdom of technocrats rather than seeking to overturn the established order. One could argue that the Obama presidency rescued America’s upper classes from a more ferocious post-crisis backlash, at least for a time. The twin insurgencies of Trump and Sanders demonstrate that the anger is still there—that it was just waiting for the right person to conjure it up. What separates the two politicians is that Sanders is in tune with the ideological orthodoxies of the left while Trump has no regard for those of the right. This iconoclasm is one of the sources of his power.
There’s more to Reihan’s fine article, but I want to dwell on one point that I’ve been meaning to make for a while in a narrower way:
There is only one way forward in the post-Trump era. The GOP can no longer survive as the party of tax cuts for the rich.
Now as a general matter I’m a Friedmanite (Milton), and in favor of cutting any tax at any time for any reason. But that doesn’t make tax-cutting a political winner. When Reagan embraced supply-side tax cuts 36 years ago, it came at a time of high inflation that was raising everybody’s taxes, and his proposal for an across-the-board income tax cut meant that everybody got something from it, even if at the lower end of the income scale it might not be very much.
But we don’t have high inflation right now, and with so many workers taken off the income tax rolls by previous Republican tax reforms they don’t get much if anything from a new round of tax cuts. Today most Republican tax cut proposals are aimed at capital gains and corporate taxes—both in need of reform in the interests of higher growth and economic efficiency, to be sure, but that doesn’t have much appeal for the underemployed 50-year-old white guy in Akron, who looks around and is being told by the culture that his skin color privilege is what’s wrong with America. If I’m that guy I’m for Trump, too.
Megan McArdle had a good column on this a couple weeks ago, “Tax Cuts Can’t Motivate the Republican Base Any More.”
There is simply no way to make federal tax cuts add up to a winning strategy in this day and age. It’s great for the donor base and the think tanks. But it’s going to fall on deaf ears among the voters, who just don’t care that much. Even people who are ideologically committed to tax cuts, regardless of the effect on their own wallets, are probably less likely to get excited and go out and vote on the issue when it means so little to their own personal lives.
Actually, the current moment reminds me a bit of the tax revolt of the 1970s in an inverse way. Keep in mind that the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 were the culmination of several years of tax revolts, starting with Proposition 13 in California. Then, as now, the establishment of both parties said a massive property tax cut was reckless and dangerous and would lead to local government chaos. But the political class refused to do anything meaningful about the way inflation was causing property taxes to soar. I recall one office holder who changed his mind about Prop. 13 when he saw nothing but smiles in the audience when he warned of the disastrous consequences of such a reckless measure. I recall in particular my own father, who was an elected member of the local school board in my home town, which was heavily dependent on property taxes, and saying that this “meat ax” approach to the problem was going to wreak havoc, and that he didn’t know how the school board was going to handle the large shortfall it would create:
Me: “So, dad, are you going to vote for it?”
Dad: “Damn right I am.”
It is the same circumstance today. I’m sure lots of voters don’t think Trump has what it takes to be a great president. But he is the ideal person to disrupt a political class that deserves a hard smash in the mouth. This is why Trump is going to win.
JOHN adds: I pretty much agree with this, but the problem with “message” candidates like Trump is that their candidacy doesn’t end when the message has been sent. On the contrary, you are stuck with them for, in this case, four long years. Assuming that he wins, and doesn’t just elect Hillary Clinton.