Trump’s Moment

I recant none of my previous criticisms of Trump’s unsuitability to be president, but the case that he—and he alone—has an unprecedented opportunity to disrupt (in the right ways) the crisis of American government today deserves to be understood. The most sophisticated, though perhaps sophistical, case comes from our friends at the Journal of American Greatness, though even they admit that they may be reading more into Trump than is there. (And c’mon Decius, no one who uses the term “noetic heterogeneity” is going to get a job in the Trump Administration.)

I have a simpler case, and, unusual for me, it doesn’t require any classical metaphysics. I keep coming back to the curious fact that so many Bernie Sanders voters (almost half in West Virginia) say they will vote for Trump if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination. This can’t be because they think Trump is a socialist. And I doubt the dislike of Hillary sufficiently explains it either.

I think the explanation lies in this chart:

Public Trust Chart copy

This trend is well-known among public opinion survey monkeys, and it is worth observing several things. First, the overall decline in public confidence in the competence of the federal government. Second, notice the two places where the trend reverses—during the Reagan years, and right after 9/11, when President Bush and the national government were wholly focused on their chief responsibility: defending the nation. Third, it is conspicuous that there has been no upturn at all under Obama. You’d think he could expect some bump even from a weak economy. If you break down this data by party (see next chart) you can see that Obama doesn’t even get much of a bump up from Democrats.

Trust by Party copy


Finally, look at public opinion about the government from this point of view, which finds that 79 percent of Americans—four out of five—are frustrated or angry with the federal government.Public Frustration copy


Some observations. First, you’ll note in the first chart that back in the early 1960s, public confidence in the federal government was fairly high, even though liberals told us that the Eisenhower years were dreadful, etc. As James Q. Wilson once pointed out, in 1960 what most people had in front of them was a government that had successfully accomplished some large things: it had won a World War in short order; it had educated millions of troops who came home from that war through the G.I. Bill; it has begin the interstate highway system, an eminently practical undertaking. California built a huge water project (for people back then—imagine that) and other things.

In those days, the government wasn’t trying to solve poverty, promote self-esteem, heal our souls, etc. It[s pretty easy to see that public confidence in the federal government began its long term decline exactly when the government became incompetent at foreign and domestic policy simultaneously. Liberalism has never recovered from this. But neither has the Republican Party ever achieved much serious reform. And the quagmire of the Iraq War under Bush deprived Republicans of an example of the one thing they were supposed to be able to do better than Democrats. (Yes, the surge worked, and we prevailed before Obama threw it away. But it cost too much and came too late to stave off the political damage to Republicans.)

Meanwhile, what do liberals want to build today? No new dams or highways, but high speed rail that no one will ride and urban transit systems (like DC’s Metro) that they can’t maintain. A health care system that remains hated by a majority of Americans. An airport security system that everyone knows is a costly joke. Need I go on? Liberals and the media would like everyone to think that people are disgusted with “gridlock” in Washington (which is only liberal code for saying conservatives should unilaterally disarm so government can do even more things). I don’t think that’s it at all. I think a majority are disgusted with an incompetent government. The mode of public conversation about the federal government is contempt, not frustration that it isn’t doing even more.

Most of the leading candidates of both parties talk about “reform,” but mostly offer mere tinkering. Republicans offer tax cuts; Democrats offer more free stuff. Neither is credible any more. Which brings us to Trump. His difference from the political class is obvious, and has been widely remarked upon, so I won’t repeat that part of the story. Bottom line: we reached a point of such bipartisan disgust with the government that someone like Trump looks like the only kind of person who could conceivably take it on.

One more key political fact, though: We have never elected someone with no prior experience in public office at all to the presidency. (I count being supreme commander of Allied armies in WWII—Eisenhower—as experience in public office. Ditto Grant, etc.) Only once has a major party ever nominated someone from the business world with no experience in public office: Wendell Willkie in 1940. He was a very credible figure, and might have won in the absence of the growing shadow of war.

So might we make Trump the precedent-shattering break from historical practice? We very well might, for the simple reason that only someone who is genuinely an outsider—a way outsider in every way—like Trump stands a chance of restoring some semblance of sensible government. One can imagine a President Trump governing like “President Dave” in the movie from the mid-1990s, and saying “Why do we have 55 federal job training programs? How about eliminating at least two-thirds of them?” Rinse and repeat. In other words, what is required is a disposition much different than Ross Perot’s risible slogan of “getting under the hood and fixin’ it.”

Does Trump understand the nature and magnitude of the problem, and thereby his extraordinary opportunity? I’m doubtful, but he just might kindof, sortof grasp it in his instinctual, elemental way. And his very brashness might be just the kind of approach to accomplishing a few things.

You can find the extensive background to the three charts shown here from the Pew Research Center.

Coming next: “There’s Nothing Wrong with This Country That 4% Growth Won’t Solve.”