The BLOG: Campaign 2016

Theories of Trump

One of the things I love about a certain segment of the intellectual commentary class is that, even in the midst of immediate political battles, its constituents are constantly striving to understand how and why the pieces of the world are fitting together as they are.  The mystery of Donald Trump has been fertile ground.

After all, the notion of a President Trump was so absurd in 2000 that The Simpsons made it an incidental part of the joke about a future in which one of the show’s characters would become president.  That fact, of itself, doesn’t say much, but the fact that it’s in absolutely perfect keeping with the sense that many of us have of Trump from 40 years of his being in the public eye does.  Making “President Trump” a punchline in 2000 wasn’t partisan or ideological in the least, so how is it that so many are actually considering making the joke reality?  How is it that so many are perfectly comfortable brushing aside or ignoring facts from his biography that ought to count against exactly what his fans claim to like about him?

The theories are many.  Kevin Williamson, of National Reviewsees Trump as a populist demagogue:

Donald Trump, talked up endlessly by the likes of Hannity and Laura Ingraham, apologized for by Rush Limbaugh, and indulged far too deeply for far too long by far too many others, rejects conservatism. He rejects free trade. He rejects property rights. He rejects the rule of law. He rejects limited government. He advocates a presidency a thousand times more imperial than the one that sprung Athena-like from the brow of Barack Obama and his lawyers. He meditates merrily upon the uses of political violence and riots, and dreams of shutting down newspapers critical of him. He isn’t a conservative of any stripe, and it is an outright lie to present him as anything other than what he is.

What he is is the embodiment of the democratic passions that kept John Adams up at night. Trumpkin democracy is the democracy that John Adams warned us about.

That’s a plausible description of what Trump is, but it doesn’t tell us much specifically about how he’s successfully playing on human foibles that make pure democracy dangerous. In that regard, Melissa Jeltsen, of the Huffington Postsuggests Trump’s con of America is specifically gaslighting:

This form of psychological abuse typically plays out like so: The gaslighter states something false with such intensity and conviction that whoever is on the receiving end is confused and begins to doubt their own perspective. …

When faced with their brazen lies, gaslighters deny their own statements, change the subject, lash out with insults (think “little” Rubio and “liar” Cruz), act indignant about the accusation, or turn on the messenger — which, for Trump, is often the national media.

In Commentary, John Podhoretz explains Trump as the exploiter of political errors, accidents, and coincidences of the recent past:

What I’m suggesting is that the weird timing of the [economic] meltdown and the rise of Obama hindered and delayed a reckoning for 2008 that everybody would have expected as a matter of course had the crisis hit earlier.  Now, there were certainly suggestions of extra-political populist rage along the way.  The Tea Party was one, though it focused on size-of-government issues, and Occupy Wall Street was another, though its anti-banker message was swamped by every far-left bugaboo on earth.  But the signs were easy to misread — obviously, since almost everyone misread them.

And this is why, I think, the meaning of Trump is being misused and misunderstood.  He ways he wants to “make America great again,” but I don’t think that’s what his acolytes hear.  I think they hear that he is going to turn his vicious temper and unbalanced rage on the large-scale forces they feel are hindering them.  They want someone punished.  Could be China.  Could be Muslims.  Could be Mexicans.  Could be bankers.  Could be the GOP “establishment.”  Whatever.  He’s their Punisher.

Of course, these aren’t different theories.  They’re all components of a single description of a complex social phenomenon.  Similar to Podhoretz, I’d recall my suggestion that people have an image of Trump as a guy who could silence campus cry bullies trying to silence him and, by extension, all of us whom they oppose.

In recent conversations with blue-collar conservatives, I’ve walked away with the impression that Trump himself is almost irrelevant to Trump the Political Phenomenon.  They ultimately don’t care about his suggested policies or whether he’s consistent about them.  They’re disinclined to credit the problems created by the above-mentioned contradictions in his biography because doing so would open the possibility that they aren’t on the cusp of some real resistance to those “large-scale forces.”

They’re reveling in talk about what they would do — some planning what they will do — when the anti-Trump forces bring their highway-closing shenanigans to a Trump rally nearby.  The tone is the same as it would have been if they were discussing how they’d mirror or improve upon the actions of the man in Framingham who took on four illegal immigrants to save his girlfriend from violent rape.

They’re wrong about Trump, though, or at least I think they’re wrong.  Podhoretz probably writes the truth when he goes on to suggest that Trump won’t make it to the presidency because, “the qualities that have given him appeal to part of the GOP primary electorate would be destructive with a national electorate seven times the size,” probably taking down not only Trump, but the GOP forces that have provided some restraint against the Left’s advance and producing an even more oppressive political environment.

If Trump does somehow pull off the big victory, though, we can only hope that his backers won’t be so invested in their vision of what he represents that they’ll double down on their devotion if he proves as bad as many of us think he will be.

Justin Katz

Justin Katz

Justin Katz is research director for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and managing editor of