I am a firm, indeed fervent, believer in liberal democracy. But I have to admit, it is as fallible as any other man-made system. After all, our system of government has elevated to the top office the likes of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter, and to lesser offices the likes of Huey Long, James Michael Curley, Marion Barry, and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Other democracies have done worse, selecting as their leaders the likes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Putin, Nouri al-Maliki, Henri Philippe Petain, Ferdinand Marcos, Robert Mugabe, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jacob Zuma, and Mohamed Morsi.
So perhaps I should not be unduly shocked that Donald Trump — the Silvio Berlusconi of American politics – continues to lead the Republican field, with 24 percent of the vote in a new CNN survey compared to just 13 percent for Jeb Bush, a serious candidate. (Another unserious candidate — Ben Carson — is in third place with 9 percent.) Trump’s high poll standing has not been harmed — and possibly even helped? — by his cringe-worthy insults to John McCain, Megyn Kelly, and others; comments that would have destroyed any other candidacy.
Nor has Trump’s lack of concrete proposals been any bar to his advancement. Still, the extent of his policy incoherence is stunning. The Washington Post has just published a gob-smacking list of some of the policy positions that Trump has taken over the past two months alone, which shows that on some issues he has reversed himself at least half a dozen times. One small sample:
On June 16, Bill O’Reilly asked him: “Are you telling me you are going to send American ground troops into Syria?”
Trump replied: “I’m not telling you anything.”
A few minutes later, Trump said: “I will tell you what my plan will be… You have to go in. You have to go in.”
O’Reilly: “With ground troops?”
“Well, you bomb the hell out of them, and then you encircle it, and then you go in.”
And a few minutes after that, this exchange occurred:
O’Reilly: “There’s no way you can defeat them without invading.”
Trump: “I disagree.”
Trump is a one-man debate: He is the only candidate I know of that can reverse policy positions multiple times within the span of a few minutes — and still apparently get taken seriously by a substantial section of the electorate.
That Washington Post article, damning as it is, barely scratches the surface of his confusion. This is, after all, the candidate who in March slammed Obama’s handling of Ukraine, saying: “We should definitely do sanctions, and we have to show some strengths. I mean, Putin has eaten Obama’s lunch, therefore our lunch, for a long period of time.”
And now Trump has this to say about Ukraine: “I don’t like what’s happening with Ukraine. But that’s really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us. And they should be leading some of this charge… Why are we leading the charge in Ukraine?”
In other words, even while denouncing Obama for causing America to lose its greatness, Trump is essentially endorsing Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy.
In fairness, Trump, who seems to say the first thing that pops into his brain, may not realize what he’s doing. This is, after all, a man who says that he gets his military advice from watching TV shows, which we all know are legendary fonts of strategic wisdom. This is also the man who seems to think that the Iraq War started in July 2004, rather than in March 2003. (In the presidential debate, Trump said: “In July of 2004, I came out strongly against the war with Iraq, because it was going to destabilize the Middle East… And that’s exactly what happened.”)
I don’t expect Trump’s inability to articulate comprehensible policies to end his ascendancy in the polls anytime soon, but I do have enough faith in the American political process to hope and even expect that his outright buffoonery will stop him from winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. (Faced with a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would vote for Clinton in a heartbeat.) But given the history that so many democracies have of making such foolish mistakes in choosing leaders, and given Trump’s own history of surviving an advanced case of foot-in-the-mouth disease, there is a small part of me that wonders whether I am being Pollyannaish in expecting that the White House will not eventually have a neon “Trump” sign on top of it.