I’m on a vacation this week, and when the conversation with members of my extended family turned to politics, it turned, as it inevitably seems to these days, to Donald Trump.
The people I spoke with are, to a person, critics of Trump. (Several of them are Republicans.) They were curious to discuss, and at a loss to explain, his rise in the polls. I took the interest in Trump himself to be anecdotal evidence to support my belief that Trump can’t be ignored by the Republican Party; he needs to be confronted. The reason is that he’s generating enormous attention to himself, whether others disregard him or not, and to remain silent in the face of Trump’s provocations is to look weak or complicit. That doesn’t mean candidates need to obsess on him, but they do need to make their differences with him clear and emphatic. To their credit, several – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and George Pataki among them – already have.
Rather than recapitulating my case against Trump, I want to make an observation about Trump’s appeal to some parts of the Republican base. Before doing so, it’s necessary to start with the premise that Trump is no conservative, a case I’ve made before, as has National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. Mr. Trump once supported a Canadian-style single-payer health care system, massively higher taxes on the wealthy, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He was “totally pro-choice.” He gave money to Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. He was a registered Democrat for most of the last decade. And he praised President Obama for doing “a very good job.”
Some of Trump’s flip-flops have been vividly captured in this video.
Any other Republican with this record would find his candidacy crippled. Yet for Trump, it hardly seems to matter. He operates in an Accountability Free Zone, where past stands, past statements, and past financial contributions are forgotten or forgiven.
The reasons for this, I think, is that Trump’s supporters don’t care about his past, his governing philosophy, or his governing agenda; all they care about his style. They believe he’s fearless, a fighter, politically incorrect, anti-establishment, hated by liberals, a man giving voice their frustration and rage at the political class. They believe the nation is collapsing, government doesn’t work, America is being beaten at every turn – and no one expresses that better than Trump. This deep disenchantment is what Trump is tapping into and what explains his appeal.
Now it needs to be said that Trump’s appeal is limited and his negatives even among Republicans are sky-high. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans, according to this poll, have a negative view of him. But what is disturbing is some conservatives not only find the Trump style impressive; it’s that they find the Trump style so impressive that it makes him immune from criticism. He gets a free pass on everything he’s said and done. The only thing that matters now is he’s targeting our enemies. He’s giving voice to our grievances. We on the right need to learn from The Donald.
In fact, the Trump style – crude, emotive, erratic, narcissistic, demagogic — should by itself be a disqualifier. That it’s not – that, for at least some number of self-described conservatives, it’s what makes him appealing — is a sad turn of events. They are embracing Donald Trump for the very reason they should be rejecting him.