Solving the baffling mystery of Donald Trump’s political success is the all-consuming whodunit of the campaign season. I have argued that explaining Trump’s rise is far less important than plotting and securing his fall. But there isn’t much plotting going on now that Trump has the nomination. That’s another political mystery and it’s a scary one.
Obviously, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Political-Industrial Complex are in full battle mode, seemingly prepared to fight early, hard and mean. Bernie Sanders and his dragoons, however, don’t appear to see Trump as a particularly dire threat: Hillary, Donald – what’s the difference?
Official Republican leadership already has capitulated to Trump, disgracefully. There are few signs of anti-Trump counter-insurgencies by state and local Republicans.
There is some energy on the fringes of power. Intellectuals and polemicists from every conservative denomination – far right, Christian right, neoconservative and reform moderates – are valiantly calling for insurrection, third parties or lightning bolts from Heaven, all with equal effect.
Most surprising given the obvious risks of having this unpredictable, volatile, inexperienced demagogue in the White House, the giant financial, industrial and tech powers aren’t seriously opposing Trump.
Self-interested fear of Trump, and moral repugnance, is rampant in the melting pot of America’s diverse elites. No party nominee has ever been so risky. The mystery is why so many powerful combatants – the “power elites” — are in retreat and why political culture is so tolerant of Trump’s outrages.
Interesting theories about elites and about rapid changes in public etiquette are being resurrected to help. They offer interesting insights. But are they useful?
“No modern politician who has come this close to the presidency has championed violence in this way,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in one influential article. “It would be disqualifying if our hyperdemocracy hadn’t already abolished disqualifications.”
Sullivan argues that our Madisonian checks on democratic excess, on the tyranny of the majority that could empower an authoritarian wildcard like Trump, have weakened. His more important worry, I think, is that traditional standards of political conduct, rhetoric and language have gone to the dogs. “The barriers to the popular will, especially when it comes to choosing our president, are now almost nonexistent,” he writes.
This sort of thinking about how and why bad things happen to good republics as they grow old is ancient, starting with Plato, according to Sullivan. Americans have always been paranoid about the Roman example and tend to deploy theories of decline in hard or strange times.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, came up with a concept like this many years ago that is now practically part of pop culture. He observed that sometimes when behaviors or practices long considered deviant and negative become impossible to curb, society subtly stops calling them deviant. Problem solved. Moynihan called this “defining deviance down.” “We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” he wrote.
Enter Donald Trump: Every day he pulls some vulgar clownish stunt that would have been reprehensible in prior elections. He’s like a political super-predator. He gets away with it because deviance has been defined way, way down. At least for him.
Bill Clinton’s degradation of the presidency in the Monica Lewinsky saga also generated similar ideas about how nations lose their best values and moorings. In 2001, the provocative economist Charles Murray wrote a fiery condemnation of modern morals in The Wall Street Journal that, in today’s dialect, “went viral.” The title was “Prole Models.”
Murray said the British historian Arnold Toynbee had an idea about national decline that fit America. Toynbee thought old societies were doomed to reach an age where their vital “dominant minority,” the “creative elite,” lose confidence and no longer provide strong guidance and example. Instead, they abdicate civic duty, become decadent and start imitating “proletarian culture” and low morals.
To Murray, Bill Clinton’s sex scandals epitomized the American “prole model.” Imagine what he thinks of Trump. Certainly much of today’s “dominant minority” lacks the confidence to tangle with him.
A more empirical theory: “The Decline and Rise of Nations” by economist Mancur Olson was very influential in the 1980s when Americans were paranoid about economic decline at the hands of Japan and Germany. Olson was famous for showing that interest groups with narrow aims (say, cotton subsidies) were more effective than bigger, richer groups with broader aims (less regulation). In aging nations, entrenched, narrow interest groups impede rational policy-making and are oblivious to major issues beyond their wallets.
Applying that to Trump helps understand why professional Republicans – officeholders, party apparatchiks, consultants, fundraisers, lobbyists – so easily can jettison their convictions that Trump is dangerous and back him for the sake of party and career. Many groups in the Republican orbit are tolerating a candidate they fear and dislike because they are more loyal to parochial interests than patriotic or moral values. The same is true in the business world.
Ideas like this may help understand how Trump is rolling the country. I hope they can be used tactically on the election battlefield by a diverse army. Relying on the Democrats and their unpopular general is too risky.
“In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event,” Andrew Sullivan concluded. That is too dire in my view. Yet I thoroughly agree when he says, “It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
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