Donald Trump is not a serious candidate. Donald Trump is not a serious man. The truth of these statements is supposed to be self-evident. But one begins to wonder, are they true?
Trump’s popularity, while beyond doubt, is treated not as a legitimate expression of popular will but as a mass psychosis to be diagnosed. It would seem to be the duty of every American pundit today to explain the inexplicable and problematic rise of Donald Trump. The critical question, however, is not the source of Trump’s popularity but rather the reason his popularity is so shocking to our political culture. Perhaps Trump’s candidacy threatens a larger consensus that governs our political and social life, and perhaps his popularity signifies a profound challenge to elite opinion.
Why is Donald Trump so popular? Explanations range from mere celebrity, to his adoption of extreme positions to capture the most ideologically intense voters, to his explosive rhetoric. These explanations are not entirely wrong, but neither are they entirely right.
To begin with, his positions, as Josh Barro has written in the New York Times, are rather moderate. As Barro points out, Trump is willing to contemplate tax increases to achieve spending cuts. He supports some exceptions to abortion bans and has gone so far as to defend funding Planned Parenthood. He has called for protective tariffs, a position heretical for Republicans, who are typically free traders. Although opposed to Obamacare, he has asserted that single-payer health care works in other countries. Even on the issue of immigration, despite his frequently strident rhetoric, his positions are neither unique—securing the border with some kind of wall is a fairly standard Republican plank by now—nor especially rigid.
With respect to his rhetoric, whether one characterizes his delivery as candid or rude, it is hard to ascribe his popularity to colorful invective alone. Chris Christie, who never misses an opportunity to harangue an opponent, languishes near the bottom of the polls. Or ask Rick Santorum, as well as Mitt “47 percent” Romney, whether outrageous comments offer an infallible way to win friends and influence voters. Trump’s outré style, like his celebrity, helps him gain attention but just as certainly fails to explain his frontrunner status.
Most candidates seek to define themselves by their policies and platforms. What differentiates Trump is not what he says, or how he says it, but why he says it. The unifying thread running through his seemingly incoherent policies, what defines him as a candidate and forms the essence of his appeal, is that he seeks to speak for America. He speaks, that is, not for America as an abstraction but for real, living Americans and for their interests as distinct from those of people in other places. He does not apologize for having interests as an American, and he does not apologize for demanding that the American government vigorously prosecute those interests.
What Trump offers is permission to conceive of an American interest as a national interest separate from the “international community” and permission to wish to see that interest triumph. What makes him popular on immigration is not how extreme his policies are, but the emphasis he puts on the interests of Americans rather than everyone else. His slogan is “Make America Great Again,” and he is not ashamed of the fact that this means making it better than other places, perhaps even at their expense.
His least practical suggestion—making Mexico pay for the border wall—is precisely the most significant: It shows that a President Trump would be willing to take something from someone else in order to give it to the American people. Whether he could achieve this is of secondary importance; the fact that he is willing to say it is everything. Nothing is more terrifying to the business and donor class—as well as the media and the entire elite—than Trump’s embrace of a tangible American nationalism. The fact that Trump should by all rights be a member of this class and is in fact a traitor to it makes him all the more attractive to his supporters and all the more baffling to pundits.
Trump’s campaign is predicated on restoring American greatness here and now, and he is seen to select policies in support of that overarching purpose. Others, in contrast, appear to pursue public office mostly for the sake of implementing favored policies so that they can read about the results of their grand experiments in future economics textbooks. They are like doctors who use patients to advance medical research for its own sake, rather than physicians who use medicine to cure the patients before them.