‘The Muse of History must not be fastidious.” Thus Churchill the historian. But as Churchill the politician knew, the Muse of Politics must not be fastidious either.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Trump is, to say the least, not in favor among the fastidious. He’s not even in much favor among those of us who are nonfastidious in our politics. We at The Weekly Standard enjoy the rough-and-readiness of the American political scene—but we also understand the distinction between a reality show and reality, between performing and governing. We love American democracy and are impressed by Trump’s mastery of some of the arts of democratic politics—but we also acknowledge that Trump embodies much that is dubious about mass democracy. We admire the American people—but we also grant that Trumpism exemplifies much that is problematic about American populism.
Still, the fact remains: Donald Trump stands, unexpectedly and impressively, at the center of gravity of the Republican presidential field. His rise has been spectacular, a shock not just to the Republican establishment but to the conservative movement. His fall may be sudden or protracted, complete or partial. Conceivably he won’t fall at all. But in any event, Republicans and conservatives can’t afford fastidiously to turn their back on, or mindlessly to embrace Trump . . . or Trumpism.
What is Trumpism? Elsewhere in this issue Christopher Caldwell and Julius Krein consider the question. In this they join other thoughtful commentators who have recently addressed this matter. What we have to add to the conversation is simply one name: Richard Nixon.
After all, isn’t Donald Trump’s political appeal a kind of cartoon version of Richard Nixon’s? Nixon was the most consequential Republican in America for a long time, arguably from the Hiss-Chambers hearings in 1948 until his resignation from the presidency more than a quarter-century later; a candidate who ran five times for national office, four times a winner and losing only once, possibly as a result of stolen votes in Illinois and Texas; a politician who invented the Silent Majority and laid the basis for the emergence of a governing Republican majority; a president whose achievements pale beside those of our beau ideal, Ronald Reagan. But no Nixon, no Gipper.
Now, in 2015, we seem to be replaying history in fast forward. What took 16 years, from 1964 to 1980, is now happening in a matter of 16 months. The Tea Party was in a way a replay of the Goldwater movement—a visceral, deeply felt, and in many ways justified rebellion against the pretensions and depredations of big government liberalism. Both rebellions fell short of attaining the presidency. Both were followed by a less constitutionalist but perhaps more wide-ranging revolt against the cultured despisers of American patriotism and traditions—the first of which produced the Nixon ascendancy over several tumultuous years, the second of which has fueled the Trump phenomenon over several rambunctious months.
The Nixon era was followed, after a short interlude, by Reagan. The task today is to ensure that the Trumpian moment is followed—with no interlude, and with time telescoped—by a neo-Reaganite victory, one that builds on what is best in the Tea Party and what is healthy in Trumpism to create a politically viable governing conservatism.
The current candidates are, understandably, struggling to come to grips with the phenomenon of Trump. None has put the pieces together as Reagan did. Can one of the 2016 contenders be Reagan to Trump’s Nixon? Can any of the candidates—or one not yet in the race—move beyond disgust at a decadent liberalism to forge a vigorous governing conservatism? That is the question of the hour. The Muse of History will smile on any political leader who can pull this off.