We are not allowed, needless to say, to disclose our top secret list ranking the GOP presidential candidates from top to bottom. It’s kept in encrypted form on a password-protected, self-destructing hard drive in a safe room at The Weekly Standard, accessible only to a trusted few who are cleared to know all the machinations we are planning to engage in to secure a 2016 Republican nominee to our liking. But we can reveal this: Donald Trump competes for last place on our list with Rand Paul. We don’t think either man should be the next president of the United States.
So we’re not Trump enthusiasts. We’re not even Trump fellow travelers. We’re closer to Trump deriders. But we do remember 1992. Ross Perot was, as a presidential candidate, something of an oddball and egomaniac. The George H. W. Bush campaign mocked and dismissed him. Bush might have been reelected if the campaign had instead taken the attitude that there are things to be learned from smart oddballs and eccentric egomaniacs who have a feel for public opinion.
What might we learn from listening to Trump?
Trump understands that Americans aspire to greatness. His campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Sound familiar? A prominent Ronald Reagan slogan in 1980 was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” In his announcement speech Trump repeated several times—and repetition may not be as foolish in politics as all the pundits who disapproved of Trump’s verbosity think—that “we are going to make our country great again.” And he concluded his remarks, “Sadly, the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.” Politics is about dreams as much as it is about deliverables, about pride as much as it’s about pocketbooks. Trump understands that. It’s not clear most of the rest of the field does.
Trump understands that Americans like winning: “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them.” Trump is aware the public believes international politics is more zero-sum than globalist elites like to think. “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger, by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.” So Trump is pro-tough-trade-negotiations, he’s pro-China-bashing, and he’s pro-military. “I will find within our military, I will find the General Patton or I will find General MacArthur, I will find the right guy. I will find the guy that’s going to take that military and make it really work. Nobody, nobody will be pushing us around.” A bit simple-minded? Sure. Closer to the truth than the cocktail partiers at Davos? Probably. Closer in sentiment to the American people? Certainly. Trump understands that many Americans believe winning isn’t everything, but it’s a good thing. A very good thing. It’s not clear most of the rest of the field does.
Trump understands the centrality of Obamacare on the domestic front. “We have a disaster called the big lie: Obama-care.” “Obamacare kicks in in 2016. Really big league. It is going to be amazingly destructive. Doctors are quitting.” And so Trump understands that it’s important to emphasize that Obamacare must be repealed and replaced. It’s not clear most of the rest of the field does.
Trump understands that, in running for president, it is a major disadvantage to never have been elected to anything. But he’s a turn-lemons-into-lemonade type guy. So he goes after politicians. “I’ve watched the politicians. I’ve dealt with them all my life. If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re certainly not very good. And that’s what we have representing us. They will never make America great again.” Trump understands that Americans have deep doubts about the competence and probity of our political class. It’s not clear most of the rest of the field does.
Trump understands that Republican primary voters don’t want a nominee who will shy away from criticism of President Obama. “Our president doesn’t have a clue. He’s a bad negotiator. He’s the one that did Bergdahl. We get Bergdahl, they get five killer terrorists. . . . We get Bergdahl. We get a traitor, a no-good traitor, and they get the five people that they wanted for years, and those people are now back on the battlefield trying to kill us.” Trump understands that it’s okay to say something the media elite will shake their collective head at. It’s not clear most of the rest of the field does.
We trust Trump will not be the Republican nominee. But Trump could win significant support from Perot-type voters in primaries who will then be up for grabs in the general election. Bill Clinton has already begun sweet-talking him: Trump “has been . . . uncommonly nice to Hillary and me.” Republicans need not compete with the master in flattering Trump. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A little touch of Trump in the rhetoric, the attitude, the bearing of the other Republican candidates could go a long way toward making this election more like 1980 than 1992.