Is Trump Sui Generis?


Given Donald Trump’s ongoing meltdown, all of this may be moot. But even a catastrophically failed presidential campaign has ramifications that can unfold for years, even decades to come, as well as lessons to teach us about the country.

After all, many at the time saw Barry Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss as a fluke; the takeover of a mainstream party by a noisy, right-wing minority supposedly spelled the end of conservatism as a political force in the country. Yet historians now recognize that, even in defeat, Goldwater pointed the way to a major conservative revival. In contrast, Walter Mondale’s historic drubbing in 1984 said a great deal about where the Democratic Party was coming from – and helped convince Democratic elites to abandon the party’s liberal roots in favor of Clintonesque moderation.

So what does Trump mean?

Over the course of the 16 insane months since he announced his candidacy with an encomium to Mexican rapists, observers have tried to make sense of what Trump’s rapid ascent says about the GOP and conservatism. Two lines of thought have broadly emerged among commentators: put simply, that Trump is an anomaly, a fluke, a populist and nationalist deviation from the tradition of GOP dogma represented by past nominees like McCain or Romney on free trade, foreign policy, etc. (the view embraced by National Review and many conservative intellectuals); vs. the idea that Trump actually symbolizes the culmination of trends in conservative/GOP politics for a long time (as Corey Robin has argued).

So we asked our contributors two questions:

1. Is Trump a unique phenomenon, a fluke driven by the peculiar dynamics of politics, the economy, celebrity culture in the waning days of the Obama administration? Or is he representative of a longer term pattern or trend in conservatism?

2. And what does Trump mean for the future of the Republican Party, in victory or (seemingly more likely) defeat?  What “lesson” do you think the party and/or conservative movement will learn going forward?

To start off, we have these thoughts from ToM’s senior foreign correspondent, Adam E. Gallagher:

It strikes me that the whole Trump fiasco is the culmination of the two trends. Not only is Trump the raw, unbridled result of years of racist/nationalist/ individualist/militaristic GOP policy, but also the repulsive outgrowth of the dynamics of celebrity and Internet culture. Like pretty much everyone I know, I initially dismissed Trump’s candidacy, but after this bizarre year and a half long spectacle it makes a lot more sense. Frankly, I know a lot of people that earnestly share Trump’s racist worldview and think “businessmen” are a special breed of human with advanced intellectual capabilities.

Trump is also the first true Internet/Reality TV candidate. He’s only able to regurgitate soundbites and is capable of saying literally anything extemporaneously, which is part of the allure of both Reality TV and Trump. We’ve been conditioned by our entertainment outlets to expect quick, pithy, exciting moments; Trump provides that along with the catharsis of scapegoating whoever his audience needs to hate at that particular moment. As I wrote for ToM earlier this year, “The real story here – what Trump’s risible and horrific place in American politics truly reveals – is that a large swathe of Americans are deeply, deeply uninformed.” That was my nice way of saying that a lot of Americans are stupid.

On a side note, I think that the tepid support for Hillary Clinton, even among many ardent and lifelong Democrats, is because she has none of the cultural relevance that Trump has. She looks like someone (minus the weird pant suits) that would be standing in front of you in the line at the bank, and she tries to actually answer policy questions with nuanced responses. She’s not particularly telegenic and is terrible at delivering crisp soundbites. In this insane election, HRC seems like a candidate from another era.

As for the future of the GOP, I honestly have no idea what Trump means. Since the Obama era, the GOP has consistently failed to understand what its base wants. After Obama won in 2008, GOP luminaries famously decided that they would tailor the party’s platform to attract more of the burgeoning American Latino population. Eight years later, Republican primary voters elected Donald Trump — and The Wall and all the bile he’s vomited out about Hispanics (and everyone else) — as the national standard bearer for the party. This is a party that is simply out of ideas, and many in its base are finally beginning to see that the fundamental ideas that animate the GOP are inimical to their own interests. If you put a gun to my head though, I would just guess that the Republicans will stay the course, dismiss Trump has a horrible nightmare and nominate some clown, who is more subtly racist/nationalist/ individualist/militaristic, like Lil’ Marco or Lyin’ Ted, next time around.

This week and next, we’ll be hearing more hot takes on the meaning of Trump from ASC, Rob Baker, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Squeaky Fromme, and more…

In the meantime, check out ToM’s long-running coverage of politics and elections, including these timely pieces:

Cherie Braden, “How Do Different States Allocate Their Electoral Votes?”

H. Robert Baker, “When Trump Loses”

Ryan Reft, “Reagan’s 1966 Gubernatorial Campaign Turns 50: California, Conservatism, and Donald Trump”