And, my dear fellow Republicans, he's all your fault.
About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day.
“It’s true you have better hair than I do,” Trump said matter-of-factly. “But I get more pussy than you do.” Click.
At the time, I’d never met Trump and I remember feeling amused but also surprised he’d say something like that. Now the pattern seems entirely familiar. The message had all the hallmarks of a Trump attack: shocking, vulgar and indisputably true.
Not everyone finds it funny. On my street in Northwest Washington, D.C., there’s never been anyone as unpopular as Trump. The Democrats assume he’s a bigot, pandering to the morons out there in the great dark space between Georgetown and Brentwood. The Republicans (those relatively few who live here) fully agree with that assessment, and they hate him even more. They sense Trump is a threat to them personally, to their legitimacy and their livelihoods. Idi Amin would get a warmer reception in our dog park.
I understand it of course. And, except in those moments when the self-righteous silliness of rich people overwhelms me and I feel like moving to Maine, I can see their points, some of them anyway. Trump might not be my first choice for president. I’m not even convinced he really wants the job. He’s smart enough to know it would be tough for him to govern.
But just because Trump is an imperfect candidate doesn’t mean his candidacy can’t be instructive. Trump could teach Republicans in Washington a lot if only they stopped posturing long enough to watch carefully. Here’s some of what they might learn:
He Exists Because You Failed
American presidential elections usually amount to a series of overcorrections: Clinton begat Bush, who produced Obama, whose lax border policies fueled the rise of Trump. In the case of Trump, though, the GOP shares the blame, and not just because his fellow Republicans misdirected their ad buys or waited so long to criticize him. Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party. That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.
Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed. Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”
Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.
It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.
On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.
Apart from his line about Mexican rapists early in the campaign, Trump hasn’t said anything especially shocking about immigration. Control the border, deport lawbreakers, try not to admit violent criminals — these are the ravings of a Nazi? This is the “ghost of George Wallace” that a Politico piece described last August? A lot of Republican leaders think so. No wonder their voters are rebelling.
Truth Is Not Only A Defense, It’s Thrilling
When was the last time you stopped yourself from saying something you believed to be true for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it? If you live in America, it probably hasn’t been long. That’s not just a talking point about political correctness. It’s the central problem with our national conversation, the main reason our debates are so stilted and useless. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t have the words to describe it. You can’t even think about it clearly.
This depressing fact made Trump’s political career. In a country where almost everyone in public life lies reflexively, it’s thrilling to hear someone say what he really thinks, even if you believe he’s wrong. It’s especially exciting when you suspect he’s right.
A temporary ban on Muslim immigration? That sounds a little extreme (meaning nobody else has said it recently in public). But is it? Millions of Muslims have moved to Western Europe over the past 50 years, and a sizable number of them still haven’t assimilated. Instead, they remain hostile and sometimes dangerous to the cultures that welcomed them. By any measure, that experiment has failed. What’s our strategy for not repeating it here, especially after San Bernardino—attacks that seemed to come out of nowhere? Invoke American exceptionalism and hope for the best? Before Trump, that was the plan.
Republican primary voters should be forgiven for wondering who exactly is on the reckless side of this debate. At the very least, Trump seems like he wants to protect the country.
Evangelicals understand this better than most. You read surveys that indicate the majority of Christian conservatives support Trump, and then you see the video: Trump on stage with pastors, looking pained as they pray over him, misidentifying key books in the New Testament, and in general doing a ludicrous imitation of a faithful Christian, the least holy roller ever. You wonder as you watch this: How could they be that dumb? He’s so obviously faking it.
They know that already. I doubt there are many Christian voters who think Trump could recite the Nicene Creed, or even identify it. Evangelicals have given up trying to elect one of their own. What they’re looking for is a bodyguard, someone to shield them from mounting (and real) threats to their freedom of speech and worship. Trump fits that role nicely, better in fact than many church-going Republicans. For eight years, there was a born-again in the White House. How’d that work out for Christians, here and in Iraq?
Washington Really Is Corrupt
Everyone beats up on Washington, but most of the people I know who live here love it. Of course they do. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, we’ve got good restaurants, not to mention full employment and construction cranes on virtually every corner. If you work on Capitol Hill or downtown, it’s hard to walk back from lunch without seeing someone you know. It’s a warm bath. Nobody wants to leave.
But let’s pretend for a second this isn’t Washington. Let’s imagine it’s the capital of an African country, say Burkina Faso, and we are doing a study on corruption. Probably the first question we’d ask: How many government officials have close relatives who make a living by influencing government spending? A huge percentage of them? OK. Case closed. Ouagadougou is obviously a very corrupt city.
That’s how the rest of the country views D.C. Washington is probably the richest city in America because the people who live there have the closest proximity to power. That seems obvious to most voters. It’s less obvious to us, because everyone here is so cheerful and familiar, and we’re too close to it. Chairman so-and-so’s son-in-law lobbies the committee? That doesn’t seem corrupt. He’s such a good guy.
All of which explains why almost nobody in Washington caught the significance of Trump’s finest moment in the first debate. One of the moderators asked, in effect: if you’re so opposed to Hillary Clinton, why did she come to your last wedding? It seemed like a revealing, even devastating question.
Trump’s response, delivered without pause or embarrassment: Because I paid her to be there. As if she was the wedding singer, or in charge of the catering.
Even then, I’ll confess, I didn’t get it. (Why would you pay someone to come to your wedding?) But the audience did. Trump is the ideal candidate to fight Washington corruption not simply because he opposes it, but because he has personally participated in it. He’s not just a reformer; like most effective populists, he’s a whistleblower, a traitor to his class. Before he became the most ferocious enemy American business had ever known, Teddy Roosevelt was a rich guy. His privilege wasn't incidental; it was key to his appeal. Anyone can peer through the window in envy. It takes a real man to throw furniture through it from the inside.
If Trump is leading a populist movement, many of his Republican critics have joined an elitist one. Deriding Trump is an act of class solidarity, visible evidence of refinement and proof that you live nowhere near a Wal-Mart. Early last summer, in a piece that greeted Trump when he entered the race, National Review described the candidate as “a ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” Virtually every other critique of Trump from the right has voiced similar aesthetic concerns.
Why is the Party of Ideas suddenly so fixated on fashion and hair? Maybe all dying institutions devolve this way, from an insistence on intellectual rigor to a flabby preoccupation with appearances. It happened in the Episcopal Church, once renowned for its liturgy, now a stop on architectural and garden tours. Only tourists go there anymore.
He Could Win
Of all the dumb things that have been said about Trump by people who were too slow to get finance jobs and therefore wound up in journalism, perhaps the stupidest of all is the one you hear most: He’ll get killed in the general! This is a godsend for Democrats! Forty-state wipeout! And so it goes mindlessly on.
Actually — and this is no endorsement of Trump, just an interjection of reality — that’s a crock. Of the Republicans now running, Trump likely has the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton, for two reasons:
First, he’s the only Republican who can meaningfully expand the pie. Polls show a surprisingly large number of Democrats open to Trump. In one January survey by the polling form Mercury Analytics , almost 20 percent said they’d consider crossing over to him from Hillary. Even if that’s double the actual number, it’s still stunning. Could Ted Cruz expect to draw that many Democrats? Could Jeb?
It’s an article of faith in Washington that Trump would tank the party’s prospects with minority voters. Sounds logical, especially if you’re a sensitive white liberal who considers the suggestion of a border wall a form of hate speech, but consider the baseline. In the last election, Romney got 6 percent of the black vote, and 27 percent of Hispanics. Trump, who’s energetic, witty and successful, will do worse? I wouldn’t bet on it.
But the main reason Trump could win is because he’s the only candidate hard enough to call Hillary’s bluff. Republicans will say almost anything about Hillary, but almost none challenge her basic competence. She may be evil, but she’s tough and accomplished. This we know, all of us.
But do we? Or is this understanding of Hillary just another piety we repeat out of unthinking habit, the political equivalent of, “you can be whatever you want to be,” or “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”? Trump doesn’t think Hillary is impressive and strong. He sees her as brittle and afraid.
He may be right, based on his exchange with her just before Christmas. During a speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump said Hillary had been “schlonged” by Obama in the 2008 race. In response, the Clinton campaign called Trump a sexist. It’s a charge Hillary has leveled against virtually every opponent she’s faced, but Trump responded differently. Instead of scrambling to donate to breast cancer research, he pointed out that Hillary spent years attacking the alleged victims of her husband’s sexual assaults. That ended the conversation almost immediately.
It was the most effective possible response, though more obvious than brilliant. Why was Trump the only Republican to use it?
Republican primary voters may be wondering the same thing. Or maybe they already know. They seem to know a lot about Trump, more than the people who run their party. They know that he isn’t a conventional ideological conservative. They seem relieved. They can see that he’s emotionally incontinent. They find it exciting.
Washington Republicans look on at this in horror, their suspicions confirmed. Beneath the thin topsoil of rural conservatism, they see the seeds of proto-fascism beginning to sprout. But that’s not quite right. Republicans in the states aren’t dangerous. They’ve just evaluated the alternatives and decided those are worse.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."