So what is it about Donald Trump? The American people have just delivered a full-throated verdict on his presidency — which is that they feel very strongly about him. But some hate him and others love him. Why?
The hate part is easy. No, no, don’t look at me like that. It’s easy because the chattering classes loathe him with unanimity that makes it literally impossible for anyone who follows public affairs not to be aware of it.
I am writing from Canada for a publication in Australia. Yet my readers in both countries know exactly why the bien-pensants loathe Donald Trump as the price of admission to polite society. Whereas if Australians even know who Canada’s prime minister is, let alone why people like or hate him, you get bonus points. And if Canadians know who just got turfed as Australia’s prime minister, let alone why, we should be anchoring a trivia team.
What’s more, if you’re a conservative you realize Trump is, as a friend recently put it, “boorish, rude and nasty. I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him.” And we can surely admit among ourselves that he plays fast and loose with the truth. Leave it to the Left to deny the obvious about their heroes and call Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy a champion of women’s equality.
In the past, I have described Trump as the Left’s Frankenstein’s monster. For decades they’ve been dismissing “truth” as just a tool in a power struggle and when confronted by a Republican who apparently believed it they cried “foul” in vain.
Lots of people dislike Trump because he has an appalling personality. The interesting question is why so many people like him — including intelligent, decent ones. And that answer you won’t find splashed across the newspapers or discussed in the salons.
For a while his opponents had a simple, snobbish solution. His supporters were a “basket of deplorables”. Perhaps you remember the scene in Blazing Saddles where Gene Wilder’s alcoholic gunslinger explains to Cleavon Little’s black sheriff why the townsfolk are bigots: “You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
This attitude did not start with Trump. Many Democrats and urban sophisticates thought Reagan supporters were morons. And Bush Sr. supporters. And Bush Jr. supporters. Remember those 2004 parody election maps showing the “United States of Canada” (hey, we got noticed!) vs “Jesusland”. Or worse. And the feeling has gotten worse over time.
Indeed, it seems belatedly to be dawning on a growing number of liberals that even if they think it privately they should not say so in public because it’s killing them politically in “Flyover America”.
In the New York Times the morning after the election, David Leonhardt began by saying “If you look at the national results, last night was a smashing win for Democrats” who recaptured the House and won the national popular vote by about seven percentage points. But “last night did not feel like a thorough rejection of Trumpism. In one statewide race after another, Democrats suffered disappointing losses” because they “are getting trounced outside of metropolitan areas.”
And, he went on, “I think Democrats need to take this problem more seriously than they have so far. They need a new approach to nonmetropolitan America, one that asks in an open-minded way which issues are damaging the party there. Is it about moving to the center on immigration, abortion or other issues? Or rather than specific policies, is the problem the party’s lack of a compelling story about the country’s future?”
Brave words given the prevailing climate.
There’s no way to call the Democrats’ win of roughly 30 House seats a repudiation of Trump unless you’re prepared to call the GOP gain of 63 back in 2010 a total repudiation of Obama. The party holding the White House loses seats in almost every off-year election. It’s not a big deal. And if Trump is as hideous as they say, it should have been.
Part of the answer to Trump’s enduring appeal, unquestionably, is the one offered by former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his new book, Right Here, Right Now. (Do not take Harper’s advice, which is a ringing endorsement of lack of principle. But his analysis makes sense.) Trump speaks to people who feel that they have been losers from the policies of the past quarter century including freer trade and massive immigration. And they are not wrong about this fact, even if some of their prescriptions are wrong. Moreover, they are routinely mocked by the smart set and they are hurting from it, and angry and resentful. All these things are true. But they are not the whole story.
If they were, someone other than Trump would be the beneficiary. His personal defects, including the “Lyin’ Ted/Beautiful Ted” pivot and vulgar insults targeting the size of a primary opponent’s genitalia would do him in if there were not more to his appeal. Other people are angry, funny and populist, and know more about almost any topic than he does. This man boasts of never having finished a book in his life.
So why does he keep beating conservatives and liberals alike? The answer is that there’s a policy side to his popularity too, and it’s an important one. Beneath the bluster, sometimes in opposition to it, Trump frequently does important things conservatives like.
It’s not totally clear why he does them. To speak of Trump’s thoughts is, as with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (there, now you know), a confusion of categories. He seems to be as impulsive as he is ill-informed, and he lacks consistency even by the loose standards of politics. But his instincts are sound on many important points.
First, he favours low taxes, less regulation and the entrepreneurial spirit. And the reasonably strong Republican performance in the midterms partly reflects a stronger economy because of these policies. Here it is important to insert the caveat that in the United States the chief executive is not an absolute monarch capable of making policy at will. Even in Canada, or Australia, I refuse to use terms like “Trudeau government” or “Morrison government” (yes, I Googled it and your current PM is Scott Morrison). There are three branches and the executive, which does not control the judiciary, may dominate the legislature but not entirely. In Australia, indeed, the popularity of the PM toss among legislators suggests a healthier balance than we have.
That said, Trump does tend to dominate his party because the base is so passionately for him that any Congressperson or Senator who opposes him tends to get beaten in a primary or general election. And Trump’s “agenda” has included lower taxes and deregulation. (Also massive deficits, an unattractive characteristic but hardly unique to him among supposedly conservative politicians there or anywhere.)
He’s done some excellent things in foreign policy too. It’s not just his willingness to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, welcome as that move was, and typical of his obsessive tendency to break elite taboos… and any other kind. Or more substantively to pull the US out of the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty with Russia because (a) Russia is cheating brazenly and (b) it doesn’t bind China which is now a bigger national security threat against which ground-launched medium-range missiles are a vital asset.
It’s his feeling that if people despise the United States they are morons and losers. The Democratic Party has had a patriotism problem since George McGovern, the Democrats’ 1972 candidate for President, and the fact that Trump wants to stand up for the United States is a virtue even if his views on trade are cracked and unconservative.
This is unlike the liberal conviction that the US should stay in treaties where it’s getting swindled because, you know, we’re the bad guys. Trump may overestimate his capacity to charm loathsome dictators from North Korea to Russia. But he’s pro-American in ways his adversaries arguably and culpably are not.
Hence Trump isn’t just rebuilding the American military. He’s trying to secure America’s borders. Not everything he says or does is well-mannered or well-considered. But an appalling void has been created by the elite consensus that we should let in at least the equivalent of one percent of our population every year, which means ten percent in a decade, on the apparent theory that our own culture is a blight.
No, it’s not about race, the standard, moronic, off-putting countercharge. The legitimate concern is that if America or Canada is a land of liberty and rule of law it’s because of habits sadly missing in much of the world. We need to manage immigration so that those who choose us to benefit from these habits have time to understand that these fruits depend on nurturing the roots.
The mention of culture brings me to the Jesusland issue.
American Christians feel that Trump is on their side in a way that Barack Obama never was. It’s curious since Trump seems to embrace all seven deadly sins with enthusiasm including adulterous lust, and was pro-choice until it became politically inconvenient.
By contrast Barack Obama is ostensibly Christian and a good family man. But Obama attended a church whose pastor shouted “God damn America” at the congregation and defended him until it became politically disastrous. Trump would never do such a thing. And those Christians who feel under siege from modernity believe Trump has their back, including if they don’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
In such areas, however he does it, Trump manages to align himself with the real American Constitution in ways that almost no liberal can manage today.
For that reason, he will tend to move the judicial branch in the right direction. Personnel is policy and he generally appoints judges, US attorneys and others who respect liberty, including liberty of conscience. Whether Brett Kavanaugh drunkenly groped a girl when they were both teens I do not know. But it’s not relevant to the judicial philosophy which Trump’s appointments reflect.
Fundamentally Trump remains both popular and hated because he has filled a void that ought to concern liberals and conservatives alike. The former are waking up to the fact that they can’t heap scorn on the regular folks who live “somewhere”, not “anywhere”, and expect to dominate American politics. The latter need to ask why it takes someone many privately feel uncomfortable with to act boldly on key economic, cultural and foreign issues.
It’s clear from the 2018 midterms that Trump’s appeal is not going away. It’s far from universal and there are good reasons why. But it’s strong enough and legitimate enough for it to be taken seriously.
John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.