Trump is Zelig

Since Trump looks likely (I think there's still a chance for Rubio -- see the Weekly Standard take on the rally I missed out on in the previous post), I have been thinking hard about him. First, to see if I can in conscience vote for him if he's the nominee and second, because a handful of people whose political judgments I deeply respect support him over all the other nominees and I've been trying to be open-minded and see what they are seeing that I am not.

I "get" the voter rage angle. Yesterday during a conversation about politics I completely lost my cool in front of Eldest Weed (not at him) in a way that surprised me. It was a moment of self-awareness where for the first time I realized  I am one of those profoundly angry voters. I am not only deeply saddened, but enraged, that the liberty of a great nation has been utterly squandered for decades, and with rapid intensity in the past 10 years, thanks to the corruption of crony capitalism and our utter failure for generations to teach people what freedom is, such that we the people have willingly traded our inheritance for bright baubles and empty promises.

I learned from the Romney defeat that no one in the GOP is speaking the language of the working class, which feels itself increasingly threatened by an economy simultaneously stagnant and in rapid transition to something "else"; by a weakened currency that means wages can't keep pace with purchasing power; and by the feeling of malaise and weakness from losing wars, racial tensions and crazy policies that Trump rightly calls "losing" and "making bad deals." I understand the Trump phenomenon to be at bottom about jobs and patriotism (I  take worries about immigration to be overblown, both because the crisis has peaked and because hostility to aliens is a proxy for fearing for your own job -- and also because voters in SC said it was low priority).  Obama hasn't brought any jobs. The GOP Congress, after a lot of big talk, hasn't defeated the job-killing Obamacare. So why not give the successful businessman who promises incessantly he'll bring all the jobs back and put competent managers in charge of the government a shot? If he gives the middle finger to all the crony capitalists and media people who look down their noses at Middle America, so much the better. 

To those who are scandalized that Trump is pulling evangelical voters -- and telling those people they aren't Christian-- I would point out that Pastor Jeffers, one of Trump's supporters, makes a good case when he says that after Obergefell, evangelicals gave up on the idea that there would ever be godly leadership, and decided to go for a guy who would at least make rational decisions in the country's interests and leave discipleship to the Church.  So I absolve the evangelicals of being merely money-grubbing or hypocritical in their choice. They are perhaps learning to think politically rather than sentimentally; more likely, they're just being pragmatic. 

The argument that disturbs me enough that I've been trying to wrestle with it is the idea that Trump is a "Declaration candidate." This is the argument that while Trump is vulgar and a disrupter, what he represents is the people at long last manfully asserting their own agency as against the crony elites -- and therefore for all his coarseness, will be a purifying force for the body politic.  Yes, he talks like a demagogue, but in office in all likelihood, because he wants to succeed, he will take advice and put competent people in place and he might just be the one man who could actually rein in the size of government. (When you think about it, this was the Romney argument: "I like to fire people." Except Romney was hurt by the idea that he was mean; Trump's whole persona is "mean," so you can't attack him with it.) 

Having read sensible people taking this view, I took to listening to Trump speeches and campaign appearances to see if they were right. That's where I picked up the patriotism note, which I hadn't previously noticed. 

Still, I am sorry, they are wrong.

1. His promise to put "the right" people in charge is a Progressive promise, not a revolutionary one. He is running as a strongman & champion -- a Chavez (who also rose to power by being coarse and shocking the elites)-- or perhaps just an Obama. He doesn't sound like a person who will roll back the Administrative state and return us to a republic of self-government and personal and community agency. 

2. Statesmanship often involves tacking with the winds in order to keep the ship on course. In desperate times, prudence may require fighting for a single foundational principle, even at the temporary cost of other ideals one holds dear. Lincoln sacrificed much for the sake of holding the Union together because he understood that if the Union fell apart, not a single other good of the fledgling republic would remain. Does Trump have such a North Star to navigate by?  There is nothing whatsoever to suggest so.  Lincoln had a long track record of reflection on the meaning of the Declaration and the rule of law by the time he ran for President. Reagan had a track record starting from "A time for choosing." Trump's record is one of carefully adopting the popular -- the "winning"-- opinion of the moment. His opponents look at his past support for abortion, single-payer health care and the Clintons and see a life-long Democrat masquerading as a Conservative. I see a guy who adopts the views of whoever he happens to be hanging out with today.

3. Along these lines, in spite of his strong man image, I find Trump to be an extraordinarily weak man. Remember how he melted before Carly Fiorina's withering response to his having insulted her looks? He fell all over himself in that early debate to walk his comment back just because she stood up to him and he saw that his attack wasn't winning. 

His ability to lie boldly and often is well-known. But what strikes me in interviews is not his lies, but how often he changes his mind right on camera in the face of an interviewer who presses a point. The only point he ever sticks to is that he didn't say whatever it is you disapprove of.  On all other matters he capitulates easily --how often at debates he's changed his mind right in front of us as he rambled through a point!  He may revel in the dislike of the elites,  as populists do -- and that dislike may propel him to personal popularity-- but those elites are masters at manipulating public opinion on specific issues, and Trump is a slave to polls.  Where Reagan molded opinion to his will, changing the polls, Trump will change his opinion to whatever way the wind blows on any given topic.

4. Are you ready for Chief of Staff or other influential operative Roger Stone? Roger Stone? Is there a more corrupt figure in American life apart from the Clintons, and we're to turn the nation over to a man who chooses Roger Stone as his pal and political advisor? To support Trump is to throw away forever the argument that character counts and that self-dominion and self-restraint and virtue are necessary for the regime of freedom. You don't get to support Trump and be angry with Hillary for making good deals for herself and being a shameless liar all her life. 

5. This evening on a long drive home from a going-away party, I couldn't find anything good on the radio and so settled for a C-SPAN recording of Trump's appearance today in Huntsville, AL.  Mostly the same old tedious stuff about how great his polls are and winning, winning, blah, blah. But two things stood out. 

First: for the umpteenth time Trump promised he will bring back jobs by saying that as President he will personally call the CEOs of companies that try to move to Mexico or elsewhere and threaten them with a 35% tariff on their specific brand and the next day they will call him and say they're actually going to stay stateside.  

At one time I would have said this is no different in principle than other GOP candidates promising to lower taxes (which no President can do). But those candidates are using shorthand to describe the agenda they will set with the Congress. Trump, I'm convinced, literally doesn't know the president can't levy a tariff at all, much less on a specific company. I say this because he clearly has heard the criticism that the President has no power to impose a tariff, because he addressed it with the audience. In a stage whisper he declared (paraphrasing), "They say this wouldn't be presidential, so maybe I will make the call in secret." Then he goes on to describe in detail how the call will go and who will say what to whom. It's not a joke or hyperbole or agenda-setting. It's the actual view of the same guy who told us the other night that his sister the judge "signed a bill" that judge Alito also signed.  It's also a ridiculous claim, and a disturbing one, considering what it implies about his concept of executive power. A man who doesn't know how the government operates --and hasn't bothered to learn in this long campaign-- is going to be eaten up by the system, not make himself master of it. 

Secondly: I was amazed to hear Trump discuss the problem of China manufacturing islands in order to control the sea lanes in the South China Sea, and then denounce the Obama administration for allowing our military to decay such that we have aging equipment and aren't able to defend ourselves against Russia, China & Iran.  You know who has been talking about those two issues since the beginning of his campaign? Marco Rubio -- and he's the only one who has. Trump stole the talking points and his entire understanding of those issues from Rubio.  So the Strumpets can say they despise Rubio, but Rubio is actually setting their man's agenda on any question that isn't about saving jobs by personally threatening CEOs.  Rubio's the idea man in this election cycle. Candidates ought to learn from each other how to make good arguments. But great men do not just wholesale adopt whatever ideas they happen to hear from their opponents in debate.  

Trump is not some Prince Hal who is going to surprise us all by evolving into a statesman.  He is a Zelig, who will adopt the policy positions of whomever he ends up standing next to, as at this link, in which it is revealed that when talking to the NYT, his vaunted "wall" suddenly disappears and becomes an "opening bid." He is not strong; he is enormously weak.

*This essay has been tinkered with since I originally published it. Took nothing out, but added a bit and re-arranged. Intend to add some links to it later.