During the Republican presidential primaries, 16 of the 17 candidates differed and bickered but agreed on one thing. They all agreed that Donald Trump was not a true Republican. Trump, of course, won the nomination anyway. And then he won the presidency. And then, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the 16 made their peace with him.
While a few Republican activists and intellectuals, known as “Never-Trumpers,” have steadfastly opposed him, most have supported him or kept silent.
Why? How has a man who has renounced long-held Republican positions on free trade, international relations, American exceptionalism, and a host of other fundamental issues managed to attract the loyalty of those who have long espoused those very positions?
Trump’s magnetic appeal to traditional Republicans can be analyzed the same way any magnets can. Magnets either attract or repel.
The simplest explanation for Trump’s appeal to traditional Republicans is magnetic repulsion. Republicans are not so much attracted to Trump as they are repelled by his opponents. They are not so much pro-Trump as they are anti-anti-Trump.
It’s not hard to understand this repulsion. Since the election, the most vocal anti-Trump forces have ranged from the hysterical to the apocalyptic to the melodramatic.
Stephen Colbert’s recent rant illustrates the hysterical. Colbert, at his best, can be funny in an acerbic way. But his visceral hatred for Trump transformed his comedic style from rapier to club. Witness these gems directed at the President: “You’re not POTUS, you’re bloatus … you’re ‘Gorge’ Washington … you’re the Presi-dunce … you’re a prick-tator.” This level of humor would embarrass a 5th grader. Then he went beyond juvenile to offensive: “Sir, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” This last little witticism was widely seen as homophobic, and led to calls for his firing.
This isn’t humor. It’s bile. And no thinking person, Republican or not, would want to be associated with it.
Nor do traditional Republicans feel at home with the kind of apocalyptic bombast emanating from anti-Trump journalists. David Remick, writing in the New Yorker about Trump’s first hundred days, illustrates the sort. He sees the “Trumpian Rebellion” as “part of a disturbing global trend.” Trump’s election to Remick is not just a disappointing political result. It is comparable to the Chinese Communist Party crushing dissent in Tiananmen Square, in 1989; to Putin suppressing political opposition, the media, and the judiciary in Russia; and to Erdoğan jailing tens of thousands of political opponents, and muzzling the press in Turkey. Citing a Freedom House report, he places the United States in line with South Africa, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, and Zimbabwe, as a nation in danger of losing its democracy.
More numerous than the hysterical and the apocalyptic critics are the melodramatic, the Trump foes who boldly proclaim their membership in “the Resistance.” Since Trump’s critics love to harp on the gaps in his historical knowledge (he apparently believes that Frederick Douglass is still alive, and that Andrew Jackson was around when the Civil War started), a word or two about the historic origins of “the Resistance” may be in order here.
The Resistance is a term most commonly used to refer to the underground movements that sprang up in Poland, France, Russia, and other occupied countries and territories during World War II. Resistance members risked their lives to disrupt Nazi military transport, and to gather intelligence for the Allies. Members of the Resistance lived in mortal peril. They were constantly hunted by the Gestapo, and when they were captured, they were executed. Sometimes, their families and neighbors were too, for good measure.
It’s unlikely that those in the ranks of the currently fashionable “Resistance” have any idea of its history, or of how ridiculous their appropriation of the term makes them appear. Hillary Clinton, who recently announced her membership in the Resistance, may see herself as Ingrid Bergman playing Ilsa Fund. But New York City is not Casablanca, and Donald Trump is not Major Strasser. After all, what risks do these modern-day resisters actually take when they attack Trump? They dominate the media, the academic world, and the entertainment industry. It takes no courage to criticize Donald Trump in a college classroom. Quite the opposite. Trump advocates take their lives in their hands when they publicly support him on campuses today. In many cases, they are not even allowed to take that risk because universities will not allow them to speak. As to the entertainment industry, does anyone seriously expect Hollywood to ever produce a movie glorifying Trump’s life, as it has done with Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama?
Trump’s critics control the commanding heights of the culture. They are not the Resistance. They are the Dominance.
The hysterical, apocalyptic, and melodramatic character of the opposition has induced many who might otherwise criticize Trump to rally around him. But that’s not the full story. For some, Trump represents a welcome change to the Republican agenda. They are attracted to him, not just repelled by his enemies.
Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times under the revealing headline: “Donald Trump is a Real Republican, and That’s a Good Thing.” Kesler sees in Trump the embodiment of the Republican Party as it existed from the Civil War to the end of the Hoover administration, a 72-year span during which every American president but two were Republicans:
Mr. Trump shows increasing signs of thinking along broadly Coolidgean lines, and of redirecting Republican policies toward the pre-New Deal, pre-Cold War party of William McKinley and Coolidge, with its roots in the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Kesler maintains that this authentic species of Republicanism continued to influence Eisenhower and Nixon, thus implying that Ronald Reagan and his successors represent the real aberration. Now, with Reagan long gone and Trump in office, Kesler sees “a return to former Republican policies that put Americans first, on trade, immigration, infrastructure and more, which are attractive to millions of working- and middle-class voters.”
If Kesler sees Trump as a return to Republican Party values of the past, R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, sees him as a harbinger of the Party’s future.
Reno, also writing in the New York Times (which seems to enjoy publishing op-eds that tie the Republican Party tightly to Trump), describes Trump as the herald of new variant of Republicanism.
Mr. Trump recognized [that] the new schism in American life is not about big versus small government, or more or less regulation. It is about immigration, free trade and the broad and deep impacts of globalization on America’s economy and culture….
It is obvious to all but the most blinkered Republicans that with or without Mr. Trump, the Reagan era is over…. The next smart, ambitious young Republican politician with national aspirations will not adopt Ted Cruz’s strategy of trying to revive the rotting flesh of Reaganism. He will read out of Mr. Trump’s playbook, attacking globalism rather than big government. And he’ll win, because he’ll be talking about what worries voters.
In a lengthy, sympathetic treatment of these so-called “reactionary” thinkers, Andrew Sullivan expresses hope that their insights will “construct a feasible center-right agenda,” one which “would junk Reaganite economics.”
So we see two magnetic forces – one repulsive and one attractive — causing Republican activists to gravitate around Trump. The first is the repellant nature of so many of Trump’s critics. The second is the supposed attractiveness of a set of post-Reagan policies.
Neither is likely to create a long-lasting bond.
Political movements can derive some strength from setting up enemies to oppose. One thinks of Franklin Roosevelt and his campaign against the “economic royalists.” But FDR also had the New Deal to attract voters. For a time, revulsion at the hysterical, apocalyptic, and melodramatic tone of Trump’s critics may imbue Republicans with a certain unity. But ultimately, a political movement must stand for something. Disgust is not a policy.
The new “reactionaries” may think that they can provide that attractive unifying force by turning away from Ronald Reagan toward a more populist message designed to attract working and middle-class voters. Certainly, the election of Donald Trump, which shocked so many, may give them cause for confidence. But once again, it’s instructive to look at history for guidance.
The policies espoused by Reagan, which Trump’s intellectual advocates are eager to discard, got him elected to the White House twice. Moreover, these policies helped him rack up majorities far more impressive than Trump’s in the very Rust Belt states which the new reactionaries see as vital to the success of the Party.
Trump took Michigan by 0.3%. In 1984, Reagan carried Michigan by 19 points. Trump took Pennsylvania by 1.2%. Reagan won by 7 points. Trump won in Wisconsin by 1.0%. Reagan’s margin was 9 points. Trump won in Ohio by 8.6%. Reagan’s margin was 19 points. Reagan took Illinois by 13 points – Trump lost the state by 16 points.
To win the hearts and minds of Republican activists and intellectuals, Donald Trump needs more than their shared contempt for Trump’s critics. He needs supporters who are pro-Trump, not merely anti-anti-Trump. Contrary to the message of the new reactionaries, he does not need to abandon the ideas and policies of Ronald Reagan. He needs to study them, adapt them as necessary to fit our new age – and then to embrace them.
It stands to reason. If Trump wants to win the support of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” the solution is to emulate Reagan.