Many people, myself included, are convinced that the ascent of Donald Trump reflects the damage that Barack Obama has done... to the culture, to our politics, to our standing in the world, to our morale. Many people believe that Trump will restore American greatness, that he will lead us to recover the greatness that Obama has frittered away over the past seven years.
Let’s grant that Obama was clever about it. He was cagey and subtle, not boisterous and bombastic. And yet, the results were the same: declining morale and diminished self-confidence. America is now a nation in decline, nation far less free than it was. Many Americans do not seem to know how it happened and are willing to do what is necessary to restore America’s greatness.
Some pundits thought that Obama would be a Messiah, redeeming America’s sins, first among which was racism. Many people today believe that Donald Trump is a new Messiah, saving America from the horrors visited by the Obama administration.
This morning Ross Douthat offered a cogent analysis of Trump within the current cultural context. He showed how Obama has paved the way for Trump, or better how Trump is the perfect candidate for the age of Obama.
In his words:
President Obama didn’t give us Trump in any kind of Machiavellian or deliberate fashion. But it isn’t an accident that this is the way the Obama era ends — with a reality TV demagogue leading a populist, nationalist revolt.
Douthat began by pointing out that Trump is a Republican problem, a reaction to the repeated failures of Republican leaders to stand up against Obama and to stop his agenda. Beyond that, the Trump candidacy is also the antidote to the failed Bush presidency.
The Trump uprising is first and foremost a Republican and conservative problem: There would be no Trumpism if George W. Bush’s presidency hadn’t cratered, no Trumpism if the party hadn’t alternated between stoking and ignoring working-class grievances, no Trump as front-runner if the party leadership and his rivals had committed fully to stopping him before now.
Obviously, Trump comes to us from reality TV. But, Douthat noted, Obama was the first candidate to base a campaign on tropes from reality TV. After all, Obama had no qualifications to speak of. Thus, his campaign was based on smoke and mirrors, the work of a master illusionist:
First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar. The quasi-religious imagery and rhetoric, the Great Man iconography and pillared sets, the Oprah endorsement and Will.i.am music video and the Hollywood stars pledging allegiance — it was presidential politics as one part Aaron Sorkin-scripted liturgy, one part prestige movie’s Oscar campaign.
If Obama proved that you can run a presidential campaign as an aspirational cult of personality, in which a Sarah Silverman endorsement counts for as much as a governor or congressman’s support, Trump is proving that you don’t need Silverman to shout “the Aristocrats!” and have people eat it up.
And, with his executive orders and his unwillingness to enforce or implement the law, Obama has acted as an imperial and imperious president.
In Douthat’s words:
… voters are increasingly habituated to the idea of an ever more imperial presidency— which is also a trend that Obama’s choices have accelerated. Having once campaigned against his predecessor’s power grabs, the current president has expanded executive authority along almost every dimension: launching wars without congressional approval, claiming the power to assassinate American citizens, and using every available end-around to make domestic policy without any support from Congress.
It ought to be obvious to everyone by now, but Trump is not a conservative. His most fervent supporters are not conservatives either. Count Chris Christie and Maine Governor Paul LePage, Northeastern liberal Republicans, among his most prominent supporters.
But, Trump also appeals to disaffected Democrats, and surely that is one of his strongest selling points:
Trump’s strongest supporters aren’t archconservatives; they’re white working-class voters, especially in the Rust Belt and coal country, who traditionally leaned Democratic and still favor a strong welfare state.
These voters had been drifting away from the Democratic Party since the 1970s, but Obama has made moves that effectively slam the door on them: His energy policies, his immigration gambits, his gun control push, his shift to offense on same-sex marriage and abortion. It was possible to be a culturally conservative skeptic of mass immigration in the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton. Not so anymore.
Of course, it’s all speculation right now. Conventional wisdom has concluded that Trump is the presumptive nominee and that he cannot lose. It believes that Marco Rubio’s attacks are too little too late… especially if, as now seems plausible, Trump crushes Rubio in Florida on March 15. It believes that Trump is coated with purest Teflon, and thus, that even his refusal to denounce David Duke and the KKK—on the grounds that he knows nothing about them-- will not hurt him.
Of course, if Trump defied all expectations in doing as well as he has done, what will happen now that the expectations are reversed. Is he like a stock that you should buy when no one wants it and sell when everyone wants it?
But, even if the Republican establishment succeeds in stopping Trump-- which seems less likely now that he is presenting himself as an establishment Republican-- it would alienate so many of his voters that it would almost guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton. Of course, if voters were really concerned with sticking it to the Republican establishment they would be flocking to Ted Cruz. When faced with the choice of Trump or Cruz, establishment Republicans largely prefer Trump.
As for the higher truth, the late, great Yogi Berra said it well: It ain’t over till it’s over.