Barring a political miracle or an act of God, it is overwhelmingly likely that Donald Trump will again be the Republican Party’s nominee for president. Assuming the Democratic nominee in the fall is Joe Biden, polls show Trump with a better-than-even chance of returning to the White House next year.
Lord help us. What should those of us who have consistently opposed him do?
You can’t defeat an opponent if you refuse to understand what makes him formidable. So maybe it’s time for readers of this newspaper to think a little more deeply about the enduring sources of his appeal — and to do so without calling him names, or disparaging his supporters, or attributing his resurgence to nefarious foreign actors or the unfairness of the Electoral College. Since I will spend the coming year strenuously opposing his candidacy, let me here make the best case for Trump that I can.
Begin with fundamentals. Trump got three big things right — or at least more right than wrong.
Arguably the single most important geopolitical fact of the century is the mass migration of people from south to north and east to west, causing tectonic demographic, cultural, economic, and ultimately political shifts. Trump understood this from the start of his presidential candidacy in 2015, the same year Europe was overwhelmed by a largely uncontrolled migration from the Middle East and Africa. As he said the following year, “A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We must have a wall. The rule of law matters!”
Many of Trump’s opponents refuse to see virtually unchecked migration as a problem for the West at all. Some of them see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their humanitarianism. Others look at it as an inexhaustible source of cheap labor. They also have the habit of denouncing those who disagree with them as racists. But enforcing control at the border — whether through a wall, a fence, or some other mechanism — isn’t racism. It’s a basic requirement of statehood and peoplehood, which any nation has an obligation to protect and cherish.
Only now, as the consequences of Biden’s lackadaisical approach to mass migration have become depressingly obvious on the sidewalks and in the shelters and public schools of liberal cities like New York and Chicago, are Trump’s opponents on this issue beginning to see the point. Public services paid by taxes exist for people who live here, not just anyone who makes his way into the country by violating its laws. A job market is structured by rules and regulations, not just an endless supply of desperate laborers prepared to work longer for less. A national culture is sustained by common memories, ideals, laws and a language — which newcomers should honor, adopt and learn as a requirement of entry. It isn’t just a giant arrival gate for anyone and everyone who wants to take advantage of American abundance and generosity.
It said something about the self-deluded state of Western politics when Trump came on the scene that his assertion of the obvious was treated as a moral scandal, at least by the stratum of society that had the least to lose from mass migration. To millions of other Americans, his message, however crudely he may have expressed it, sounded like plain common sense.
The second big thing Trump got right was about the broad direction of the country. Trump rode a wave of pessimism to the White House — pessimism his detractors did not share because he was speaking about, and to, an America they either didn’t see or understood only as a caricature. But just as with this year, when liberal elites insist that things are going well while overwhelming majorities of Americans say they are not, Trump’s unflattering view captured the mood of the country.
In 2017, the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt joined this pessimistic perception with comprehensive data in an influential essay for Commentary. He noted persistently sluggish economic growth and a plunging labor-force participation rate that had never recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. There was a rising death rate among middle-aged white people and declining life expectancy at birth, in part because of sharply rising deaths from suicide, alcoholism or drug addiction. More than 12 percent of all adult males had a felony conviction on their record, leaving them in the shadowlands of American life. And there was a palpable sense of economic decline, with fewer and fewer younger Americans having any hope of matching their parents’ incomes at the same stages of life.
Far too little has changed since then. Labor-force participation remains essentially where it was in the last days of the Obama administration. Deaths of despair keep rising. The cost of living has risen sharply, and while the price of ordinary goods may finally be coming down, rents haven’t. Only 36 percent of voters think the American dream still holds true, according to a recent survey, down from 48 percent in 2016. If anything, Trump’s thesis may be truer today than it was the first time he ran on it.
Finally, there’s the question of institutions that are supposed to represent impartial expertise, from elite universities and media to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the F.B.I. Trump’s detractors, including me, often argued that his demagoguery and mendacity did a lot to needlessly diminish trust in these vital institutions. But we should be more honest with ourselves and admit that those institutions did their own work in squandering, through partisanship or incompetence, the esteem in which they had once been widely held.
How so? Much of the elite media, mostly liberal, became openly partisan in the 2016 election — and, in doing so, not only failed to understand why Trump won, but probably unwittingly contributed to his victory. Academia, also mostly liberal, became increasingly illiberal, inhospitable not just to conservatives but to anyone pushing back even modestly against progressive orthodoxy. The F.B.I. abused its authority with dubious investigations and salacious leaks that led to sensational headlines but not to criminal prosecutions, much less convictions.
The C.D.C. and other public-health bureaucracies flubbed the pandemic reaction, with (mostly) good intentions but frequently devastating consequences: “If you’re a public-health person and you’re trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life,” the former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins acknowledged last month. “You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way they never quite recovered.”
Trump and his supporters called all this out. For this they were called idiots, liars and bigots by people who think of themselves as enlightened and empathetic and hold the commanding cultural heights in the national culture. The scorn only served to harden the sense among millions of Americans that liberal elites are self-infatuated, imperious, hysterical, and hopelessly out of touch — or, to use one of Trump’s favorite words, “disgusting.”
A few readers might nod their heads in (partial) agreement. Then they’ll ask: What about the election denialism? What about Jan. 6? What about the threat Trump poses to the very foundations of our democracy? All disqualifying — in my view. But it’s also important to stretch one’s mind a little and try to understand why so many voters are unimpressed about the “end of democracy” argument.
For one thing, haven’t they heard it before — and with the same apocalyptic intensity?
In 2016, Trump was frequently compared to Benito Mussolini and other dictators (including by me). The comparison might have proved more persuasive if Trump’s presidency had been replete with jailed and assassinated political opponents, rigged or canceled elections, a muzzled or captured press — and Trump still holding office today, rather than running to get his old job back. The election denialism is surely ugly, but it isn’t quite unique: Prominent Democrats also denied the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s two elections — the second one no less than the first.
Many rank-and-file Republicans regard the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol as a disgrace and the lowest point of Trump’s presidency. But they also believe that it wasn’t so much an insurrection as it was an ugly temper tantrum by Trump and his most rabid supporters, which never had a chance of succeeding. One reason for that is that the judges Trump appointed to the federal bench and the Supreme Court rebuffed his legal efforts — and he had no choice but to accept the rulings. An American version of Vladimir Putin he simply is not.
That’s why warnings from Biden and others about the risk Trump poses to democracy are likely to fall flat even with many moderate voters. If there’s any serious threat to democracy, doesn’t it also come from Democratic judges and state officials who are using never-before-used legal theories — which even liberal law professors like Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig regard as dangerous and absurd — to try to kick Trump’s name off ballots in Maine and Colorado? When liberal partisans try to suppress democracy in the name of saving democracy, they aren’t helping their cause politically or legally. They are merely confirming the worst stereotypes about their own hypocrisy.
As it is, the 2024 election will not hinge on questions of democracy but of delivery: Which candidate will do more for voters? That will turn on perceptions of which candidate did more for voters when they were in office. Biden’s supporters are convinced that the president has a good story to tell. But they also think that Trump has no story at all — only a pack of self-aggrandizing lies. That’s liberal self-delusion.
Excluding the pandemic, a once-in-a-century event that would have knocked almost any sitting president sideways, Americans have reasons to remember the Trump years as good ones — and good in a way that completely defied expert predictions of doom. Wages outpaced inflation, something they have just begun to do under Biden, according to an analysis by Bankrate. Unemployment fell to 50-year lows (as it has been under Biden); stocks boomed; inflation and interest rates were low.
He appealed to Americans who operated in the economy of things — builders, manufacturers, energy producers, food services and the like — rather than in the economy of words — lawyers, academics, journalists, civil servants. And he shared the law-and-order instincts of normal Americans, including respect for the police, something the left seemed to care about on Jan. 6 but was notably less concerned about during the months of rioting, violence and semi-anarchy that followed George Floyd’s murder.
As for foreign policy, it’s worth asking: Does the world feel safer under Biden — with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s assault on Israel, Houthi attacks on shipping in international waters, the Chinese open threat to invade Taiwan — than it did under Trump? Trump may have generated a lot of noise, but his crazy talk and air of unpredictability seemed to keep America’s adversaries on their guard and off balance in a way that Biden’s instinctive caution and feeble manner simply does not.
Ordinary voters care typically about results. What many care less about is Trump’s purported offensiveness. It’s at least worth asking whether his occasional Archie Bunkerisms are any more obnoxious than the incessant offense-taking, finger-wagging and fake prudishness of his opponents. Many of the same people who seemed to have suffered fainting spells when the notorious “Hollywood Access” tape came to light had, only a few years before, been utterly indifferent to much more serious allegations of sexual assault by Bill Clinton as Arkansas attorney general, governor and later president. You can fault Trump for coarseness, but you can’t pretend we don’t live in a coarse age.
What about the other Republicans in the field? Why aren’t they at least preferable to G.O.P. primary voters than Trump, with all of his baggage and bombast?
It’s a good question. My pet theory is that, if Republican voters think the central problem in America today is obnoxious progressives, then how better to spite them than by shoving Trump down their throats for another four years? If somehow Nikki Haley were to win the nomination and then the general election, her victory would be a matter of disappointment for Democrats but not the wailing and gnashing of teeth that went with Trump’s victory in 2016. For many Republicans, the visceral satisfaction of liberal anguish at a Trump restoration more than makes up for his flaws.
But there’s a deeper reason, too, one Trump’s opponents ought to consider in thinking about how to beat him. As writers like Tablet’s Alana Newhouse have noted, brokenness has become the defining feature of much of American life: broken families, broken public schools, broken small towns and inner cities, broken universities, broken health care, broken media, broken churches, broken borders, broken government. At best, they have become shells of their former selves. And there’s a palpable sense that the autopilot that America’s institutions and their leaders are on — brain-dead and smug — can’t continue.
It shouldn’t seem strange to Trump’s opponents that a man whom we regard as an agent of chaos should be seen by his supporters as precisely the man who can sweep the decks clean. I happen to think that’s exactly wrong — you don’t mend damaged systems by breaking them even further. Repair and restoration is almost always better than reaction or revolution. But I don’t see Trump’s opponents making headway against him until they at least acknowledge the legitimacy and power of the fundamental complaint. If you’re saying it’s “Morning in America” when 77 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, you’re preaching to the wrong choir — and the wrong country.
Trump’s opponents say this is the most important election of our lifetime. Isn’t it time, then, to take our heads out of the sand?
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