Donald Trump Sparks GOP Soul-Searching

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

A well-intentioned article by Noah Rothman in Commentary Magazine offers that Donald Trump’s supporters are the right wing’s version of Obama’s vacuous “Hope and Change” acolytes. Says Rothman: “Trump is the right’s Obama, insofar as his policy preferences are ill-defined, pliable, and reflective of whatever the audience immediately before him wants them to be.Such comparisons short-change Trump’s supporters.

Sure, there may be some parallels. To use a planetary metaphor, both Obama and Trump are “gas giants” in that their enormity comes from a thick but aeriform atmosphere. One theory offers that deep within many of these planets lies a solid terrestrial body at the core. This is Trump. Yes, his atmosphere is thick with combative bromides and showmanship. Yes, until recently some of his positions could have been aligned more with liberalism than conservative principles. But as his supporters descend like probes through vapors deep into Planet Donald’s interior they find at its center a rock-like core grounded in a fundamental belief in the greatness of America—more specifically, a firm conviction that no nation can survive if it refuses to maintain the integrity of its borders, cannot decide who gets in and how, and does not place the interests of its own citizenry first, as expressed through an even and diligent enforcement of the law.

Trump resonates not because his people yearn for a demigod like Obama. He strikes a chord because his supporters sense with growing dismay that something very wrong is going on in this country, particularly in the uneven application of immigration law, and they have lost faith that anyone already in the ruling class, (D) or (R), has the will or even the desire fix it. It is not hostility as Mr. Rothman asserts. It is genuine concern.

So enter The Donald. Is he merely filling a void in a few peoples’ lives ala Obama? Perhaps. But the parallel of Obama-Trump breaks down in that when he launched his presidential bid. Trump was already as famous as Obama was obscure. He is a known commodity, at least personality-wise. What makes Donald tick is Donald. His supporters are not blind to this. But in the end, Trump—unlike Obama, who remains carefully guarded by his mainstream press Praetorian Guard—will rise or fall more on what he can do than who he is.

I do find it curious that some conservatives who ridicule Trump, and thus by default his supporters, still laud Ronald Reagan and his. I attended a Reagan rally as a teenager and the mood was that of a Baptist revival. Yet, like Trump, beyond the polish, the glamor and the rest, Reagan was finally addressing in public what many had been discussing at the kitchen table for years. If the former actor’s platform was more defined, it was because he’d had years to hone the craft, being the often-glib spear point of an otherwise serious political movement decades in the making. Reagan was a two-time governor, three time presidential candidate and by 1980 had the support of the party establishment. But that establishment was very much in line with its constituency, which is not the case today—as Trump’s continued lead confirms.

I am not saying Trump and Reagan are the same, rather that the same arguments used to hold Trump’s supporters up to Obama’s as two-sides of the same self-actualizing coin could have very easily been applied to we Reaganites as well. After all, for years Reagan was a Democrat. People change. Is Trump sincere in his right-shift epiphany? Time will tell. But ultimately that is for the voters, not the chattering class, to decide.

Trump’s supporters have a right to ask for the same consideration the media gave candidate Obama. Remember, in 2008 Obama’s resume was wafer thin.

We know the litany well: the only editor of the Harvard Law Review never to pen an article; an unremarkable career as a “community organizer” and virtually absent member of the Illinois state legislature; a less than one-term junior senator whose default vote was “present.” These were non-qualifications that presented a truly blank canvass upon which his adoring flock could paint their own solipsistic portraits. But “hope” devoid of competence dies away. And today Trump’s people feel, not unjustly, that with a tepid recovery, ballooning national debt, widening wealth gap, no consequences for Benghazi, questionable Iran deal, and a still unpopular but intact Affordable Care Act, perhaps a true outsider is needed. These are not touchy-feely vagaries and platitudes like “we are the one’s we’ve been waiting for,” but matters of grave import to a large cohort of engaged Americans. They see Trump as their legitimate standard bearer.

Will Donald Trump be president? This is not the first time Americans have flirted with the business mogul-turned-President model; Wendell Willke and Ross Perot come to mind. And maybe Trump’s bid will end in the same failure. Still, if a man who cannot be bought or intimidated is causing a bit of GOP soul-searching by raising vital issues heretofore deemed verboten, then so be it.

One thing Trump supporters understand is that when it comes to defeating a Democratic machine that shamelessly spins a thirty-something paying for her own contraceptives into a “war on women” and dismisses the murders of U.S. ambassadors with callous mendacity, nice guys like Romney will always finish second.

This election is not about the fortunes of one political party; it is about the future of the nation that party is so anxious to lead. Trump and his supporters are compelling the GOP to look inside itself and figure out why. Until he announced his immigration plan the charge that The Donald had no substance carried more validity. But as more policy initiatives like this come forth from the Trump camp, we may see what his supporters see: that he is far more than a nebulous ball of gas. And compared to Obama’s believers in the Jovian planet with no solid core, Trump’s supporters are far from unsubstantial.